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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 25)

1565. Why does cold temperature affect the bounce of a basketball? Will a basketball freeze if placed in a freezer? SS, Lebanon, Tennessee
A basketball depends on pressurized air for its bounciness. When the ball hits the court, it compresses that air and the air stores energy in its compression. The ball's rebound is powered by the air returning to its original characteristics. The ball's skin, on the other hand, isn't all that bouncy and doesn't store energy well. To bounce well, the basketball needs to store energy in its air during the bounce, not in its skin. That's why it's important to have an air pump so that you can keep your basketball properly inflated.

When you cool a basketball, however, you reduce the pressure of its air. That's because the air molecules have less thermal energy at colder temperatures and thermal energy is responsible for air pressure. A basketball that was properly inflated at warm temperature becomes under-inflated when you cool it down. At the same time, the basketball's skin becomes less elastic and more leathery at cool temperatures. So the basketball suffers from under-inflation and from a leathery, not-very-bouncy skin.

If you cool a basketball to low enough temperature, its skin will freeze and become brittle. Just how low the temperature has to go depends on the material used in to make the basketball. I've never seen a basketball shatter on the court, even in pretty cold weather, so I doubt you can "freeze" one in a household freezer. But I'm sure that a dip in liquid nitrogen at -395 F would do the trick. I often freeze rubber handballs in liquid nitrogen for my class and then shatter them on the floor.

1477. I am in 4th grade, and working on a science fair project using a basketball and have it pumped with 0 psi, 3 psi, 6 psi, 9 psi and 12 psi of air. Why is it that the 9psi ball bounces the highest when dropped from 6ft? - T
The more pressure a basketball has inside it, the less its surface dents during a bounce and the more of its original energy it stores in the compressed air. Air stores and returns energy relatively efficiently during a rapid bounce, so the pressurized ball bounces high. But an underinflated ball dents deeply and its skin flexes inefficiently. Much of the ball's original energy is wasted in heating the bending skin and it doesn't bounce very high. In general, the higher the internal pressure in the ball, the better it will bounce.

However, the ball doesn't bounce all by itself when you drop it on a flexible surface. In that case, the surface also dents and is responsible for part of the ball's rebound. If that surface handles energy inefficiently, it may weaken the ball's bounce. For example, if you drop the ball on carpeting, the carpeting will do much of the denting, will receive much of the ball's original energy, and will waste its share as heat. The ball won't rebound well. My guess is that you dropped the ball on a reasonably hard surface, but one that began to dent significantly when the ball's pressure reached 12psi. At that point, the ball was extremely bouncy, but it was also so hard that it dented the surface and let the surface participate strongly in the bouncing. The surface probably wasn't as bouncy as the ball, so it threw the ball relatively weakly into the air.

I'd suggest repeating your experiment on the hardest, most massive surface you can find. A smooth cement or thick metal surface would be best. The ball will then do virtually all of the denting and will be responsible for virtually all of the rebounding. In that case, I'll bet that the 12psi ball will bounce highest.

1454. I was recently riding as a passenger in a van and there was a housefly buzzing around in the van. While trying to squash the fly, I was wondering why was the fly traveling the same speed as the van at 70 mph as it was hovering in mid air. Shouldn't it have smashed into the rear window of the van just like so many bugs would have been, on the grill of the vehicle?? — DS
Flies travel at modest speeds relative to the air that surrounds them. Since the outside air is nearly motionless relative to the ground (usually), a fly outside the van is also nearly motionless. When the fast-moving van collides with the nearly motionless fly, the fly's inertia holds it in place while the van squashes it.

But when the fly is inside the van, the fly travels about in air that is moving with the van. If the van is moving at 70 mph, then so is the air inside it and so is the fly. In fact, everything inside the van moves more or less together and from the perspective of the van and its contents, the whole world outside is what is doing the moving—the van itself can be considered stationary and the van's contents are then also stationary.

As long as the fly and the air it is in are protected inside the van, the movement of the outside world doesn't matter. The fly buzzes around in its little protected world. But if the van's window is open and the fly ventures outside just as a signpost passes the car, the fly may get creamed by a collision with the "moving" sign. Everything is relative and if you consider the van as stationary, then it is undesirable for the van's contents to get hit by the moving items in the world outside (passing trees, bridge abutments, or oncoming vehicles.

1430. My 5 year old wants to do his kindergarten science project on "why do balls bounce?" His hypothesis is that "balls bounce because of the stuff inside." Can you advise how best to test this hypothesis and explain this concept on a level that a bright, but still only 5 year old, can truly understand? — MS, Bayside, New York
I'd suggest finding a hollow rubber ball with a relatively thin, flexible skin and putting different things inside it. You can just cut a small hole and tape it over after you put in "the stuff." Compare the ball's bounciness when it contains air, water, shaving cream, beans, rice, and so on. Just drop it from a consistent height and see how high it rebounds. The ratio of its rebound height to its drop height is a good measure of how well the ball stores energy when it hits the ground and how well it uses that energy to rebound. A ball that bounces to full height is perfect at storing energy while a ball that doesn't bounce at all is completely terrible at storing energy. You'll get something in between for most of your attempts—indicating that "the stuff" is OK but not perfect at storing energy during the bounce. The missing energy isn't destroyed, it's just turned into thermal energy. The ball gets a tiny bit hotter with every bounce.

You won't get any important quantitative results from this sort of experiment, but it'll be fun anyway. I wonder what fillings will make the ball bounce best or worst?

1426. What properties of rubber change in order to make one ball bounce better than another? — JM
During a bounce from a rigid surface, the ball's surface dents. Denting a surface takes energy and virtually all of the ball's energy of motion (kinetic energy) goes into denting its own surface. For a moment the ball is motionless and then it begins to rebound. As the ball undents, it releases energy and this energy becomes the ball's new energy of motion.

The issue is in how well the ball's surface stores and then releases this energy. The ideal ball experiences only elastic deformation—the molecules within the ball do not reorganize at all, but only change their relative spacings during the dent. If the molecules reorganize—sliding across one another or pulling apart in places—then some of the denting energy will be lost due to internal friction-like effects. Even if the molecules slide back to their original positions, they won't recover all the energy and the ball won't bounce to its original height.

In general, harder rubber bounces more efficiently than softer rubber. That's because the molecules in hard rubber are too constrained to be able to slide much. A superball is very hard and bounces well. But there are also sophisticated thermal effects that occur in some seemingly hard rubbers that cause them to lose their stored energy.

1318. Is bouncing related to elasticity or hardness? Can a hard body rebound? — DIY, Lyon, France
Bouncing is related to elasticity. Any object that stores energy when deformed will rebound when it collides with a rigid surface. As long as the object is elastic, it doesn't matter whether it's hard or soft. It will still rebound from a rigid surface. Thus both a rubber ball and a steel marble will rebound strongly when you drop them on a steel anvil.

But hardness does have an important effect on bouncing from a non-rigid surface. When a hard object collides with a non-rigid surface, the surface does some or all of the deforming so that the surface becomes involved in the energy storage and bounce. If the surface is elastic, storing energy well when it deforms, then it will make the object rebound strongly. That's what happens when a steel marble collides with a rubber block. However, if the surface isn't very elastic, then the object will not rebound much. That's what happens when a steel marble collides with a thick woolen carpet.

1317. How does a dead ball work? — DIY, Lyon, France
A dead ball, a ball that doesn't bounce, is one with enormous internal friction. A bouncy ball stores energy when it collides with a surface and then returns this energy when it rebounds. But no ball is perfectly elastic, so some of the collision energy extracted from the ball and surface when they collide is ultimately converted into heat rather than being returned during the rebound. The deader the ball is, the less of the collision energy is returned as rebound energy. A truly dead ball converts all of the collision energy into heat so that it doesn't rebound at all.

Most of the missing collision energy is lost because of sliding friction within the ball. Molecules move across one another as the ball's surface dents inward and these molecules rub. This rubbing produces heat and diminishes the elastic potential energy stored in the ball. When the ball subsequently undents, there just isn't as much stored energy available for a strong rebound. The classic dead "ball" is a beanbag. When you throw a beanbag at a wall, it doesn't rebound because all of its energy is lost through sliding friction between the beans as the beanbag dents.

1306. The earth's surface is moving at something like 950 mph as it rotates. Why don't we notice this when we are in an airplane? — DT, Nicosia, Cyprus
It's true that the earth's surface is moving eastward rapidly relative to the earth's center of mass. However, that motion is very difficult to detect. When you are standing on the ground, you move with it and so does everything around you, including the air. While you are actually traveling around in a huge circle once a day, for all practical purposes we can imagine that you are traveling eastward in a straight line at a constant speed of 950 mph relative to the earth's center of mass. Ignoring the slight curvature of your motion, you are in what is known as an inertial frame of reference, meaning a viewpoint that is not accelerating but is simply coasting steadily through space.

You'll notice that I keep saying "relative to the earth's center of mass" when I discuss motion. I do that because there is no special "absolute" frame of reference. Any inertial frame is as good as any other frame and your current inertial frame is just as good as anyone else's. In fact, you are quite justified in declaring that your frame of reference is stationary and that everyone else's frames of reference are moving. After all, you don't detect any motion around you so why not declare that your frame is officially stationary. Since the air is also stationary in that frame of reference, flying about in the air doesn't make things any more complicated. You are flying through stationary air in your old stationary frame of reference. The only way in which the 950 mph speed appears now is in comparing your frame of reference to the rest of the earth: in your frame of reference, the earth's center of mass is moving westward at 950 mph.

959. I'm doing a science experiment of what factors affect the distance a golf ball travels. One of my factors is the bounciness of the ball. Does this have any effect on the distance the ball will go? — EG, North Salem, NY
Yes. The bouncier the golf ball, the farther it will go after being struck by a golf club. While we normally think of a bounce as occurring when a ball hits a stationary object, it's also a bounce when a moving object hits a stationary ball. The golf ball bounces from the golf club and the more bouncy the golf ball is, the faster and farther it will travel.

934. What is the difference in distance that a soccer ball will travel if the air pressure in the ball changes? — AB
A properly inflated soccer ball bounces well when you drop it on a hard floor because the ball stores energy by compressing the air during the bounce and the air returns this energy quite efficiently during the rebound. An under inflated soccer ball doesn't bounce so well because it stores energy by bending its leather surface during the bounce and the leather doesn't return energy very efficiently during the rebound. The same result holds true when you kick a ball rather than dropping it on the floor. Whether a moving ball hits a stationary surface or a stationary ball hits a moving surface, the ball is still bouncing from a surface. When you kick a ball with your foot, the ball is bouncing from your foot and a properly inflated ball will bounce more efficiently from your foot than an under inflated ball. The properly inflated ball will rebound at a higher speed and will travel farther.
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