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Lecture 5

Free Falling Objects

By free-falling objects we mean objects moving under the influence of gravity alone.

An important example of free-fall motion is the collapse of gas clouds into stars. In the
initial phase of this collapse, when the gas is very cold, the gas pressure force is
negligible and the cloud is collapsing as the result of gravity alone. Since the gravity is
due to the gas-cloud itself, the cloud is literally falling onto itself, getting smaller and
denser.

Near the Earth surface, the gravitational force we feel is primarily due to Earth itself. As
we move away from Earth the force of gravity due to Earth becomes weaker (think of the
astronauts in a space station orbiting around Earth….), but close enough to the surface we
can assume the force of gravity is approximately constant, at least for applications and
problems that do not require high precision.

The next most important gravitational force we feel on the Earth surface is that of the
Moon. The Moon gravitational force is primarily experienced here through its tidal effect.
The Sun’s gravity is also felt, and plays a role in tides, but its effect is weaker than that of
the Moon (even if the Sun is much more massive than the Moon), because of its large
distance.

The force of Earth’s gravity near the Earth surface is actually dependent on where we are
on Earth, because the Earth is not a perfect sphere and because the presence of large
masses (e.g. mountains) also affects the local gravitational force.

For now, just consider the force of gravity as a constant force pulling any object towards
the center of the Earth, and therefore perpendicular to the ground and towards the ground.
Actually, since we are only studying kinematics, not dynamics, all you need to know now
is that, because of such a force, every object feels a constant acceleration pointing to the
ground.

The magnitude of this free-fall acceleration is denoted by g. Its value is:

g = 9.8 m/s2

This is the value to use in problems, though for quick estimates is of course much easier
to use g = 10 m/s2.

Since the acceleration g is constant, if we consider problems where objects are moving
only perpendicularly to the ground, their motion is a 1-dimensional motion with constant
acceleration, precisely what we have studied in this chapter. We can therefore fully solve
such problems with the equations we have found in the previous lecture.
Usually in such problems one refers to the vertical axis as the y-axis, with the positive
direction pointing upwards, so the free-fall acceleration is negative, g = - 9.8 m/s2:

But before we tackle some of these problems, let’s try an experiment. Let’s drop a piece
of paper and a pen at the same time. Since they experience the same acceleration, they
should fall at the same time. But they don’t. The pen reaches the ground first. The reason
for this is the drag force of the air. Even if the room volume seems empty, it is actually
full of air molecules (N2, O2, Ar, …). When an object is moving through air, it actually
moves the air itself. That motion of the air interacts with the surface of the body and
creates forces that in general tend to oppose the motion of the body. Such forces are weak
compared to gravity, plus they are not present unless the body is moving (falling in this
case), so they cannot prevent bodies from falling, but their importance is felt much more
by lighter objects, for which the force of gravity is weaker.

All this was understood only around 1600, thanks to the work of Galileo Galilei, who is
certainly the father of modern mechanics (in other words the reason why this course
exists). He is also considered the father of the experimental method of physics, hence the
father of physics or even modern science in general.

Before concluding too quickly that the ancient people before him were not too smart,
think about this experiment again: The heaviest object falls first, so one would guess
gravity is stronger for the heavier object. We gave an explanation based on air drag, but
the fact remains that air drag seems to be more important for the lighter object because
gravity must be weaker for the lighter object. Furthermore, there is a very easy way to
realize that gravity is stronger for the heavier object, with no complications due to air
drag. Just try to lift the piece of paper and the pen, or even this table. It is obvious from
their weights that the force of gravity is weakest for the paper, that’s why we know
objects have different weights. So, if the force of gravity is so obviously stronger for
heavier objects, why shouldn’t they fall faster under the effect of gravity? The answer is
quite mysterious, even today in some fundamental sense, and we will try to understand it
only after we will have introduced Newton’s dynamics in Chapters 4 and 5.
Now let’s solve a problem:

Problem 48 (from the textbook):

A ball thrown vertically upwards is caught by the thrower after 2.00 seconds. Find:

a) The initial velocity of the ball


b) The maximum height the ball reaches

First of all, since this is a problem with constant acceleration, why not writing down the
three main equations we know we may have to use? Here they are (you are supposed to
either remember them or being able to derive them):

(1) v(t) = v0 + g t

(2) y(t) = y0 + v0 t + g t2 / 2

(3) v(t)2 = v02 + 2 g (y(t) – y0)

where I have used a = g and x = y. All I need to know when I use these equations is that

g = - 9.8m/s2.

Then we can make a little sketch of this problem, from which it is obvious that the ball
starts from the ground and come back to the ground (we will neglect the height of the
thrower…), so the given quantities are the initial and final positions, and the time, which
we write down:

y0 = 0.00 m
y(t) = 0.00 m
t = 2.00 s
g = -9.8 m/s2

Since we are given the time, we will not use equation (3) that does not even depend on
time (that equation would simply tell us that the final velocity when the ball is caught is
exactly the same as the initial velocity when it is thrown, because y(t) = y0).

To find the initial velocity, v0, we cannot use equation (1) either, because we don’t know
v(t), so let’s use equation (2), and let’s substitute the values of what is known, with the
correct sign, and let’s drop the units (m and s) during intermediate steps, since it is all in
the SI system:

0 = 0 + v0 * 2.00 – 9.80 * 2.002 / 2 ⇒ v0 = 9.8 m/s

And the positive sign of the answer is correct, because the ball is thrown upwards.
To find the maximum height, you have to understand that the maximum height is the
place where the ball stops moving upwards, so its velocity is zero. You may guess
(correctly) that it will happen at t = 1 s, but you don’t even need that guess, because
equation (3) relates position and velocity without having to know the time. So let’s use
equation (3), with v(t) = vmax = 0:

0 = 9.82 + 2*(-9.8)*(ymax - 0) ⇒ ymax = 4.9 m

Let’s now solve the same problem in a completely different way:

Part a:

Equation (3) gives:

v(t)2 = v02 + 2*(– 9.8) (0 - 0 ) ⇒ v(t)2 = v02

⇒ v(t) = ± v0

Given our choice of coordinate system, v0 must be positive and v(t) negative, so:

v(t) = - v0

so the final velocity when the ball reaches the thrower again is the same (but with
opposite sign) as the initial velocity at which the ball was thrown. Then substitute this
result into equation 1:

- v0 = v0 – 9.8*2 ⇒ v0 = 9.8 m/s

the same result as before.

Part b:

We can use equation (1) to find the time when the ball reaches the maximum height:

0 = 9.8 -9.8*tmax ⇒ tmax = 1 s

as we had guessed because the motion on the way back is exactly the same as the motion
on the way up, with the sign of the velocity reversed. Since we know the time, we can
now use equation (2):

ymax = 0 + 9.8*1 – 9.8 *12 / 2 ⇒ ymax = 4.9 m

as we had obtained before.


What we have learned by solving part b in this new way, is that the ball reaches the
maximum height during half of the time it takes it to go up and down again. This is
obvious from the symmetry of the graph of velocity versus time:

v0

1s 2s
t

-v0

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