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Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body
A falling body is accelerated towards the earth due to the gravitational attraction between the body
and the earth

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Experiment 4:

Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body

I. About the Experiment

A. Background

G alileo was the first to introduce the concept of acceleration; he developed it in describing the

motion of falling bodies. As a sixteenth century scientist he was also the first to refute with

observation and experiment Aristotle's falling-bodies hypothesis that objects fell to earth with a rate

proportional to their mass. Although Galileo gave no reason other than his observations for why

bodies fell with equal accelerations we find that a later researcher by the name of Newton provides

the explanation.

A falling body is accelerated towards the earth due to the gravitational attraction between the body

and the earth. This force of attraction acting on the body is called the weight of the body. Newton

deduced that a heavier body was attracted to the earth with more force than a lighter body. The

question is, if this is true, why then is Aristotle's hypothesis incorrect? The answer is that the

acceleration of a body depends not only on the force, but on the mass as well. The more mass a

body has the more tendency the body has to resist a change in its state of motion. This tendency to

resist a change in motion was called by Galileo inertia. Newton later incorporated the concept of

inertia into the first of his three laws of motion. This law, sometimes called "the law on inertia"

states:

Every body continues in its state of rest, or uniform motion in a straight line,

unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

As an example of why the Galilean explanation is correct, consider two objects whose weights are

10 and 5 pounds respectively. The 10-pound object is attracted to the earth with twice the force as

the 5-pound object. However, the 10-pound object also has twice the inertia, or resistance to a

change in its motion, as a 5-pound body. Twice the force acting against twice the inertia produces

the same acceleration as half the force acting on half the inertia, therefore, both objects accelerate

equally.

B. Theory

r

The average velocity of a body is equal to the vector displacement ! r divided by the time !t

required to travel that distance. In symbols

r r r

r r ! r1 "r

v avg = 2 = Eqn. 1

t2 ! t1 "t

The instantaneous velocity v of a body is defined as the limit of this ratio as the increment ∆t is made

vanishingly small.

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26 Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body

r r

r # !r % d r

v(t) = lim = Eqn. 2

! t" 0 $ !t & dt

When the velocity of a body varies the motion is said to be accelerated. Acceleration is defined as

the rate of change of velocity. The average acceleration of a body is

r r r

r v2 ! v1 "v

a avg = = Eqn. 3

t2 ! t1 "t

The instantaneous acceleration of a body is defined as the limit of the ratio of change in velocity to

change in time as ∆t → 0;

r r

r # !v % dv

a(t) = lim $ & = Eqn. 4

! t" 0 !t dt

For one dimensional motion we can dispense with the vector notation and write

ds dv

v(t) = and a(t) = Eqn. 5

dt dt

In this experiment we wish to study the motion of a freely falling object starting from rest and falling

vertically downward along a straight line. Using the apparatus shown in Figure 2 we will obtain a

record of position as a function of time. Since the motion takes place along a straight line, we will

dispense with the vector notation in what follows.

By using our tabulated values of displacement and time, we can plot a graph of distance versus time,

obtaining a curve I similar to that shown in Figure 1. We can see from Equation 2 that the slope of

this curve is the instantaneous velocity of the body. The slope is obtained by constructing a tangent

to the curve at the point for the instant in question and then determining the slope of the tangent.

Curve I

Distance

t Time

Figure 1

26

Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body 27

1. The average velocity of a body is obtained by dividing the distance traveled by the time

required to traverse the distance.

2. The instantaneous velocity of an object is the limit approached by the ratio ∆s/∆t as ∆t → 0.

This velocity is also equal to the slope of the tangent to the distance-time curve at the desired

point.

3. The acceleration of an object is the time rate of change of its velocity, or a = ∆v/∆t. It is also

the slope of the tangent to the velocity-time curve at the instant considered.

4. For a constant acceleration, the velocity-time curve is a straight line and the average velocity of

the body is also equal to the instantaneous velocity at the mid-point of the time interval used.

A record of the position of the falling bob as a function of time is produced on waxed tape by a

series of marks that are made by an electric spark which occurs at the rate of 60 per second.

Electromagnet

Freely Tape

Falling

bob

High

Voltage Six Foot

Wire Stand

To High Voltage

Sparking Apparatus

Figure 2

By selecting certain marks, measuring their distance from an arbitrary origin and divided by the

appropriate time interval we are able to determine the average velocity during that time interval from

!s

v= Since the bob is in free-fall and accelerating uniformly, this value of the velocity is also the

!t

instantaneous value of velocity at a time half-way through the time interval.

27

28 Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body

The acceleration may now be obtained from the slope of a velocity versus time graph.

28

Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body 29

III. Procedure

1. After the instructor has explained the use of the free-fall apparatus, and its dangers, practice

attaching the bob to the electromagnet and dropping it several times, ensuring that the bob does

not touch either of the parallel wires during its fall. If the bob brushes one of the wires during

its fall, have the instructor check to see if the apparatus is level.

2. Pull a piece of waxed paper into position over the rear wire. Then, with the spark running,

drop the bob and produce a trace. (Note: do not run the spark timer too long without dropping

the bob as the waxed paper may catch on fire).

3. Check to see if all the sparks were recorded, if not, or if there is any doubt, check with your

instructor.

Tape

Meter

Stick s1

s2

s3

Figure 3

5. Choose the first distinct spark to use as a "zero" position. This means that the time interval

used for the calculations will be 1/60 sec or ∆t = 1/60 sec. Measure the distance in meters to

each of the dots from the zero position (s1, s2, s3, etc.). Refer to Figure 3

1. Complete the table by calculating the velocity and the acceleration. Note that velocity is found

by dividing adjacent distances by the time interval and that acceleration is found by dividing

adjacent velocities by the time interval. Note that the time interval in each case is 1/60 of a

second.

2. Calculate the average acceleration, and record this result on the table.

3. Calculate the % error for your measurement of average acceleration assuming the actual value

is 9.8 m/sec2. %error =

4. Plot a curve showing the relation of distance to time (see Figure 4). At the time 14.5/60

seconds draw a tangent to the distance-time curve.

29

30 Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body

5. Plot a curve showing the relation of velocity to time (see Figure 5). Put a "best fit" straight

line on the graph.

30

Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body 31

(in sec/60) (in meters) (in m/s) (in m/s2)

0 0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

6. What value for time do you obtain when you extrapolate your v versus t curve to v = 0 (which

means extend your best fit straight line back to the point where it intercepts the time axis)?

31

32 Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body

32

Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body 33

7. a) From the slope of the tangent to the distance versus time curve determine the velocity at

time 14.5/ 60 seconds. Velocity (7a) =

b) Find the value of the velocity at this same time from your v versus t graph.

Velocity (7b) =

c) Next calculate the theoretical value of v at this time (vt = v0 + at) using the value of a (the

acceleration) that you have previously determined. Velocity (7c) =

Why?

V. Questions

1. What would be the appearance of the velocity-time curve if the falling body were so light that

the effect of air friction could not be neglected? Make a sketch and explain.

a) Where the acceleration of an object is zero but the velocity is not zero.

b) Where the velocity of an object is zero but its acceleration is not zero.

3. If the effects of friction are negligible, which will roll down-hill faster, a Cadillac or a Honda?

33

34 Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body

Figure 4

Figure 5

34

Accelerated Motion of a Freely Falling Body 35

35

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