The Secrets Behind the Water Show

There is nothing like the relaxing experience of lounging outside on a mild summer evening while listening to a live band play some of your favorite music. This was my view one evening this week at a local outdoor mall. However, no offense to the wonderfully talented band, the water fountain light show that happened after the band’s performance stole the show. You can’t beat the experience offered by the graceful chemistry of the water molecule mixed with the elegance of visible light waves combined with harmonious sound waves.


The Water: 

By simply combining 1 Oxygen atom with 2 Hydrogen atoms, the amazingly complicated water molecule forms. But how does water impact our experience of watching the fountain light show? It all comes down to chemistry. Water molecules can form loose bonds with each other called “Hydrogen bonds.” These are the same bonds that allow water to climb up a tree through roots or to bulge over the top of a glass without spilling. In a fountain, this means water can shoot upward in one solid stream while cascading downward in hundreds of droplets. Water can cling together in a ripple across the surface or glide across the fountain in a sheet. Pure water also has colorless and odorless properties. If we tried to use other liquids in the fountain, it may not separate as easy as water molecules do and so we would be watching chunky blobs stumble across the fountain. Or the liquid may have an unpleasant odor, or a color property that does not allow visible light to pass through it. Any other liquid just would not do.

The Light:

Electromagnetic waves are ways in which energy travels by simultaneous periodic variations of electric and magnetic field intensities… in other words, they are different types of energy waves that travel from space and interact with our planet. They include ultraviolet waves, radio waves, gamma rays and visible light just to name a few. Visible light is the type of electromagnetic wave that humans, and most other animals, can see as ‘colors.’ After visible light hits an object, we see the color of light that is being reflected off of the object. But light interacts with water in a very special way. As light passes through water, sometimes it is reflected, sometimes it is refracted (or bent), and sometimes it passes straight through. When light reflects and bends through water, we see different colors depending on the angle of which the light hits our eyes. This makes for an incredibly complex fountain light show with a wide variety of colors.

*An interesting aside: If we were to create a fountain light show for birds to enjoy, we may consider using Ultraviolet light because they can see in UV light. Or if we were to create the fountains of “Bellagio” for deep ocean fishes, we could use infrared light since they use infrared waves to locate fish and to communicate with each other. Our fountain light show would be a dull experience for birds, bees, snakes, mosquitoes, and fish who use other forms of electromagnetic waves for their vision.


The Sound:

The music of the fountain show makes it an incredible experience for us humans. Perhaps unlike any other organism on this earth, we use sound waves to express emotions and to communicate. Music is simply sound waves traveling at various wavelengths and frequencies. This gives the sound a certain pitch that we can hear. Our ears are specially designed to interpret these sound waves as different sounds. Music to humans can release neurotransmitters and other chemicals like ‘Dopamine’ within our brains to allow us to feel emotions. Music can motivate us, it can make us feel joy, it can help us recall memories, and it can drive us to action. But sound travels much slower than light. If you were to witness a fountain light show from far away, it just would not be the same experience as the sound and light would be out of sync.

Other factors we take for granted:

There are so many other factors that play a role in creating an incredible fountain light show experience. Engineers design different types of nozzles to shoot water out at different intensities and thus creating differing shapes within the water. Computer engineers design programs that can match the music we hear with the power of water that shoots out from the nozzles. These programs time the sound with the water and light production perfectly so we witness a breath-taking display. Some engineers even have to take wind into consideration before a big fountain light show and adjust the water output accordingly.

The Conclusion:

Once we consider the science behind the fountain light show, we can truly appreciate all the stars that have to align to make it a perfect experience for us humans on Earth. Because we are indeed humans, with specialized ears to hear music and specialized eyes to see visible light waves, the experience becomes magical. Because of the different properties of water, the light show takes shape and dances before our eyes. I hope that my writing and photos motivate you to get out with your families or friends and enjoy one of these fountain light shows. Maybe even teach your families and friends a little bit of the science behind the magic!


Science Word of the Week: “Dopamine”–A neurotransmitter, or chemical that sends signals to neurons and the brain, responsible for specific feelings and emotions. Common emotions that come from dopamine are pleasure, motivation, and compulsion.


**If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.**


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