MOTION AND FORCES
Mechanics and Motion
Motion is one of the key topics in physics. Everything in the universe moves. It might only be a small amount of movement and very very slow, but movement does happen. Don’t forget that even if you appear to be standing still, the Earth is moving around the Sun, and the Sun is moving around our galaxy. The movement never stops. Motion is one part of what physicists call mechanics. Over the years, scientists have discovered several rules or laws that explain motion and the causes of changes in motion. There are also special laws when you reach the speed of light or when physicists look at very small things like atoms.
Speed it Up, Slow it Down
The physics of motion is all about forces. Forces need to act upon an object to get it moving, or to change its motion. Changes in motion won’t just happen on their own. So how is all of this motion measured? Physicists use some basic terms when they look at motion. How fast an object moves, its speed or Velocity, can be influenced by forces. (Note: Even though the terms ‘speed’ and ‘velocity’ are often used at the same time, they actually have different meanings.)
Acceleration is a twist on the idea of velocity. Acceleration is a measure of how much the velocity of an object changes in a certain time (usually in one second). Velocities could either increase or decrease over time. Mass is another big idea in motion. Mass is the amount of something there is, and is measured in grams (or kilograms). A car has a greater mass than a baseball.
Simple and Complex Movement
There are two main ideas when you study mechanics. The first idea is that there are simple movements, such as if you’re moving in a straight line, or if two objects are moving towards each other in a straight line. The simplest movement would be objects moving at constant velocity. Slightly more complicated studies would look at objects that speed up or slow down, where forces have to be acting.
There are also more complex movements when an object’s direction is changing. These would involve curved movements such as circular motion, or the motion of a ball being thrown through the air. For such complex motions to occur, forces must also be acting, but at angles to the movement.
In order to really understand motion, you have to think about forces, acceleration, energy, work, and mass. These are all a part of mechanics.
Forces are a big part of physics. Physicists devote a lot of time to the study of forces that are found everywhere in the universe. The forces could be big, such as the pull of a star on a planet. The forces could also be very small, such as the pull of a nucleus on an electron. Forces are acting everywhere in the universe at all times.
Examples of Force
If you were a ball sitting on a field and someone kicked you, a force would have acted on you. As a result, you would go bouncing down the field. There are often many forces at work. Physicists might not study them all at the same time, but even if you were standing in one place, you would have many forces acting on you. Those forces would include gravity, the force of air particles hitting your body from all directions (as well as from wind), and the force being exerted by the ground (called the normal force).
Let’s look at the forces acting on that soccer ball before you kicked it. As it sat there, the force of gravity was keeping it on the ground, while the ground pushed upward, supporting the ball. On a molecular level, the surface of the ball was holding itself together as the gas inside of the ball tried to escape. There may have also been small forces trying to push it as the wind blew. Those forces were too small to get it rolling, but they were there. And you never know what was under the ball. Maybe an insect was stuck under the ball trying to push it up. That’s another force to consider.
If there is more than one force acting on an object, the forces can be added up if they act in the same direction, or subtracted if they act in opposition. Scientists measure forces in units called Newtons. When you start doing physics problems in class, you may read that the force applied to the soccer ball (from the kick) could be equal to 12 Newtons.
Velocity, Speed, and Motion… Oh My!
Velocity and speed are very similar ideas, but velocity is a vector, and speed is not. Suppose we knew that someone was driving at thirty-five kilometers an hour (35 km/hr), but the direction wasn’t given. How would you draw an arrow to represent a vector? You can’t know how to draw the vector if you only have one value (either amount or direction). In this example, you were never told about the direction. Physicists would say that the speed is thirty-five kilometers an hour (35 km/hr), but the velocity is unknown. On the other hand, if you’re moving at 35 km/hr in a northern direction, then you would have an arrow pointing north with a length of 35. Physicists would say that the velocity is 35 km/hr north.
Velocity is the rate of motion in a specific direction. I’m going that-a-way at 30 kilometers per hour. My velocity is 30 kilometers per hour that-a-way. Average speed is described as a measure of distance divided by time. Velocity can be constant, or it can change (acceleration). Speed with a direction is velocity.
Changing Your Velocity
When velocity is changing, the word acceleration is used. Acceleration is also a vector. You speed up if the acceleration and velocity point in the same direction. You slow down (also referred to as decelerating) if the acceleration and velocity point in opposite directions. When you accelerate or decelerate, you change your velocity by a specific amount over a specific amount of time.
There are a few special situations where acceleration may be constant. This type of acceleration happens when there is a constant net force applied. The best example is gravity. Gravity’s pull on objects is a constant here on Earth and it always pulls toward the center of the planet (Note: Gravity decreases as you move far away from the surface of the planet.). The gravities of other planets are different from Earth’s gravity because they may have different masses and/or sizes. Even though the gravity may be smaller or larger, it will still create a constant acceleration near the surface of each planet.
Forces of Attraction
Gravity or gravitational forces are forces of attraction. We’re not talking about finding someone really cute and adorable. It’s like the Earth pulling on you and keeping you on the ground. That pull is gravity at work.
Every object in the universe that has mass exerts a gravitational pull, or force, on every other mass. The size of the pull depends on the masses of the objects. You exert a gravitational force on the people around you, but that force isn’t very strong, since people aren’t very massive. When you look at really large masses, like the Earth and Moon, the gravitational pull becomes very impressive. The gravitational force between the Earth and the molecules of gas in the atmosphere is strong enough to hold the atmosphere close to our surface. Smaller planets, that have less mass, may not be able to hold an atmosphere.
Obviously, gravity is very important on Earth. The Sun’s gravitational pull keeps our planet orbiting the Sun. The motion of the Moon is affected by the gravity of the Sun AND the Earth. The Moon’s gravity pulls on the Earth and makes the tides rise and fall every day. As the Moon passes over the ocean, there is a swell in the sea level. As the Earth rotates, the Moon passes over new parts of the Earth, causing the swell to move also. The tides are independent of the phase of the moon. The moon has the same amount of pull whether there is a full or new moon. It would still be in the same basic place.
We have to bring up an important idea now. The Earth always produces the same acceleration on every object. If you drop an acorn or a piano, they will gain velocity at the same rate. Although the gravitational force the Earth exerts on the objects is different, their masses are just as different, so the effect we observe (acceleration) is the same for each. The Earth’s gravitational force accelerates objects when they fall. It constantly pulls, and the objects constantly speed up.
They Always ask About Feathers
People always say, “What about feathers? They fall so slowly.” Obviously, there is air all around us. When a feather falls, it falls slowly because the air is in its way. There is a lot of air resistance and that resistance makes the feather move slower. The forces at work are the same. If you dropped a feather in a container with no air (a vacuum), it would drop as fast as a baseball.
What About the Moon?
But what keeps the Moon from falling down, if all of this gravity is so strong? Well, the answer is that the moon IS falling; all the time, but doesn’t get any closer to us! Remember that if there wasn’t a force acting, the Moon would be travelling in a straight line. Because there IS a force of attraction toward the Earth, the moon “falls” from a straight line into a curve (orbit) around the Earth and ends up revolving around us.
You will find friction everywhere that objects come into contact with each other. The force acts in the opposite direction to the way an object wants to slide. If a car needs to stop at a stop sign, it slows because of the friction between the brakes and the wheels. If you run down the sidewalk and stop quickly, you can stop because of the friction between your shoes and the cement.
What happens if you run down the sidewalk and you try to stop on a puddle? Friction is still there, but the liquid makes the surfaces smoother and the friction a lot less. Less friction means it is harder to stop. The low friction thing happens to cars when it rains. That’s why there are often so many accidents. Even though the friction of the brakes is still there, the brakes may be wet, and the wheels are not in as much contact with the ground. Cars hydroplane when they go too fast on puddles of water.
Friction and Gases
Friction only happens with solid objects, but you do get resistance to motion in both liquids and gases. This doesn’t involve sliding surfaces like friction does, but is instead the kind of resistance you get if you try to push your way through a crowd. It’s a colliding situation, not a sliding one. If the gas is air, this is referred to as air resistance.
If you were in the space shuttle and re-entering the atmosphere, the bottom of the shuttle would be getting very hot. The collisions that occur between the molecules of the air being compressed by the shuttle, heat up the air AND the shuttle itself. The temperature on the top of the shuttle is also warm, but nowhere near the temperatures found on the bottom.
Friction and Liquids
Although liquids offer resistance to objects moving through them, they also smooth surfaces and reduce friction. Liquids tend to get thinner (less viscous) as they are heated. Yes, that’s like the viscosity of the oil you put in your car. Car engines have a lot of moving parts, and they rub on each other. The rubbing produces friction and the result is heat. When oil is added to a car engine, the oil sticks to surfaces, and helps to decrease the amount of friction and wear on the parts of the engine. An engine that runs hotter requires a more viscous oil in order for it to stick to the surfaces properly.
-Finally, here you will find three funny activities about motion and forces, and a video about the effects of Moon on tides.