Submerge something in a full-to-thebrim vessel of water and there’ll be a spillage. That’s something we’re all familiar with. It’s the fundamental law of swimming pool gutters and beermats. From an early age we’re told about Archimedes and his “Eureka!” moment: how he measured the density of a gold crown by observing the rise in the water level caused by submerging it in his bath. Liquids, like the quasifictional Archimedes, can’t be pushed aside. They can’t be compressed into small spaces. Instead, they’re shifted. They’re displaced.
This term water displacement has become so embedded in our vernacular that it trips off the tongue. Its simplicity and familiarity has bred ubiquity and we use the term to refer to a number of scenarios where water is forced from its position. By a ship, perhaps, or by floodwater. Even the lubrication industry is involved; the WD in WD-40 is an initialism of the term itself.
The extent to which an animal understands the physics of water displacement is often used as a barometer for their intelligence. Cognitive studies present animals with a deep glass, where a treat floats at the bottom. Meanwhile, a pile of stones invites only the ‘brightest’ animals to drop them in the glass, rising the water and treat within reach. Success breeds headlines that elevate such animals to Einstein-esque heights: “Brainy raccoons solve ancient puzzle.”
These tests say more about us than the animals. They exemplify our fascination for our natural environment; our curiosity for the quirks of the animal kingdom, where we thrust onto animals the traits that we admire in ourselves. Ingenuity, responsiveness and verve. Is this a desperate search for solace in nature? Or a self-deprecatory comparison to another species?
The most renowned treat-seeking water displacer is the crow. Long before any zoological studies, the renowned fable-wright Aesop was writing of an ingenious corvid who used pebbles to get a sip of the thirst quenching water in a jug. The moral: that peaceful ingenuity trumps brute force at every turn. And yet, the most pertinent application of water displacement for the human is nautical. Buoyancy of ships, for the food, goods, passengers and employment that sustains so many, is ensured through the Archimedean knowhow of engineers. Quite disturbingly, such technology is also used to design ever bigger and fiercer warships; a far cry from Aesop’s peaceful crow.
From the concept of water displacement comes the Archimedean Screw. Still used today to pump water from low to high altitude, the screw mechanism has been a key foundation of agrarian progress, making irrigation possible. The creation myth of this vital machine purports that Archimedes devised it while living in Egypt. Though this story lacks historical tenacity, the screw’s history took another similar turn when anthropologist Nicholas Hopkins visited an Egyptian village in the late 20th century. To cultivate traditional crops, he wrote, farmers used a ‘tanbur;’ a tool that represented an Archmidean screw.
And from village smallholdings to university laboratories, the technology persists. In June 2018, researchers at Tel Aviv University emulated the screw mechanism, but with light instead of water. The result: a pioneering laser beam that transports particles against the flow of light, like water against gravity.
There’s a place for the Archimedean Screw in the art world, too. In 1993 the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands commissioned British sculptor Tony Cragg to craft a fountain. After some initial doubts, he eventually produced an enormous Archimedean Screw that now protrudes from the lake, its brutal mechanics evoking a physicality that contrasts with the delicate water trickling from a metal meatus. At first glance this sculpture looks like the fin of a giant suburban creature. At second, a canon.
The effects of displaced water can, however, be catastrophic. Reclaimed floodplains may be inundated after estuarial water is confined by a concrete wall. Or large-scale dams can displace natural distributions of water, causing floods upstream and threatening marine populations downstream. And if the flooding submerges any low-lying tracts of land, new islands might be created, causing animals and plants themselves to be displaced and separated from their ecosystems.
In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, home to around 20 million people, both the wet season and dry season bring threats of their own. From May to November, intense rainfall displaces not only stocks of water, but also the people who live by the river. Then, from November to May, when these freshwater flows – usually relied upon to displace saltwater – weaken, waterways can become salinized.
We might assume that the many guises of water displacement all occur in situ. And yet, in our interconnected global village, even this can transcend borders. These days, our basic need for hydration is sated by a process known as virtual water displacement. Areas with less water can be nutritionally buoyed by imports of water-rich foods, brought by freight planes across the globe. The drinker of a Chilean wine, or eater of a Moroccan pomegranate, is experiencing a taste of a distant farm’s weather. Water that poured on the rainforest, vineyard or ocean is displaced to a dinner plate thousands of miles away.
Just as Aesop’s crow illustrates how innovation is driven by necessity, in China, the fear of water shortages has enticed many bold responses. One such strategy involved the transportation of water from the wet south to the arid north. Dry land, it may be, but this is a fertile loam for artists. Notably, film director Antoine Boutet created Sud Eau Nord Deplacer here. With breathtaking landscapes of both pristine nature and stark machinery, this documentary communicates the fever pitch of thirst in Northern China, the visceral excitement at an audacious campaign and the sideeffects of this last gasp attempt to control the elements.
Whether historical or apocryphal, there’s something about the Archimedes bath time parable that resonates with our creative impulse. We crave narrative, even in the realm of scientific discovery. And the story itself taps into our collective craving for the joy of that sudden lightbulb moment, striking during nonchalance. We’re all hoping to be the composer who stumbles on a melodic hook. The playwright who overhears that perfect nugget of dialogue. The designer who glimpses a flower’s vibrant yellow against the sky. Or the thirsty man who taps into an unexpected source of fresh, clean water.
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