Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Ask the Experts

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Ask the Experts

Article excerpt

Q How did the Cartesian diver (devil) get its name?

Richard Frazier

Department of Curriculum and


University of Central Missouri

A The common answer is that the diver (or devil) was named after Rene Descartes, a 17th-century scientist and philosopher. You could call Descartes influential. Others have given him such modest distinctions as the "Father of Modern Mathematics" and the "Father of Modern Philosophy." To paraphrase his most famous dictum: He thought, therefore he was. Descartes also developed the Cartesian coordinate system and analytical geometry (which, in turn, led to the development of calculus).

A simple Cartesian diver can be created from a glass eyedropper and a 2 L soda bottle. Fill the bottle to the rim with water. Draw just enough water into the eyedropper to barely float the eyedropper at the water's surface before screwing on the bottle cap. Squeeze the sides of the bottle and the eyedropper (the "diver") sinks to the bottom. Release the bottle and the diver rises to the top. What is going on? Carefully observe the water level in the eyedropper as you squeeze, and then look up Archimedes' and Pascal's Principles. Can you figure it out?

Perhaps unfortunately for Monsieur Descartes, his connection to the experiment that bears his name is tenuous at best. The concepts best illustrated by this popular science demonstration are not particularly "Cartesian," and the experiment is not described anywhere in his writings. …

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