Tag Archives: DIYnamics


Several of my friends were planning on teaching with DIYnamics rotating tables right now. Unfortunately, that’s currently impossible. Fortunately, though, I have one at home and enjoy playing with it enough that I’m

  1. Playing with it
  2. Making videos of me playing with it
  3. Putting the videos on the internet
  4. Going to do video calls with my friends’ classes, so that the students can at least “remote control” the hands-on experiments they were supposed to be doing themselves.

Here is me introducing the setup:

Today, I want to share a video I filmed on planetary Rossby waves. To be clear: This is not a polished, stand-alone teaching video. It’s me rambling while playing. It’s supposed to give students an initial idea of an experiment we’ll be doing together during a video call, and that they’ll be discussing in much more depth in class. It’s also meant to prepare them for more “polished” videos, which are sometimes so polished that it’s hard to actually see what’s going on. If everything looks too perfect it almost looks artificial, know what I mean? Anyway, this is as authentic as it gets, me playing in my kitchen. Welcome! :-)

In the video, I am using an ice cube, melting on a sloping bottom in a rotating tank, to create planetary Rossby waves. Follow along with the whole process:

Also check out the video below that shows both a top- and side view of a planetary Rossby wave, both filmed with co-rotating cameras.

Previous blog posts with more movies for example here.

Now. What are you curious about? What would you like to try? What would you do differently? Any questions for me? :-)

Reposting my “field report” for the DIYnamics blog

Reposting a guest post I wrote for the @DIYnamicsTeam‘s blog:

When we came across the DIYnamics article right after its publication, Torge and I (Mirjam) were very excited about the endless possibilities we saw opening up with an affordable tool like the DIYnamics rotating table. We applied for, and were granted, money for an “innovative teaching” project by Kiel University’s PerLe (1) and built four DIYnamics rotating tables (five if you count the one I built for personal use ;-)), which we’ve been working with for about a year now. Since we are using them in a slightly different context than we’ve seen described before, and also have modified and added some of the experiments, I thought I’d report on it here. If you have any comments or suggestions for us, please do get in touch!

DIYnamics tables in undergraduate education

In contrast to using the DIYnamics rotating tables mainly for outreach purposes which is the most common application I am aware of, we are using them as part of a regular Bachelor-level class on “ocean and atmosphere dynamics” at Geomar, Germany. I have gained a lot of experience using a rotating table in undergraduate education at GFI, Norway, but there we only had one – much bigger – table available. Now we have four that can be used simultaneously! This is great for so many reasons:

Time efficiency for the instructor

With only one rotating table available, the typical setup I have used was to have small groups of students come in at different times over the course of a week or so, to do that week’s experiment with me. But that meant that I would spend a lot of time in the lab, and a large part of that time would be spent on waiting for the water on the rotating table to have spun up into solid body rotation, as well as prep time or cleaning, drying, putting away time.

Of course, wait times can easily be used for discussions of the upcoming experiment, of the concept of a “spun up” body of water, of how to judge whether or not a body of water is spun up or not, and many other things. But those are things that don’t necessarily have to be discussed in a setting of one instructor per each small student group, they could just as well be discussed in student groups and then in a larger plenum.

Exchange between student groups

In the setup with one table and student groups coming in one after the other, students would then write lab reports, submit them, and come back for the next experiment. While I am sure there was some exchange between student groups happening (which we could sometimes see from eerily similar ways of expressing things between groups, or errors propagating through several groups’ reports), that wasn’t an instructional design choice.

Now, however, when we have student groups working on the same experiment at the same time in the same room, it is very easy to have discussions both within individual groups and then across groups. There are many instructional methods to choose from that facilitate that kind of exchange, for example “think, pair, share”, where students first think about a question individually, then pair up with a partner (or the group at their tank) to discuss, and then results are shared with and discussed in the whole class.

Seeing many implementations of the same experiment

One reason why these discussions are especially fruitful if done in connection with simultaneously-run tank experiments is that, even if all student groups get the exact same instructions, two implementations of the same experiment do not ever look the same. There is always something that’s different. Maybe one tank is spun up less than the others, or a bit wobbly, because someone bumped into the table mid-spinup. Or the dye that is used as flow tracer has a different density for one group (less diluted? Different temperature?) and thus behaves differently. Or dye is put in a different spot in the tank and thus shows different features of the flow field. There are so many tiny things that can and will be different from experiment to experiment, and it’s a great learning experience to see an ensemble of different implementations and discuss what change in boundary conditions made results look different rather than just seeing one implementation and wrongly assuming that this is the one and only way this experiment always turns out.

Seeing many different experiments at the same time

And then, there is of course the opportunity to have different student groups work on different experiments simultaneously, which cuts down on total prep and spin-up time and enables students to see a larger variety of experiments. It also opens up the possibility that students pick what experiment they want to work on – either new ones or repeating older ones that they would like to take better pictures of or modify something in the boundary conditions. This seems to be very motivating!

Our group of students coming together at one tank to discuss observations. Note that in the background a square tank is sitting on a different rotating table, being spun up for the Rossby wave experiment described below

Why we are using higher-walled tanks

In contrast to the tanks we’ve seen used on the DIYnamics rotating tables before, we chose to invest in some high-walled tanks.

An interesting feature of rotating fluid dynamics is that the flow becomes 2D, so technically having a shallow layer of water is completely sufficient to give a good representation of those flows. And if we look at the aspect ratios of the oceans, they are in fact extremely shallow compared to their horizontal extent. But it’s easy to see a 2D flow in a shallow tank and assume that it’s 2D because of the shape of the tank, not because of the flow itself. So having an exaggerated third (depth) dimension that can be easily observed by looking into the tank from the side actually helps drive home the point that there is “nothing to see” on that dimension because the flow really is as 2D as theory told us it would be.

But then there are of course the cases where the flow isn’t 2D, and then a higher-walled tank is really convenient. For some experiments where there are exciting things to discover by looking into the tank from the side, check out this blog post over on my blog.

Students working with an experiment on the Ekman bottom boundary layer – one of the experiments that really benefit from a larger water depth because this allows for observations of the development of the boundary layer over time.

Experiment on planetary Rossby waves

One of the first experiments we tried on our DIYnamics rotating table was a “planetary Rossby wave” experiment. We hadn’t bought our cylindrical tanks yet (read more about those below), so using a clear plastic storage box was very convenient. Btw, this is one of the experiments where looking into the tank from the side gives a lot of interesting insights!

For the planetary Rossby wave experiment, we need a sloping bottom (easiest done in a rectangular tank, but we’ve also run the same experiment on a cone-shaped insert in a cylindrical tank) and a dyed ice cube. When the tank is in solid body rotation, a dyed ice cube is inserted in the shallow “eastern” corner of the tank (make sure it is sitting far enough from the edge of the tank so it can turn around its own axis unobstructed). For more details see this blog post, but in a nutshell: The cold melt water sinks, setting up a column of spinning water that sheds spinning eddies at regular intervals. Eddies and ice cube propagate westwards. This is a really easy and fool-proof experiment, and it looks beautiful!

Planetary Rossby waves in a square tank with a sloping bottom.

Presenting the DIYnamics tanks at an institute colloquium

In January, Torge and I gave a seminar presentation titled “you should really play more often! Using tank experiments in teaching” at our institute’s colloquium. In the abstract, we announced that we would give a brief overview over our project and then give people the opportunity to play – which we did. We had been expecting that maybe a handful of our loyal friends would stick around after the presentation to look at the tanks, but we were very surprised and excited to see that pretty much everybody in the audience wanted to stay. We had set up the four rotating tables with four different experiments and a student presenting at each in the back of the room, and we ended up running all the experiments repeatedly, until we were kicked out of the room because the next lecture was about to start. It was really motivating to see how everyone – students, PhD students, postdocs, staff, professors – got really excited and wanted to learn more about the tank experiments, discuss observations, modify and experiment. This goes to show that an affordable rotating table is an amazing tool at every level of education: There is always more to discover!

A snapshot of the audience of our seminar presentation interacting with the tanks and each other. We were running four experiments simultaneously.

Follow our experiences

If you want to follow our experiences with the DIYnamics rotating tables, there are several options for you:

Torge and I have recently launched the “Teaching Ocean Science” blog at https://www.oceanblogs.org/teachingoceanscience/, which is a joint effort of ourselves and other instructors, describing fun hands-on stuff they do in their teaching, and students, who write course assignments on what they are currently learning for the blog.

Additionally, all the outgoing links in my guest post above are to posts on my own blog, “Adventures in Teaching and Oceanography”, at https://mirjamglessmer.com/blog. I use that blog as my own archive and document every new thing I try on there, so you might want to sign up for email alerts or follow via my Twitter @meermini.

In addition to writing about the DIYnamics rotating tables and what we are up to with those (and you can be sure that if I played with a tank, you will read it on that blog right away ;-)), I write a lot about#KitchenOceanography (which are very easy hands-on experiments on ocean and climate topics that you can do with household items) and #WaveWatching (observing ocean physics everywhere, all the time). I also write about science communication issues.

Please feel free to check out those blogs and as I wrote in the beginning: Please get in touch if you have any comments or suggestions for us. I am always happy to chat!

(1) This project has been funded by the PerLe fund for innovative teaching through resources from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, grant number: 01LP17068. The responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the authors.

Giving it a side eye: Why we use high-walled tanks on our rotating table #FlumeFriday

Inspired by a recent twitter comment on how our tanks are higher-walled than those usually used on the DIYnamics rotating tables, today I’ll talk about why we went for those.

Full disclosure: Mainly for practical reasons (see below). BUT: having high-walled tanks is really helpful for many experiments because they make it a lot easier to observe the vertical dimension. Even though oceanic flows are largely 2D and thus a shallow tank should be enough (and it is for many purposes!), if you look at representations of sections of oceanic properties, the vertical dimension is always stretched to make the important 3D features visible. That’s basically what we are doing here, too: In order to make the point that rotating flows are largely 3D, we blow up the vertical dimension so people can actually observe that claim. Plus then there are all those cases where rotating flow actually isn’t 2D!

For which experiments might a high-walled tank (or a higher water level) be helpful?

For example the Ekman layer experiment. If you want to see the bottom boundary layer thicken over time as friction propagates upwards through the water column, you need to look at it from the side and over a certain period of time, so the water needs to be deep enough to be able to see parts of the water column that are already affected by friction, and then the upper part that isn’t and that’s still in solid body rotation.

Or if you want to observe the difference between rotating and non-rotating fluids, the extra height helps to show that rotating fluids are 2D whereas non-rotating fluids are 3D. So just to make it easier to observe that structures are really 2D, it helps to stretch the vertical axis.

For example of thermal forcing in rotating and non-rotating cases (And yes, I see the irony that i am showing a top-view of the rotating case. But observing by eye and taking pictures in which you can actually see what you saw by eye are two very different things).

Or non-rotating vs rotating turbulence (check out the movie in the linked blog post; makes it much clearer than the picture below).

Or those cases of rotating fluid dynamics where we force the flow to become 3D by mean tricks like slow rotation on a sloping bottom

In reality, there were other reasons, too: Firstly, we couldn’t find cheap options that matched all our requirements (We wanted something that had a diameter close to the maximum that we could fit on our rotating tables, that was cylindrical, had a flat bottom, had clear walls and would be robust enough to use with students).

Secondly, I own a glass vase with a similarly high walls that we used as tank on our prototype of the rotating table. I still use it at home, but we didn’t want to go with glass for the tanks we use all the time with students & for outreach, for obvious reasons. But since we were happy with the dimensions of the vase, we just went with it. Never change a running system, right?

And a practical reason: Emptying a high-walled tank by carrying it to a sink and throwing out the water there is much less likely to make a mess than emptying a lower-walled tank with the same water height in it. Waves created by moving the tank is all I am saying…

And also I think observing vertical structures develop in fluids is always fun! :-)

New rotating table on #FlumeFriday! Welcome to the family!

In addition to our four DIYnamics-inspired rotating tanks, we now have a highly professional rotating table with SO MANY options! And also so much unboxing and constructing and trouble-shooting to do before it works. But we finished the first successful test: wanna see some rotating coffee in which milk is added? Then check this out!

Luckily Torge is patient enough to deal with me bossing him around, but it took forever to get the whole thing to work and I wanted my movie ;-)

Before we got to that point, though, did I mention that we had a lot of unboxing and constructing to do? But it was a bit like Christmas… And I can’t wait to play with every last piece of equipment! So many new and fun options for experiments I’ve always been wanting to do!

Happy #FlumeFriday! :-)

If one rotating table is awesome, four rotating tables are…?

I’m actually at a loss for words. Amazing? Spectacular? So much fun? All of that!

Today was the first time Torge and I tried our four DIYnamics-inspired rotating tables in teaching. (Remember? We want to use 4 rotating tables simultaneously so students can work in small groups rather than watching us present experiments, and also so we could quickly see how slightly different conditions might lead to different results. Having 4 tanks running at the same time cuts down on a lot of spin-up wait time! And we wanted affordable rotating tables so a) we could afford them and b) students would really just be able to play without them, or us, being afraid that they might break something). And it went even better than we had hoped, and we were already pretty convinced that it would be awesome!

It all started out, even before class started, with one of the students asking if it was me who had done the recent takeover of Kiel University’s Instagram account with the awesome tank experiments in Bergen. Yep, that was me, and it was great that she remembered she had seen the experiments and even recognized me! Made me very happy. If I had needed convincing that social media is awesome, here it was!

But then the students started playing, and they got really into it. We started out with just tanks filled with water on the Lazy Susans, and the students moved them by hand to get a feel for how water behaves under rotation. We looked at deformation of surfaces, how confetti as tracers behaved on the surface and on the bottom, all the good stuff. Already with such simple experiments there is so much physics to discuss!

And then we moved on to turbulence in a non-rotating and rotating system. Look at the cool vortex rings you can make with food coloring :-)

And then we moved on to turbulence in the rotating system. Our final tanks haven’t arrived yet, so we made do with whatever we had at hand (see the green bowl as tank below…). Students also started improvising to include a topography and other modifications that we hadn’t planned for. This is so great if students are so keen to figure things out that they take the initiative to make it happen themselves!

Judging from what I could observe, students were really enjoying themselves and got into deep discussions, trying to connect their observations to the theory they had learned. Additionally, there were lots of “oh wow!”s and “coooool”s everywhere. And I overheard this one exchange between two students: “careful, don’t drop the phone into the tank!” “oh, it’s ok, it’s waterproof” “I don’t care about the phone, I don’t want you to mess up the experiment!” :-D

Btw, note below the small Lego motor that drives the Lazy Susan. That’s really the whole setup. Speaking of affordable and easy. And portable. And all-around awesome!

And it was great fun for Torge and me, too, to observe what the students were up to, and to discuss with them. There were already several curious questions as to what experiments we are planning to do throughout the course. The next sessions, Torge will connect the experiments we did today to theory, and start on the theory we need for the next set of experiments we are planning to run, but I can’t wait to continue working with the tank experiments with such a motivated group of students! :-)

Planetary Rossby waves

I ran my new favourite experiment again, the planetary Rossby waves. They work super well on the DIYnamics table we built in Kiel and they also worked really well the other day in Bergen.

I mainly ran it today because I wanted to get an idea of how robust the experiment is, i.e. what to prepare for when running it with students in terms of weird results that might have to be explained.

Here is a side view of the square tank with a sloping bottom. The blue ice cube is melting. The melt water is forming a Taylor column down to the bottom of the tank. Some of it then continues down the slope.

Here we are looking at the slope and see the same thing (plus the reflection at the surface). Note how the ice cube and its  meltwater column have already moved quite a bit from the corner where I released it!

When the blue ice cube had crossed half the width of the tank and the blue melt water had almost reached the other edge, I released a green ice cube. Sadly the dye wasn’t as intense as the blue one. But it’s quite nice that the wave length between the individual plumes going down the slope stays the same, for all the blue plumes as well as for the new green ones.

Here in the side view we see the columns of the blue and green ice cube, and we also see that each of the plumes going down the slope still has Taylor columns attached at its head.

Here is an accelerated movie of the experiment, 20x faster than real time. Not sure why there is still sloshing in the tank (this time I made sure it was level), but it’s very nice to see that the ice cubes are spinning cyclonically, faster than the tank! As they should, since they are sitting on Taylor columns…

I think next time I really want to make a side view movie of the Taylor columns and plumes. Not quite sure yet how I will manage the lights so they don’t get super annoying…

Planetary Rossby waves on Beta-plane. A super easy tank experiment!

This is seriously one of the easiest tank experiments I have ever run! And I have been completely overthinking it for the last couple of weeks.

Quick reminder: This is what we think hope will happen: On a slope, melt water from a dyed ice cube will sink, creating a Taylor column that will be driven down the slope by gravity and back up the slope by vorticity conservation, leading to a “westward” movement in a stretched, cyclonic trajectory.

We are using the DIYnamics setup: A LEGO-driven Lazy Susan. And as a tank, we are using a transparent plastic storage box that I have had for many years, and the sloping bottom is made out of two breakfast boards that happened to be a good size.

Water is filled to “just below the edge of the white clips when they are in the lower position” (forgot to take measurements, this is seriously what I wrote down in my notes. We didn’t really think this experiment would work…)

The tank is then rotated at the LEGO motor’s speed (one rotation approximately every 3 seconds) and spun into solid body rotation. We waited for approximately 10 minutes, although I think we had reached solid body rotation a lot faster. But we had a lot of surface waves that were induced by some rotation that we couldn’t track down and fix. But in the end they turned out to not matter.

To start the experiment, Torge released a blue ice cube in the eastern corner of the shallow end. As the ice cube started melting, the cold melt water sank down towards the ground, where it started flowing towards the bottom of the tank. That increased the water column’s positive relative vorticity, which drove it back up the slope.

This was super cool to watch, especially since the ice cube started spinning cyclonically itself, too, so was moving in the same direction and faster than the rotating tank.

You see this rotation quite well in the movie below (if you manage to watch without getting seasick. We have a co-rotating setup coming up, it’s just not ready yet…)

Very soon, these amazing meandering structures appear: Rossby waves! :-)

And over time it becomes clear that the eddies that are being shed from the column rotating with the ice cubes are constant throughout the whole water depth.

It is a little difficult to observe that the structure is really the same throughout the whole water column since the color in the eddies that were shed is very faint, especially compared to the ice cube and the melt water, but below you might be able to spot it for the big eddy on the left.

Or maybe here? (And note the surface waves that become visible in the reflection of the joint between the two breakfast boards that make up the sloping bottom. Why is there so much vibration in the system???)

You can definitely see the surface-to-bottom structures in the following movie if you don’t let yourself be distracted by a little #HamburgLove on the back of the breakfast boards. Watching this makes you feel really dizzy, and we’ve been starting at this for more than the 8 seconds of the clip below ;-)

After a while, the Taylor column with the ice cube floating on top starts visibly moving towards the west, too. See how it has almost reached the edge of the first breakfast board already?

And because this was so cool, we obviously had to repeat the experiment. New water, new ice cube.

But: This time with an audience of excited oceanographers :-)

This time round, we also added a second ice cube after the first one had moved almost all the way towards the west (btw, do you see how that one has this really cool eddy around it, whereas the one in the east is only just starting to rotate and create its own Taylor column?)

And last not least: Happy selfie because I realized that there are way too few pictures like this on my blog, where you see what things look like (in this case in the GEOMAR seminar room) and who I am playing with (left to right: Torge, Franzi, Joke, Jan) :-)

Spinning dye curtain — when a tank full of water has not reached solid body rotation yet

With all the rotating tank experiments I’ve been showing lately, one thing that comes up over and over again is the issue of solid body rotation.

On our DIYnamics-inspired turntable for our “dry theory to juicy reality” project, Torge and I came up with a fun way to illustrate the importance of full body rotation in tank experiments, again inspired by the DIYnamics team, this time their youtube channel.

For the spinning dye curtain experiment, we start up the rotating table, and then pretty much immediately add in some dye. Below, you see what happens when you add in the dye too late (we waited for 2 minutes here before we added it): The water is so much in solid body rotation already, that we only form columns and 2D flow.

But if we add in the dye right away after starting up the tank, we form these spirals where the water further away from the center is spinning faster than the water right at the center, thus distorting the dye patches into long, thin filaments (Btw, I’ve shown something similar in my “eddies in a jar” experiment earlier, where instead of starting up a turntable I just stirred water in a cylindrical tank).

But as the tank continues to spin up, the eddies eventually stop spinning and the tank turns into solid body rotation. If new dye is added now, only columns form, but they stay intact as if they were, indeed, solid bodies.

But seeing the behaviour of a fluid change within half a minute or so is really impressive and something we definitely want to do in class, too!

Baroclinic instabilities / Hadley cell circulation in a tank

The DIYnamics-inspired turntable that Torge and myself have been working on for our “dry theory to juicy reality” project is finally working well!

This is what the setup now looks like (how simple is that?!) and we had an exciting morning testing different experiments!

The one experiment that we have been using as test case in all our previous sessions is the Baroclinic Instability / Hadley cell circulation. There are sketches of the setup and the expected circulation in this blogpost, so just a quick reminder: We place a cold core in the center of our tank (here a glass with blue ice in it), spin the tank (at approximately 20rpm) into solid body rotation, and introduce dye (blue towards the center, red towards the outer edge of the tank).

And what happens then is just beautiful: We get 2D instabilities that transport cold (blue) water outwards and warmer (room-temperature, red) water towards the center of the tank.

We’ve run the experiment three times with different water levels (and once with Southern Hemisphere rotation just for fun) and it worked beautifully each time.

I find it always fascinating how there is hardly any mixing between the red and blue curtains (and there shouldn’t be any because rotating flows become 2D (as shown here)).

Just look at how the dye curtains form when we first add the blue dye…

And then a little later added some red dye…

And then let the field develop.

So I think we’ve got this experiment down and can run it with the students once the semester starts up again in October! :-)

Working on our own affordable rotating table for oceanographic experiments!

Inspired by the article “Affordable Rotating Fluid Demonstrations for Geoscience Education: the DIYnamics Project” by the Hill et al. (2018), Joke, Torge and I have been wanting to build an affordable rotating table for teaching for a while now. On Saturday, we met up again to work on the project.

This post is mainly to document for ourselves where we are at and what else needs to happen to get the experiments working.

New this time: New rotating tables, aka Lazy Susans. After the one I’ve had in my kitchen was slightly too off-center to run smoothly, we bought the ones recommended by the DIYnamics project. And they work a lot better! To center our tank on the rotating table and keep it safely in place, we used these nifty LEGO and LEGO Duplo contraptions, which worked perfectly.

We also used a LEGO contraption to get the wheel close enough to drive the rotating table. The yellow line below shows where the rim of the rotating table’s foot needs to sit.

And this is how the engine has to be placed to drive the rotating table.

First attempt: Yes! Very nice parabolic surface! Very cool to see time and time again!

Now first attempt at a Hadley cell experiment: A jar with blue ice is placed at the center of the tank. Difficulties here: Cooling sets in right away, before the rotating tank has reached solid body rotation. That might potentially mess up everything (we don’t know).

So. Next attempt: Use a jar (weighted down with stones so it doesn’t float up) until the tank has reached solid body rotation, then add blue ice water

Working better, even though the green dye is completely invisible…

We didn’t measure rotation, nor did we calculate what kind of regime we were expecting, so the best result we got was “The Heart” (see below) — possibly eddying regime with wavenumber 3?

Here is what we learned for next time:

  • use better dye tracers and make sure their density isn’t too far off the water in the tank
  • use white  LEGO bricks to hold the tank in place (so they don’t make you dizzy watching the tank)
  • measure the rotation rate and calculate what kind of regime we expect to see — overturning or eddying, and at which wave number (or, even better, the other way round: decide what we want to see and calculate how to set the parameters in order to see it)
  • use white cylinder in the middle so as to not distract from the circulation we want to see; weigh the cylinder down empty and fill it with ice water when the tank has reached solid body rotation
  • give the circulation a little more time to develop between adding the cold water at the center and putting in dyes (at least 10 minutes)
  • it might actually be worth reading the DIYnamics team’s instruction again, and to buy exactly what they recommend. That might save us a lot of time ;-)

But: As always this was fun! :-)

P.S.: Even though this is happening in a kitchen, I don’t think this deserves the hashtag #kitchenoceanography — the equipment we are using here is already too specialized to be available in “most” kitchens. Or what would you say?