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letters to the editor

Weighing the Earth

As a retired high school physics teacher, I read with interest the letters in the April 2011 issue of TPT concerning the disposition of weight.1-3 My major concern with my students has simply been distinguishing between mass and weight. I finally solved this problem rather convincingly with a set of people scales (who wants to weigh a bathroom anyway?) and a set of Earth feet. It goes like this: Using the people scales to determine the weight of several students (if they are willing), it is resolved that the scales resting on a solid surface will simply register the weight of the person who has placed his or her two feet on it. Now for the Earth feet. I constructed on a piece of plywood (2 ft x 2 ft) two short legs and two feet from short sections of a 2 x 4. The feet were screwed to the bottoms of the legs, and the tops of the legs were screwed to the plywood. The feet were trimmed to the shape of a normal foot. A pair of long wool socks and an old pair of shoes (use your imagination a little here) completed the Earth feet. So, here are two feet sticking out of the Earth. A piece of carpet that looks like grass makes it look more convincing. Place the people scales upside down on these feet and weigh the Earth. A small mirror can be used to read the dial, but someone needs to stand on the backside of the scale to obtain a good reading. How much does the Earth weigh? Whatever you want it to be. The person standing on the scale is just as attractive as the Earth! Now, the difference between mass and weight has meaning.
1. 2. 3. Kenneth Mendelson, Measuring weight, letter to the editor, Phys. Teach. 49, 196 (April 2011). Alfredo Louro, Banish weight? letter to the editor, Phys. Teach. 49, 196 (April 2011). Albert A. Bartlett, Bartletts response, letter to the editor, Phys. Teach. 49, 197 (April 2011).
Lester Evans 8745 Cranston Rd. Morehead, KY 40351

Caution when using digital camcorders

We enjoyed reading the article Using Student Technology in Introductory Physics: A Comparison of Three Tools to Study Falling Objects, [TPT 49, 165167 (March 2011)]. We have used the three kinds of instruments described in the article and we think a few comments are in order: 1. Although ultrasonic devices are capable of providing very good data regarding distances and times, to properly compare values measured with this technique with those measured by other methods, it is necessary to correct the value of the sound velocity used, by taking into account its temperature dependence. 2. Digital and old mechanical film camcorders are quite different from each other. While the frame frequency in the film camcorders is very stable, that is not the case for digital camcorders, which lack the mechanical inertia of the former. In the digital units, time intervals between consecutive frames, when averaged over 10 frames or more, agree quite well with the manufacturers claim of 15 or 30 frames/second. However, the time between consecutive frames, as measured by recording the positions of a small steel ball in free fall, show a variance of up to 20 or even 30% in the average time. Visually, such an apparent large deviation is not noticeable at all. However, using the average time instead of the real time between frames in calculating velocities can result in inordinately high value fluctuations of the quasi-instantaneous velocity values. 3. The observed blur during recording could be quite useful as a teaching tool: If the exposure time used by the camera is known, the blur can be used to obtain an independent value of the quasi-instantaneous velocities of the falling object. Conversely, if the quasi-instantaneous velocities are known, the blur can be used to determine the cameras shutter speed. An interesting experimental teaching variation could be to determine camera shutter speeds with changing light conditions.
Hector G. Riveros Instituto de Fisica, UNAM Teodoro Halpern Ramapo College of New Jersey

The Physics Teacher Vol. 49, June 2011

Pogo stick spring
I enjoyed reading the manuscript Studying Hookes Law by Using a Pogo Stick by Nicols Silva in the May 2011 issue of TPT (p. 300). The idea of using the pogo stick was creative, the data were easy to read, and the experimental results were very reasonable. Hookes law for the compression spring states that the compression distance is directly proportional to the force applied, F= kx. The author correctly suggests that the data do not extrapolate to (0,0) because the pogo stick must have had some initial compression. The data suggest that the formula is F= kx + b, where b is the initial compression force and k is the coefficient of expansion/compression of the pogo stick spring. The authors data suggest F = 44.597x + 238.57. Analysis of the data agrees with k = (F b)/x.
Compression (cm)
2.0 4.0 6.0 8.0 10 12 14

Normal force (N)

322 417 508 601 691 772 857

k = (F b)/x (N)/cm
41.7 44.6 44.9 45.3 45.2 44.5 44.2 Avg. 44.3

k = F/x (N)/cm
161 104 84.7 75.1 69.1 64.3 61.3
k = F/x appears invalid for this data.

In a similar vein the formula F = kx + b also applies to an expansion spring where b is the initial tension of the spring. This initial tension is the force that tends to keep the coils of an extension spring closed and which must be overcome before the coils start to open. See Reminder about Hookes Law and Metal Springs in the Sept. 1999 (p. 368) issue of The Physics Teacher.
St. Johns Prep Collegeville, MN 56321

Peter Froehle

The Physics Teacher Vol. 49, Ju ne 2011