How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Falling Balls
Page 6 of 7 (61 Questions and Answers)

1324. When you drop a small rubber ball and a large rubber ball simultaneously, why do they both hit the floor at the same time?
The fact that both balls fall together is the result of a remarkable balancing effect. Although the larger ball is more massive than the smaller ball, making the larger ball harder to start or stop, the larger ball is also heavier than the smaller ball, meaning that gravity pulls downward more on the larger ball. The larger ball's greater weight exactly compensates for its greater mass, so that it is able to keep up with the smaller ball as the two objects fall to the ground. In the absence of air resistance, the two balls will move exactly together-the larger ball with its greater mass and greater weight will keep up with the smaller ball.

1325. When you throw a ball upward and claim that there is no upward force on it as it rises, why don't you count your hand? The ball was thrown up, so there was an upward force on it! I'm confused.
While you are throwing the ball upward, you are pushing it upward and there is an upward force on the ball. But as soon as the ball leaves your hand, that upward force vanishes and the ball travels upward due to its inertia alone. In the discussion of that upward flight, I always said "after the ball leaves your hand," to exclude the time when you are pushing upward on the ball. Starting and stopping demonstrations are often tricky and I meant you to pay attention only to the period when the ball was in free fall.

1326. Why does the bigger ball have more gravity pulling on it? Because it weighs more? Which causes which?
The force that gravity exerts on an object is that object's weight. An object that has more gravity pulling on it weighs more and vice versa.

1327. Why is it that when people jump, they don't bounce up?
A ball bounces because its surface is elastic and it stores energy during the brief period of collision when the ball and floor are pushing very hard against one another. Much of this stored energy is released in a rebound that tosses the ball back upward for another bounce. But people don't store energy well during a collision and they don't rebound much. The energy that we should store is instead converted into thermal energy—we get hot rather than bouncing back upward.

1328. Why is there more gravity acting on larger, more massive objects?
The fact that more massive objects also weigh more is just an observation of how the universe works. However, any other behavior would lead to some weird consequences. Suppose, for example, that an object's weight didn't depend on its mass, that all objects had the same weight. Then two separate balls would each weigh this standard amount. But now suppose that you glued the two balls together. If you think of them as two separate balls that are now attached, they should weigh twice the standard amount. But if you think of them as one oddly shaped object, they should weigh just the standard amount. Something wouldn't be right. So the fact that weight is proportional to mass is a sensible situation and also the way the universe actually works.

1413. I have been trying to get information on what causes strange gravity areas to exist...Walking on walls, water rolling uphill, etc. There are a number of such places advertised in the United States and elsewhere but are they optical illusions or for real? — MW
These purported gravitational anomalies are just illusions. Because gravity is a relatively weak force, enormous concentrations of mass are required to create significant gravitational fields. Since it takes the entire earth to give you your normal weight, the mass concentration needed to cancel or oppose the earth's gravitation field in only one location would have to be extraordinary. While objects capable of causing such bizarre effects do exist elsewhere in our universe (e.g. black holes and neutron stars), there fortunately aren't any around here. As a result, the strength of the gravitational field at the earth's surface varies less than 1% over the earth's surface and always points almost exactly toward the center of the earth. Any tourist attraction that claims to have gravity pointing in some other direction with some other strength is claiming the impossible.

1436. If light has no mass, then how can it be affected by gravity? What property of light is gravitational force acting on? — DM
At low speeds, mass and energy appear to be separate quantities. Mass is the measure of inertia and can be determined by shaking an object. Energy is the measure of how much work an object can do and can be determined by letting it do that work. Conveniently enough, the object's weight—the force gravity exerts on it—is exactly proportional to its mass, which is why people carelessly interchange the words "mass" and "weight," even though they mean different things.

But when something is moving at speeds approaching the speed of light, mass and kinetic energy no longer separate so easily. In fact, the relativistic equations of motion are more complicated than those describing slow objects and the way in which gravity affects fast objects is more complicated than simply giving them "weight."

Overall, you can view the bending of light by gravity in one of two ways. First, you can view it approximately as gravity affecting not on mass, but also energy so that light falls because its energy gives it something equivalent to a "weight." Second, you can view it more accurately as the bending of light as caused by a change in the shape of space and time around a gravitating object. Space is curved, so that light doesn't travel straight as it moves past gravitating objects—it follows the curves of space itself. The second or Einsteinian view, which correctly predicts twice as much bending of light as the first or Newtonian view, is a little disconcerting. That's why it took some time for the theory of general relativity to be widely accepted. (Thanks to DP for pointing out the factor of two.)

1445. How do you convert a measurement in liters per second into one in gallons per minute? — MG
Converting units is always a matter of multiplying by 1. But you must use very fancy versions of 1, such as 60 seconds/1 minute and 1 gallon/3.7854 liters. Since 60 seconds and 1 minute are the same amount of time, 60 seconds/1 minute is 1. Similarly, since 1 gallon (U.S. liquid) and 3.7854 liters are the same amount of volume, 1 gallon/3.7854 liters is 1. So suppose that you have measured the flow of water through a pipe as 283 liters/second. You can convert to gallons/minute by multiplying 283 liters/second by 1 twice: (283 liters/second)(60 seconds/1 minute)(1 gallon/3.7854 liters). When you complete this multiplication, the liter units cancel, the second units cancel, and you're left with 4,486 gallons/minute.

1466. How come planets are spherical, albeit with somewhat flattened poles? — DB
The answer is gravity. Gravity smashes the planets into spheres. To understand this, imagine trying to build a huge mountain on the earth's surface. As you begin to heap up the material for your mountain, the weight of the material at the top begins to crush the material at the bottom. Eventually the weight and pressure become so great that the material at the bottom squeezes out and you can't build any taller. Every time you put new stuff on top, the stuff below simply sinks downward and spreads out. You can't build bumps bigger than a few dozen miles high on earth because there aren't any materials that can tolerate the pressure. In fact, the earth's liquid core won't support mountains much higher than the Himalayas—taller mountains would just sink into the liquid. So even if a planet starts out non-spherical, the weight of its bumps will smash them downward until the planet is essentially spherical.

The flattened poles are the result of rotation—as the planet spins, the need for centripetal (centrally directed) acceleration at its equator causes its equatorial surface to shift outward slightly, away from the planet's axis of rotation. The planet is therefore wider at its equator than it is at its poles.

1558. If one takes firewood to the top of a hill and burns it there, does the firewood's gravitational energy disappear? V
When you carry the firewood up the hill, you transfer energy to it and increase its gravitational potential energy. When you then burn the wood, you seem to make this energy disappear. After all, there doesn't appear to be any difference between burning wood in the valley and burning wood on the top of the hill. The wood is gone either way.

But appearances can be deceiving. Since energy is a conserved quantity, the energy that you invest in the firewood can't disappear. It simply becomes difficult to find because it is dispersed in the burned gases that were once the wood.

To find that energy, imagine compressing the burned gases into a small container to make their weight more noticeable and reduces buoyant effects due to the atmosphere. You could then carry those burned gases, which include all of the firewood's atoms, back down the hill. As you descended, the container of burned gases would transfer its gravitational potential energy to you.

I've swept a number of details under the rug, such as the fact that many of the oxygen atoms in your container were originally part of the atmosphere rather than the log. But even when all those details are taken into account, the answer is the same: the firewood's gravitational energy doesn't disappear, it just gets more difficult to find.
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