Melting Candy Gives Mathematicians Insight into How Some Landscapes Form

Melting Candy Gives Mathematicians Insight into How Some Landscapes Form

Researchers dissolved a sugary treat underwater to understand the origin of spiky rock forests

Video shows an experiment in which a dissolving block of candy develops into an array of sharp spikes. The block starts out with internal pores and is entirely immersed in water, in which it dissolves and becomes a “candy forest” before collapsing. Credit: New York University Applied Mathematics Lab
In this time-lapse video, mathematicians at New York University immersed a block of blue candy in water and filmed it as it dissolved. The candy surface sunk unevenly as some areas melted faster than others, creating ever sharper and longer shards. Eventually the forest of candy spikes toppled as each “tree” fell.

The researchers were aiming to mimic the natural processes that form stone forests—stunning rocky pinnacles of limestone—such as the famous Stone Forestin Kunming, China. The formation processes behind these “tall, slender, and sharply tipped” rock spires “remain unclear,” the scientists wrote in a paper published on September 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. Though the geologic mechanisms are complex, the study showed that the relatively simple process of melting a solid in a liquid produced strikingly similar spikes. The scientists hope that by clarifying how stone forests might form, they can aid conservation efforts.

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Clara Moskowitz

Clara Moskowitz is a senior editor at Scientific American. She covers space and physics.

Credit: Nick Higgins


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