Solution to the long-standing puzzle of Huygens’ “anomalous suspension”

In 1662 Christiaan Huygens carried out the famous Torricelli experiment to test the existence of atmospheric pressure by inserting the apparatus in the glass receiver of a vacuum pump, and evacuating the air inside it. He reported that when the air was exhausted, a column of water remained suspended in a 4-foot tube. This unexpected result was in stark contrast with earlier experiments of Boyle and Hooke that apparently had confirmed Torricelli’s explanation that such a water column was supported by outside air pressure, and would fall when the air was removed. Huygen’s “anomalous suspension” led to the continuation of controversies in the seventeenth century about the nature of the vacuum that these experiments were expected to resolve. Surprisingly, the origin of Huygens’ unexpected result has remained a puzzle up to the present time. In this paper, I discuss the dynamics of such a column of water under the experimental conditions reported by Boyle and by Huygens, that turned out to be different, and present the results of a replication of their experiments with a modern vacuum pump. Contrary to the conventional explanations of these experiments, I demonstrate that in the Boyle–Hooke version of this experiment, the water column descends initially because it is forced down by the gas pressure due to air dissolved in the water which is released inside the Torricelli tube after the external pressure is sufficiently decreased. Huygens, however, first removed this trapped air before he carried out his experiment. In the absence of this internal gas pressure, the early rudimentary vacuum pumps were inadequate to decrease the air pressure sufficiently inside the receiver to demonstrate the descent of a Torricelli column of airless water 4-foot in height or less
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DOI 10.1007/s00407-015-0152-1
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