Sandcastle Physics Revealed

Greg Wallace of Hockessin, Del., adds the finishing touches to a sandcastle, during the 21st annual Delaware State News Sancastle Contest, Saturday, Aug. 7, 1999, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Wallace has entered the contest for the past 13 years and won the Peoples Choice Award in 1998. (AP Photo/Grant L. Gursky)

Anyone who has built sandcastles learns they hold up best if a little water is mixed with the building material. But until now scientists couldn’t agree why.

Water holds grains of sand together by forming “liquid-bridges” between the contact points of the grains, a new study finds. The tension forces of the bridges creates an attractive force between the grains that is absent in dry sand.

Sarah Nowak of MIT and colleagues at Clark University put sand in a hollow rotating drum.

As the drum turned, the sand would build up in a pile until it reached the maximum angle of stability – the steepest slope a pile can achieve before it collapsed. When it collapsed, the researchers measured the slope of the pile post-collapse, called the angle of repose.

They found that the addition of even miniscule amounts of water greatly increased the sand grains’ ability to stick to one another, which allowed the pile to stay together at steeper angles and collapse less drastically than when the sand was dry.

And some of the bridges stayed intact after the collapse. You can see this on the beach when a sandcastle falls apart in clumps held together by moisture instead of rolling sheets of dry sand.

The results are detailed in the October issue of the journal Nature Physics.

Sand interests physicists because it, or any collection of macroscopic solid grains, exhibits both liquid and solid characteristics.

“For example, dry sand in a bucket can be poured like a fluid, but it can also support the weight of a rock placed on top – even if the rock is denser than the sand,” Peter Schiffer of Pennsylvania State University wrote in an accompanying analysis in the journal.

Understanding the interactions between dry grains and liquids is vital not just for building sandcastles, but for industries ranging from mining to pharmaceutical development.

For sandcastle builders, the best mix, it turns out, is one pail of water for every eight pails of sand.

Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.