The Bernoulli Principle

What do baseball, airplanes, and your favorite singer have in common? If you guessed that it has something to do with the title of this blog, dear reader, you are correct.  We’ll unpack all that, but first, let’s talk about this Bernoulli guy:

Jacob Bernoulli was a prominent mathematician in the late 17th century.  We can blame calculus on him to some degree; he worked closely with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who (despite vicious accusations of plagiarism from Isaac Newton) appears to have developed the same mathematical methods independently from the more famous Newton.  He also developed the mathematical constant e (base of the natural logarithm) and a law of large numbers which was foundational to the field of statistics, especially probability theory.  But he’s not the Bernoulli we’re talking about.

Johann Bernoulli was Jacob’s younger brother.  He shared his brother’s passion for the advancement of calculus, and was among the first to demonstrate practical applications in various fields.  So for engineers especially, he can share the blame for calculus with his brother.  But he’s not the Bernoulli we’re talking about either.

Johann’s son, Daniel, clearly got his father’s math smarts as well as his enthusiasm for practical applications, especially in the field of fluid mechanics.  His kinetic theory of gases is widely known as the textbook (literally) explanation of Boyle’s law.  And the principle that bears his name (yes, THIS is the Bernoulli we’re talking about) is central to our understanding of curveballs, airplane wings, and vocal range.

Bernoulli’s Principle states that an increase in the speed of a fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure (e.g., the fluid’s potential energy.)

  • In baseball, pitchers love it, and batters hate it.  When the ball is thrown, friction (mainly from the particular stitched pattern of a baseball) causes a thin layer of air to surround the ball, and the spin that a skilled pitcher puts on it creates higher air pressure on one side and lower air pressure on the other.  According to Bernoulli, that increases the air speed on the lower pressure side, and the baseball moves in that direction.  Since a well-thrown curveball’s axis of rotation is parallel to the ground, that means the ball drops as it approaches the plate, leaving the batter swinging above it, or awkwardly trying to “dig it out” of the plate.
  • The particular shape of an airplane wing (flat on the bottom, curved on the top) means that when the wing (along with the rest of the plane) is in motion, the air travelling over the curved top has to move faster than the air moving under the flat bottom.  This means the air pressure is lower on top, allowing the wing (again, along with the rest of the plane) to rise.
  • The anatomy inside your neck that facilitates speech is often called a voice box or vocal chords.  It’s actually a set of folds of tissue that vibrate and make sound when air (being expelled by the lungs when your diaphragm contracts) passes through.  When you sing different notes, you’re actually manipulating the area of air passage.  If you narrow that area, the air speed increases, making the pressure drop, skewing the shape of those folds so that they vibrate at a higher frequency, creating the high notes.  Opening up that area lowers the air speed, and the resultant increase in pressure lowers the vocal folds’ vibration frequency, making the low notes.
  • Bonus (because I work for EXAIR) Bernoulli’s Principle application: many EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air Products are engineered to take advantage of this phenomenon to optimize efficiency:
The high speed of the air exiting the (left to right) the Air Wipe, Super Air Knife, Super Air Nozzle, and Air Amplifier creates a low pressure (just like Daniel Bernoulli said) that causes entrainment of an enormous amount of air from the surrounding environment.  This maximizes flow while minimizing consumption of your compressed air.

If you’d like to discuss Bernoulli, baseball, singing, or a potential compressed air application, give me a call.  If you want to talk airplane stuff, perhaps one of the other Application Engineers can help…I don’t really like to fly, but that’s a subject for another blog.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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