August 5, 2022

Zen Stones: Physicists Crack Case of Frozen Mix

The Zen Stones in the garden of an old monastery in Japan have baffled people for years. The stones are balanced on top of ice pedestals, and somehow they stay there without falling off. Even though physicists had struggled to find a solution, it turns out that the answer was right under their noses all this time!

We stumbled upon the solution quite accidentally, but it made complete sense,” said Dr. Gerald H. Pollack from the University of Washington in Seattle .This is a simple example of how standing waves can hold up objects.

The Zen Stones are located at the Ryoan-ji monastery which is part of a city called Kyoto , located in the middle of Honshu , the main island of Japan .

The stones are carefully arranged on top of pedestals made out of ice. Each stone is different and some weigh up to 24 tons! The monks at Ryoan-ji believe that the garden has mystical powers and that it brings good luck to those who see it.

The garden was originally built in the early 15th Century and it has survived many earthquakes, typhoons and bombings during World War II. The spot attracts thousands of tourists every year.

It appears that all the stones balance on giant icicles which extend from beneath their bases. Scientists have been struggling to figure out how this is possible for years.

The stones in the garden of Ryoan-ji. Image credit: Kyoshi Masamune

After studying high-resolution photos, physicist Dr. Harsh Agrawal from the University of Memphis says that he finds it hard to believe that they are balanced on top of slender ice pedestals. I’ve visited this garden twice and these ice pedestals are not that slender. Furthermore, they appear to be buried under the sand. My conclusion is that these stones either levitate or are pushed up from beneath.

Recently, a team from University of Washington in Seattle wondered whether the key might be in the low humidity and how it affects capillary forces. In order to find out, they performed a simple experiment on some glass marbles and glass beads. They filled a flat-bottomed dish with water and let it evaporate, leaving the beads suspended above the bottom of the dish.