How can a spring “remember” its position? When I stretch a spring or compress a spring it returns to basically the same size. What is it about the atoms/molecules that make up a spring that allows it to return to its original state? — JH
Nearly all metals are crystalline, meaning that their atoms are arranged in neat and orderly stacks, like the piles of oranges or soup cans at the grocery store or the cannonballs at the courthouse square. When you bend a metal, its crystals can deform either by changing the spacings between atoms or by letting those atoms slide past one another as great moving sheets of atoms. When the atoms keep their relative orientations but change their relative spacings, the deformation is called elastic. When the atom sheets slide about and move, the deformation is called plastic.
Metals that bend permanently are experiencing plastic deformation. Their atoms change their relative orientations during the bend and they lose track of where they were. Once plastic deformation has occurred, the metal can’t remember how to get back to its original shape and stays bent.
Metals that bend only temporarily and return to their original shape when freed from stress are experiencing elastic deformation. Their sheets of atoms aren’t sliding about and they can easily spring back to normal when the stresses go away. Naturally, springs are made from materials that experience only elastic deformation in normal circumstances. Hardened metals such as spring steel are designed and heat-treated so that the atomic sliding processes, known technically as “slip,” are inhibited. When you bend them and let go, they bounce back to their original shapes. But if you bend them too far, they either experience plastic deformation or they break.
Non-crystalline materials such as glass also make good springs. But since these amorphous materials have no orderly rows of atoms, they can’t experience plastic deformation at all. They behave as wonderful springs right up until you bend them too far. Then, instead of experience plastic deformation and bending permanently, they simply crack in two.
One last detail: there are a few exotic materials that undergo complicated deformations that are neither temporary nor permanent. With changes in temperature, these shape memory materials can recover from plastic deformation and spring back to their original shapes.