Art of Science – Stressful Beauty

Stressful Beauty Emma Liu Dec 2015 Art of Science Memetic Drift

Science is amazing. Science is advancement. And sometimes, science is art. Each month this year Memetic Drift will feature a winning image from the University of Bristol’s Art of Science competition 2014.


December is here, and the Art of Science winner this month is Emma Liu from the School of Earth Sciences. Her image is called “Stressful Beauty”, an intentionally fitting name for this hectic but captivating time of year!

Stressful Beauty won 1st prize in the Judges’ vote. They were particularly impressed with how clean and evocative it was, and how clearly it demonstrated a scientific principle. It features a Prince Rupert’s Drop, a relatively simple glass structure which is equally a) gorgeous and b) prone to explode!

Video courtesy of Emma Liu and the BBC

A Prince Rupert’s Drop is made by plunging a falling globule of molten glass into cold water. This forms an extended teardrop shape, with a long thin tail. The varying thickness of the glass means it doesn’t cool evenly. The outer layer cools and solidifies immediately, but the inside of the bulb stays red-hot for much longer.

As the inside of the drop cools more slowly, it contracts, pulling it in on the solidified outer shell like stretching an elastic band. The drop cools and sets eventually, but with strong internal stresses built in to the structure.

This causes a rather bizarre property which make Prince Rupert’s Drops unique. As Emma Liu says: “Prince Rupert’s Drops have very unusual fracture properties: the head of the glass drop is very strong, but the entire drop will shatter explosively if the tail is broken“.Stressful Beauty Emma Liu Dec 2015 Art of Science Memetic Drift

To the naked eye, a Prince Rupert’s Drop looks just like a funny-shaped piece of glass. But add a polarising filter and the glorious internal structure is revealed. Colourful stress lines emanate out from the core and run along the tail, working around the central air bubble. They represent stored energy, ready to be released if disturbed even a little.

Emma Liu is a volcanology PhD student, and I was curious about whether there was a relationship between her work and Prince Rupert Drops. Indeed there was, as Emma explained: “My research focuses on how volcanic ash is formed during volcanic eruptions, and particularly why so much fine ash is produced when volcanoes erupt through water or ice. Using Prince Rupert’s Drops as an analogue for how magma is cooled during these ‘hydromagmatic’ eruptions, I explore whether thermal stresses (like those that make Prince Rupert’s Drops so explosive) are also contributing to the release of fine-grained volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

For more super-high-speed footage of Prince Rupert Drops shattering and explanations of the science behind it, Destin from Smarter Every Day has you covered. Incredible stuff.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed my exploration of the University of Bristol’s Art of Science winners throughout the year. Click “Art of Science” in the Categories menu down the side of the screen if you want to see the whole set. Each one is a stunner in its own right! 


The annual Art of Science competition at the University of Bristol bridges the perceived divide between art and science, showing images which visually demonstrate that the pursuit of knowledge can be as beautiful as it is fascinating. 

This year there were three prize categories; Judges’ vote, People’s vote, and Schools’ vote. Each category had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize, and a runner-up. Stressful Beauty won 1st prize in the Judges’ vote. Image used with permission. 

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