Cartesian divers – theoretical considerations

 A bit more reflection on cartesian divers.

When I wrote the two previous posts, I had known cartesian divers for a very long time in many contexts, for example as something that is routinely used in primary school teaching. While I was aware that developing a correct physical description of such a diver is challenging, I assumed that everybody had an intuitive understanding of how a diver would react when pressure was applied on the bottle. To me, this is an experiment that I would use to demonstrate the different compressibilities of air and water, assuming that everybody can imagine what happens if the density of a floating body changes.
Turns out my assumption of what people intuitively understand was way off. In the paper Helping students develop an understanding of Archimedes’ principle. I. Research on student understanding”, Loverude, Kautz and Heron talk about difficulties university science majors have with hydrostatics. Of seven volunteers who were interviewed, who had all completed their instruction in hydrostatics and all reported course grades at or above the mean, all but two predicted that the diver would rise as pressure was applied to the bottle. And none of the students could account for the observation that the diver sank!
Now I’m wondering at which point the students’ difficulties arise. Is it that they don’t know about different compressibilities or is it at a much more basic level? From the study mentioned above it seems that students don’t appreciate the tiny density range (where calling it a range might already be over-stating it) in which a body can float in (non-stratified) water without swimming at the surface or sinking to the ground. In a way this makes sense – most of the time that we look at water in a way comparable to how we look at a cartesian diver (i.e. through side walls so we are looking at a depth section of a non-stratified fluid), we are actually looking at aquaria where fish float in very similar ways to the cartesian divers. But we never stop to think about how floating and adjusting depth in a fluid is actually quite an achievement. Which we see when the fish die and first float at the surface and then sink to the bottom…
In any case. If it is the case that students don’t appreciate how rare it is for something to float in a fluid, then showing a cartesian diver might even be working against us by reinforcing a perception that is harmful to the students’ future understanding of hydrostatics. Or we can use the divers in a different way – have students build them themselves, so that they need to fiddle with them to adjust their initial density until it is just right, before they start working in the way shown in the previous posts. I think this is a thought I want to develop further… So stay tuned!

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