Science with Brass; November 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Mukerjee; 3 Page(s)
The oscillon is rather a modest beast, a pile of tiny brass balls that jiggles up and down and joins with other piles to form patterns. Still, its discovery has caused quite a stir. In a breathless tour of buzzwords, the New York Times recently linked oscillons with the origin of life, self-organized criticality, fractals, human individuality and complexity. Who knows, the amazing oscillon may yet help finance a 15 percent tax cut.
But even stripped of such ambitions, the oscillon remains a curious creature. The object appeared when Paul B. Umbanhowar of the University of Texas at Austin and his colleagues vibrated a tray of brass balls up and down. The balls, each less than 0.1 millimeter in radius, together resemble sand. As anyone who has tried running on a beach can testify, motion in such a medium damps out very fast. In the physicists¿ experiment, the vibration, at between 10 to 100 cycles per second, feeds energy constantly to the balls, allowing ripples and other features to form at the surface.