How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Falling Balls
Page 1 of 7 (61 Questions and Answers)

1. Are you accelerating when your speed decreases?
Yes! If you are walking east and you come to a stop, it is because you accelerated to the west! By "deceleration" we mean acceleration in the direction opposite our direction of motion. Thus in a car, when you stomp on the brake and decelerate, you are actually accelerating toward the rear of the car (in the direction opposite its direction of motion).

2. As the Space Shuttle falls, does it accelerate forever and does it go faster and faster?
Yes to the first part, no to the second part. Remember that acceleration can change the direction of velocity without changing the magnitude of velocity (the speed of the object). When the space shuttle accelerates, its speed doesn't change, only its direction of travel. Although it accelerates endlessly, it never goes faster or slower. Actually, if the shuttle's orbit isn't circular, its speed does increase and decrease slightly as it orbits the earth in an ellipse, but that's an unimportant detail. For a circular orbit, the shuttle's speed is constant but its velocity (speed and direction) is not constant!

3. Does a bullet go from 0 to maximum speed instantly?
The bullet accelerates gradually, like everything else. However, the forces that push on the bullet when the gun is fired are extremely large and it accelerates extremely rapidly. It goes from 0 to maximum speed in about a thousandth of a second.

4. Does air resistance affect a horizontally thrown ball?
Yes. A ball thrown horizontally gradually loses its downfield component of velocity. For that reason, you must throw a ball somewhat below the 45° angle from horizontal in order to make it travel as far as possible. Actually, the air has even more complicated effects on spinning balls.

5. Doesn't weight have resistance to acceleration?
No, weight measures a different characteristic of an object. Mass measures inertia (or equivalently resistance to acceleration). But weight is just the force that gravity exerts on an object. While an object that has great weight also has great mass and is therefore hard to accelerate, it's not the weight that's the problem. To illustrate this, imagine taking a golf ball to the surface of a neutron star, where it would weigh millions of pounds because of the incredibly intense gravity. That golf ball would still accelerate easily because its mass would be unchanged. Only its weight would be affected by the local gravity. Similarly, taking that golf ball to deep space would reduce its weight almost to zero, yet its mass would remain the same as always.

6. How can an object in space "fall"?
Gravity still acts on objects, even though they are in space. No matter how far you get from the earth, it still pulls on you, albeit less strongly than it does when you are nearby. Thus if you were to take a ball billions of miles from the earth and let go, it would slowly but surely accelerate toward the earth (assuming that there were no other celestial objects around to attract the ball—which isn't actually the case). As long is nothing else deflected it en route, the ball would eventually crash into the earth's surface. Even objects that are "in orbit" are falling; they just keep missing one another because they have large sideways velocities. For example, the moon is orbiting the earth because, although it is perpetually falling toward the earth, it is moving sideways so fast that it keeps missing.

7. I can accept that weight is a force, but it doesn't seem to follow common sense to me.
It would seem like a force if you had to lift yourself up ladder. Imagine carrying a friend up the ladder; you'd have to pull up on your friend the whole way. That's because some other force (your friend's weight) is pulling down on your friend. But when you think of weight as a measure of how much of you there is, then it doesn't seem like a force. That's where the relationship between mass and weight comes into play. Mass really is a measure of how much of you there is and, because mass and weight are proportional to one another, measuring weight is equivalent to measuring mass.

8. I don't understand the horizontal component of a ball thrown downfield. Does it have constant velocity and/or acceleration, even at the start?
Until you let go of the ball, you are in control of its velocity and acceleration. During that time, it does accelerate and its velocity isn't constant. But as soon as you let go of the ball, everything changes. The ball's motion in flight can be broken up into two parts: its vertical motion and its horizontal motion. Horizontally, the ball travels at a constant speed because there is nothing pushing or pulling on it horizontally (neglecting air resistance). Vertically, the ball accelerates downward at a constant rate because gravity is pulling down on it. Thus the ball travels steadily forward in the horizontal direction as it fall in the vertical direction. Of course, falling can begin with upward motion, which gradually diminishes and is replaced by downward motion.

9. I don't understand the relationship between mass, acceleration, and force in Newton's second law.
First off, force causes acceleration. The stronger that force, the more the acceleration. In fact, the two are exactly proportional to one another: double the force and you double the acceleration. Secondly, mass resists acceleration. The more mass an object has, the less it accelerates. The two are exactly inversely proportional to one another: double the mass and you halve the acceleration. These two ideas can be combined into one observation: the force you exert on an object is equal to the product of its mass times the acceleration it experiences. Look at that relationship: if you double the force you exert on an object, you double its acceleration, so that part checks out. If you double the object's mass and leave the force unchanged, then the acceleration must be halved, so that part checks out. Thus Newton's second law is simply a sensible relationship between the force you exert on an object, its mass, and its acceleration.

10. If a projectile released or hit at a 45° angle above horizontal should go the farthest, then why, in the game of golf, does the three iron (20° loft) hit a golf ball so much farther in the air than, say, a seven iron (approximately 45° loft) if the same technique and force are produced by the golfer? Is it backspin, shaft length, etc.?
It's backspin! Air pushes the spinning ball upward and it flies downfield in much the same way as a glider. When you throw a glider for distance, you concentrate your efforts on making it move horizontally because the air will help to keep the glider from hitting the ground too soon. Similarly, the air holds the spinning golf ball up for a remarkably long time so that giving the ball lots of downfield speed is most important for its distance. That's why a low-loft club like a three iron sends the ball so far.
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