May The Van De Waals Force Be With You

I never had a comic book collection. I have no idea how Dungeons and Dragons is played. I don’t know how to program a computer. I only know three digits of pi. I don’t play video games. And I’ve never seen even one Star Wars movie. But I am most definitely a nerd.

I realized that when I started writing this post. It occurred to me that I couldn’t tell you what my favorite color is or my favorite movie or favorite song. But ask me if there is one phenomena in molecular physics that I prefer above all others and I have an answer ready.

The Van der Waals force.

Admitting that is even more embarrassing now that I put it in writing, but so be it. I’m a nerd who has an interesting story to share about a physical force with a strange name. One you probably never heard of, but hopefully won’t forget.

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No human (other than Peter Parker) has ever experienced a Van der Waals force directly, but we witness it all the time. Whenever a gecko scampers up the side of a wall, a fly hangs upside down on a ceiling, or a ladybug maneuvers its way around the sides of a leaf, the Van der Waals force is doing its thing. It is the superpower that allows most insects, several reptiles, and some amphibians (and for those of you who didn’t get the Peter Parker reference — Spider-Man) to defy gravity, cling to any surface, and move in any direction. Having access to it means there are no floors in your world, no walls, and no ceilings, only planes in space that can be navigated without the fear of ever falling to the ground.

We are too big to take advantage of the Van de Waals force. Human hands and feet would need to be about 8 times larger to create the surface tension that is required for scaling the outside of a building or hanging from its rafters. And while the idea of never having to climb a ladder again would be appealing, I think our overall attractiveness as a species would take a hit if we were all walking around with ginormous extremities.

But that doesn’t mean the Van Der Waals force isn’t useful to us. In fact, it is the perfect metaphor for how we should be building and maintaining the relationships in our lives.

At some point, when watching geckos, spiders, and ladybugs suspend themselves in their gravity-defying positions, we’ve asked ourselves “How do they do that?” It’s a good question, but it should be asked twice. We should be curious about how those creatures are able to create their sticky connections, but then follow that up by asking how they are able to break free. The ability to do both — connect and separate — is what makes the Van de Waals force so remarkable and why it serves as a model that all of us should follow.

Van de Waals is not like other physical forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism. Without the help of a rocket engine, none of us are escaping the hold that gravity has on us. And try pulling a magnet off your refrigerator when you can’t pry it up with your fingernails. A Van de Waals is different. It is strong enough to hold a lizard in a vertical position on a pane of glass. But weak enough to allow the lizard to pull away, keep climbing, or escape from a predator.

It creates sticky, powerful connections, but not permanent bonds. It allows its users to do incredible things with the attachments it forms, but doesn’t restrict their movement if they choose to disengage.

We should think about our own relationships in the same way: strong enough to help us achieve and experience incredible things, but never so restrictive that we are unable to move.

Being in a sticky relationship is good. Being in one where you are stuck is not.

Unwrapping the mystery of connections.

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James Kane

James Kane

Unwrapping the mystery of connections.

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