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Thomas Young's Surface Tension Diagram: Its History, Legacy, and Irreconcilabilities
Robert Finn, John McCuan and Henry C. Wente
The Young diagram for determining the contact angle at a triple interface formed by two fluids with a solid, although based on speculative reasoning, found on its publication in 1805 a universal acceptance, without reservation. Later expository articles pointed out consequences that had initially been overlooked, but which were consistent in the specific configurations considered. More recently reasoning disputing the construction has appeared, and examples – the most recent of them by the present initial author – were introduced, putting the underlying concept into serious doubt. Nevertheless, the construction remains firmly embedded in the curricula of major universities and institutes throughout the world; it continues to be used in engineering design, and two articles emphatically defending it have appeared recently in major journals. In the present note we outline past literature and provide a more precise statement of the Young criterion than is customary. We present explicit examples displaying erroneous reasoning in one of the articles defending the criterion (the other having already been refuted in an earlier publication). Finally, we call attention to a direct conflict between the Young construction and the classical Wilhelmy method for measuring surface tension at fluid/fluid interfaces.