Vanishing Act

There is often peculiar humour about self-frustration. Consider, for example, a train of events which started outside the old Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford. I came across a dirty beaker full of water just when I happened to have a pistol in my hand. Almost without thinking I fired, and was surprised at the spectacular way in which the beaker disappeared. I had, of course, fired at beakers before; but they had merely broken, and not shattered into small fragments. Following Rutherford’s precept I repeated the experiment and obtained the same result: it was the presence of the water which caused the difference in behavior. Years later, after the War, I found myself having to lecture to a large elementary class at Aberdeen, teaching hydrostatics ab initio. Right at the beginning came the definitions — a gas having little resistance to change of volume but a liquid having great resistance. I thought that I would drive the definitions home by repeating for the class my experiments with the pistol, for one can look at them from the point of view of the beaker, thus suddenly challenged to accommodate not only the liquid that it held before the bullet entered it, but also the bullet. It cannot accommodate the extra volume with the speed demanded, and so it shatters.

— R.V. Jones, “Impotence and Achievement in Physics and Technology,” Nature 207:4993 (1965), 120-125

(When the Royal Engineers tried to use this trick to demolish a tall chimney, filling its base with 6 feet of water and firing an explosive charge into the water, “it succeeded so well that it failed completely”: The incompressible water flung the surrounding ring of bricks outward, leaving a foreshortened chimney suspended above in midair. This dropped down neatly onto the old foundation, upright and intact, “presenting the Sappers with an exquisite problem.”)