Wednesday, March 19, 2014 • 11:59 AM Post a Comment

Physics

posted by Caleb Rounds

String theory gives me the howling fantods. These theoretical strings are the most elementary of particles: one dimensional “objects” that have different quantum states. It is postulated (love that passive voice) that matter arises from these strings and the math suggesting their existence ties together both the big physics (gravity, general relativity) and the little physics (quantum mechanics). One cannot have a visceral experience of these strings; one does not gain insight about string theory by exerting a uniform force upon a mass up an inclined plane.

The other kind of physics, the one dealing with stuff out there, the one that structural and civil engineers deal with is exactly the opposite. Experience can give you an innate sense which the math explains. Unbeknownst to themselves, the indigent boarders have been conducting experiments in this latter physics.

Once my children have become en-screened, they are difficult to rouse: an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force (Newton’s first law of motion). In most cases that force is either me or the boss. Minecraft in this example acts to increase inertia, resisting the parental force (sometimes, but not often, stronger than gravity). However, an object in motion also tends to stay in motion and when I picked up the boarders from school the other day I witnessed this part of Newton’s first law.

My hoodlums were testing some of Newton’s laws on ice. At the time of this writing the “playground” of my neighborhood school is essentially a field of ice. Some might think this treacherous and therefore steer clear. The boarders see fun. I have now spent several very cold hours watching children imperil themselves on this ice. Thus far, I haven’t seen an injury. What I have seen has been remarkable.

Ice is the perfect place to explore Newton’s laws of motion. In an effort to increase his speed, the youngest boarder puts his jacket on backwards so that he can run, jump and slide across the ice. By experimentation he realized that if he lowered his center of mass and presented a more uniform surface to the ice he could increase his speed – with any luck to a dangerous degree.

The elder, in concert with others explored Newton’s third law: for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. They grappled with each other. On normal ground the earth exerts a force against your feet when you push down giving you taction – on ice, the decreased friction means that the forces don’t balance and you’ll slide. So the kids grapple with each other but can’t get any purchase – their grappling comes to nothing – the rules that they’ve learned through experience suddenly don’t apply. As with Mardi Gras, when the rules don’t apply and you have fun.

Of course they do fall sometimes, usually gleefully. If they didn’t fall they wouldn’t find the envelope. They’ve got to push at it to define this new medium. I just hope they continue like this. Failing and falling are necessary.

I’m hoping that experimentation on ice is a gateway to engineering not hockey. But as long as they keep picking themselves up and charging into the fray, they’ll probably be alright.

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