Friday, November 28, 2014

The Bowling Ball and the Feather

Dropping a feather and a ball in a vacuum to show that they fall at the same rate is a classic physics demonstration. We have a version of this demo at Oakland University, but it is not very effective. A small ball and a feather are in a tube about 1 meter long and a few centimeters in diameter. We have vacuum pump to remove the air, but it is difficult to see the objects from the back of the room, and often they bump into the wall of the tube, slowing them down. I have never found it useful. Yet, the physical principle being demonstrated is fundamental. The gravitational mass in Newton’s universal law of gravity and the inertial mass in Newton’s second law of motion cancel out, so that all objects fall downward with acceleration g = 9.8 m/s2.

This result is unexpected because in everyday life we experience air friction. When you include air friction, objects do not all fall at the same rate. Russ Hobbie and I illustrate this point in Problem 28 of Chapter 2 in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Problem 28 When an animal of mass m falls in air, two forces act on it: gravity, mg, and a force due to air friction. Assume that the frictional force is proportional to the speed v.
(a) Write a differential equation for v based on Newton’s second law, F = m(dv/dt).
(b) Solve this differential equation. (Hint: Compare your equation to Eq. 2.24.)
(c) Assume that the animal is spherical, with radius a and density ρ. Also, assume that the frictional force is proportional to the surface area of the animal. Determine the terminal speed (speed of descent in steady state) as a function of a.
(d) Use your result in part (c) to interpret the following quote by J. B. S. Haldane [1985]: “You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.”

If we ignore air fraction, v = gt; the acceleration is g and does not depend on mass. With air friction, objects reach a terminal velocity that depends on their mass. We are all so used to seeing a feather float downward with its motion dominated by air friction that it is difficult to believe it could ever fall as fast as a ball. To persuade students that this behavior does indeed happen, to convince them that in a vacuum a feather drops like a rock, we need a powerful demonstration. The result is so significant, and so nonintuitive, that the demo must be dramatic and memorable.

Now we have it. Watch this amazing video with British Physics Professor Brian Cox. He found the biggest vacuum chamber in the world—a large room used by NASA to test space vehicles—and inside it he dropped a bowling ball and a feather simultaneously from the same height. When the room was filled with air, the feather slowly fluttered to the ground. When the room was evacuated, the feather stayed right beside the bowling ball all the way down. The visual effect is stunning. Cox has a fine sense of drama, building the tension until the final sensational experiment. The video is less than five minutes long. You’ve gotta see it.

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