The calming effect of oil on water

Peter Behroozi, Kimberly Cordray, William Griffin, Feredoon Behroozi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


The calming effect of oil on water has been known since ancient times. Benjamin Franklin was the first to investigate the effect, but the underlying mechanism for this striking phenomenon remains elusive. We used a miniature laser interferometer to measure the amplitude of surface waves to a resolution of ±5 nm, making it possible to determine the effect of an oil monolayer on the attenuation of capillary waves and the surface dilational modulus of the monolayer, We present attenuation data on pure water, water covered by olive oil, water covered by a fatty acid, and a water-acetone mixture for comparison. From the attenuation data at frequencies between 251 and 551 Hz, we conclude that the calming effect of oil on surface waves is principally due to the dissipation of wave energy caused by the Gibbs surface elasticity of the monolayer, with only a secondary contribution from the reduction in surface tension. Our data also indicate that the surface-dilational viscosity of the oil monolayer is negligible and plays an insignificant role in calming the waves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-414
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Physics
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Physics and Astronomy


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