An alien spaceship commander was preparing to drop a cone-shaped spy shuttle into the sand of a Florida beach near Cape Canaveral. The shuttle needed to burrow deep enough that any passing humans wouldn’t see it while the aliens used it to spy on Earth’s space program. “From how high should I drop the shuttle so that it is hidden?” the commander asked their science advisor. The science advisor pulled out their alien high school mechanics book, hoping to calculate this based on the laws of motion and Earth’s gravitational force.
Seeing Inside Sand: Visualizing Force Chains with Photoelastic Disks
As their name suggests, so-called “granular materials” are made up of “grains” — small (but macroscopic) pieces of sand, glass beads, coffee grounds, or almost any other solid you can think of. Granular materials can flow like a liquid (like sand in an hourglass), resist deformation like a solid (like the sand under your feet at the beach), or quickly transition between these states (like pebbles in a rockslide).