Skipping Stones

During my long life, I have always had great fun in skipping stones. But unless I got at least ten or a dozen skips, I have always considered it to be a bad try! Above about twenty skips and it is tough to keep exact count of the last few skips because they happen so fast.

But I have recently seen a TV commercial which is centered on skipping stones, and there seems to be the impression that getting three or five skips is a wonderful accomplishment.

So I decided to provide the instructions and the logic here, where even a grandmother or a person in a wheelchair should be able to get at least ten skips!

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First, it is important that the surface of the pond or lake be very flat and smooth, without a lot of wind-driven waves, and without waves caused by the motion of water over rapids or submerged dunes. The flat surface is important because we are going to REFLECT a side of the stone off of that surface.

Second, the stone should be selected so that at least one side of it is relatively flat and smooth. You cannot skip round rocks or irregular-shaped ones. This commonly means that the rock will be a sandstone or shale, which was created as many layers and therefore can have a very flat side,

Third, you are going to SPIN this rock. If you do this well, the rock will have some gyroscopic effects where its flat side will stay flat even after being bounced around on the water. In general, it is best to find a stone which is as circular as possible, and between one-inch and two-inches in diameter. In other words, the ideal stones have the shape of a Coaster that is put under a glass on a table (but smaller). In addition, a stone works a whole lot better than a coaster, because it is HEAVIER (actually, more dense). This weight allows the spinning stone to maintain the gyroscopic effect, where a light cork coaster could get knocked around after even one skip on the water where it would then no longer be able to bounce a second time.

The shape of the stone does not have to be round, but a round shape makes it easier for you to wrap your index finger around the perimeter to get the highest speed of spinning. An oval or square (but still flat) stone can be used as a skipping stone, but you probably will not be able to get it to spin fast enough so that it is still spinning after ten or fifteen skips. Once the stone stops spinning, it tends to tilt sideways and sink into the water.

So now you know EVERYTHING you need to know about Skipping Stones!

There is one more useful inportant thing to do. IF you stand up and try to skip stones, there is a good chance that the stone will be tilted as it first touches the water, and the front edge could dig into the water and immediately sink. So it turns out to be best for you to bend over and bend your arm so that your swinging hand is moving as flat (horizontally) as you can, while also making sure that the stone will be as flat as possible when it gets released from your hand. If you can release the stone at about one-foot above the water, you should always get many skips!

By getting this all as flat and level as possible, your stone should NOT skip high up above the water! You really want to keep your stone down within a vertical foot of the water. If you tilt it too much or aim it down at too great an angle, the stone might bounce too high, which can allow the stone to get tilted before it hits the water a second time. Lower and flatter is better!

IF you do not get at least TEN skips from a decently chosen stone, then you must not have read the above carefully enough. Or you released the stone at three or four feet above the water where it can tilt before first contacting the water. Within a few minutes of first trying, you should regularly get ten to fifteen skips every time!

There happened to be half a dozen witnesses to what was likely my personal record. We all agreed that there were at least forty skips, with some people saying they saw fifty or even sixty. Beyond about twenty skips, it is generally hard to count them as they happen amazingly fast! Maybe some day someone will use a high-speed camera to record the efforts of a really good skipper, to slow down the motion enough to be able to count them accurately!

Have fun!

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This presentation was first placed on the Internet in April 2012.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago