Discover Copper Online

Fall 2007

Copper Under the Microscope

Is it alive? That was a question some scientists asked themselves when they observed copper particles swimming like a school of fish under the microscope.

When physicists Narayanan Menon and Vijay Narayan agitated tiny copper rods (4.5 mm long, 0.8 mm in diameter) in a liquid-filled container, the rods mysteriously aligned themselves and began moving in the same direction, resembling schools of fish. Only copper rods with pinched ends, shaped like rolling pins, exhibited the unique swarming motion. An earlier experiment with cylinder-shaped rods did not prompt the same reaction.

While the study does not indicate that copper is alive, it may provide insight into similar behavior in living organisms that travel in swarms, schools and flocks. The scientists speculate that if copper, an inert material, behaves in such a fashion, swarming may also occur in nature without any thought or conscious motivation.

Research is now being conducted with other objects having a "rolling pin" shape. Another physicist, Martin van Hecke, reportedly observed swarming, swirling and spontaneous grouping while experimenting with rice grains.

Menon plans to continue his research with copper because the characteristics of the metal provide reproducible results. Some day, such research may prove useful in the production of powders and glass. Cu

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