A Gnome-inal Value for ‘g’

The Gnome Experiment Kit from precision scale manufacturers Kern and Sohn.

. . . setting storms and billows at defiance, and visiting the remotest parts of the terraqueous globe.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 17 April 1750

That an object in free fall will accelerate towards the centre of our terraqueous globe at a rate of 9.81 metres per second per second is, at best, only a partial and parochial truth. It is 9.81 metres per second per second in the United Kingdom, yes; but the value of both acceleration due to free fall and the gravitational field strength vary from place to place across the globe (and in the SI System of measurement, the two quantities are numerically equal and dimensionally equivalent).

For example, according to Hirt et al. (2013) the lowest value for g on the Earth’s surface is atop Mount Huascarán in Peru where g = 9.7639 m s-2 and the highest is at the surface of the Arctic Ocean where g = 9.8337 m s-2.

Why does g vary?

There are three factors which can affect the local value of g.

Firstly, the distribution of mass within the volume of the Earth. The Earth is not of uniform density and volumes of rock within the crust of especially high or low density could affect g at the surface. The density of the rocks comprising the Earth’s crust varies between 2.6 – 2.9 g/cm3 (according to Jones 2007). This is a variation of 10% but the crust only comprises about 1.6% of the Earth’s mass since the density of material in the mantle and core is far higher so the variation in g due this factor is probably of the order of 0.2%.

Secondly, the Earth is not a perfect sphere but rather an oblate spheroid that bulges at the equator so that the equatorial radius is 6378 km but the polar radius is 6357 km. This is a variation of 0.33% but since the gravitational force is proportional to 1/r2 let’s assume that this accounts for a possible variation of the order of 0.7% in the value of g.

Thirdly, the acceleration due to the rotation of the Earth. We will look in detail at the theory underlying this in a moment, but from our rough and ready calculations above, it would seem that this is the major factor accounting for any variation in g: that is to say, g is a minimum at the equator and a maximum at the poles because of the Earth’s rotation.


The Gnome Experiment

In 2012, precision scale manufacturers Kern and Sohn used this well-known variation in the value of g to embark on a highly successful advertising campaign they called the ‘Gnome Experiment’ (see link 1 and link 2).

Whatever units their lying LCD displays show, electronic scales don’t measure mass or even weight: they actually measure the reaction force the scales exert on the item in their top pan. The reading will be affected if the scales are accelerating.

In diagram A, the apple is not accelerating so the resultant upward force on the apple is exactly 0.981 N. The scales show a reading of 0.981/9.81 = 0.100 000 kg = 100.000 g (assuming, of course, that they are calibrated for use in the UK).

In diagram B, the apple and scales are in an elevator that is accelerating upward at 1.00 metres per second per second. The resultant upward force must therefore be larger than the downward weight as shown in the free body diagram. The scales show a reading of 1.081/9.81 – 0.110 194 kg = 110.194 g.

In diagram C, the the apple and scales are in an elevator that is accelerating downwards at 1.00 metres per second per second. The resultant upward force must therefore be smaller than the downward weight as shown in the free body diagram. The scales show a reading of 0.881/9.81 – 0.089 806 kg = 89.806 g.


Never mind the weight, feel the acceleration

Now let’s look at the situation the Kern gnome mentioned above. The gnome was measured to have a ‘mass’ (or ‘reaction force’ calibrated in grams, really) of 309.82 g at the South Pole.

Showing this situation on a diagram:

Looking at the free body diagram for Kern the Gnome at the equator, we see that his reaction force must be less than his weight in order to produce the required centripetal acceleration towards the centre of the Earth. Assuming the scales are calibrated for the UK this would predict a reading on the scales of 3.029/9.81= 0.30875 kg = 308.75 g.

The actual value recorded at the equator during the Gnome Experiment was 307.86 g, a discrepancy of 0.3% which would suggest a contribution from one or both of the first two factors affecting g as discussed at the beginning of this post.

Although the work of Hirt et al. (2013) may seem the definitive scientific word on the gravitational environment close to the Earth’s surface, there is great value in taking measurements that are perhaps more directly understandable to check our comprehension: and that I think explains the emotional resonance that many felt in response to the Kern Gnome Experiment. There is a role for the ‘artificer’ as well as the ‘philosopher’ in the scientific enterprise on which humanity has embarked, but perhaps Samuel Johnson put it more eloquently:

The philosopher may very justly be delighted with the extent of his views, the artificer with the readiness of his hands; but let the one remember, that, without mechanical performances, refined speculation is an empty dream, and the other, that, without theoretical reasoning, dexterity is little more than a brute instinct.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 17 April 1750

References

Hirt, C., Claessens, S., Fecher, T., Kuhn, M., Pail, R., & Rexer, M. (2013). New ultrahigh‐resolution picture of Earth’s gravity fieldGeophysical research letters40(16), 4279-4283.

Jones, F. (2007). Geophysics Foundations: Physical Properties: Density. University of British Columbia website, accessed on 2/5/21.

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Nature Abhors A Change In Flux

Aristotle memorably said that Nature abhors a vacuum: in other words. he thought that a region of space entirely devoid of matter, including air, was logically impossible.

Aristotle turned out to be wrong in that regard, as he was in numerous others (but not quite as many as we – secure and perhaps a little complacent and arrogant as we look down our noses at him from our modern scientific perspective – often like to pretend).

An amusing version which is perhaps more consistent with our current scientific understanding was penned by D. J. Griffiths (2013) when he wrote: Nature abhors a change in flux.

Magnetic flux (represented by the Greek letter phi, Φ) is a useful quantity that takes account of both the strength of the magnetic field and its extent. It is the total ‘magnetic flow’ passing through a given area. You can also think of it as the number of magnetic field lines multiplied by the area they pass through so a strong magnetic field confined to a small area might have the same flux (or ‘effect’) as weaker field spread out over a large area.


Lenz’s Law

Emil Lenz formulated an earlier statement of the Nature abhors a change of flux principle when he stated what I think is the most consistently underrated laws of electromagnetism, at least in terms of developing students’ understanding:

The current induced in a circuit due to a change in a magnetic field is directed to oppose the change in flux and to exert a mechanical force which opposes the motion.

Lenz’s Law (1834)

This is a qualitative rather than a quantitive law since it is about the direction, not the magnitude, of an induced current. Let’s look at its application in the familiar A-level Physics context of dropping a bar magnet through a coil of wire.


Dropping a magnet through a coil in pictures

Picture 1

In picture 1 above, the magnet is approaching the coil with a small velocity v. The magnet is too far away from the coil to produce any magnetic flux in the centre of the coil. (For more on the handy convention I have used to draw the coils and show the current flow, please click on this link.) Since there is no magnetic flux, or more to the point, no change in magnetic flux, then by Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction there is no induced current in the coil.

Picture 2

in picture 2, the magnet has accelerated to a higher velocity v due to the effect of gravitational force. The magnet is now close enough so that it produces a magnetic flux inside the coil. More to the point, there is an increase in the magnetic flux as the magnet gets closer to the coil: by Faraday’s Law, this produces an induced current in the coil (shown using the dot and cross convention).

To ascertain the direction of the current flow in the coil we can use Lenz’s Law which states that the current will flow in such a way so as to oppose the change in flux producing it. The red circles show the magnetic field lines produced by the induced current. These are in the opposite direction to the purple field lines produced by the bar magnet (highlighted yellow on diagram 2): in effect, they are attempting to cancel out the magnetic flux which produce them!

The direction of current flow in the coil will produce a temporary north magnetic pole at the top of the coil which, of course, will attempt to repel the falling magnet; this is ‘mechanical force which opposes the motion’ mentioned in Lenz’s Law. The upward magnetic force on the falling magnet will make it accelerate downward at a rate less than g as it approaches the coil.

Picture 3

In picture 3, the purple magnetic field lines within the volume of the coil are approximately parallel so that there will be no change of flux while the magnet is in this approximate position. In other words, the number of field lines passing through the cross-sectional area of the coil will be approximately constant. Using Faraday’s Law, there will be no flow of induced current. Since there is no change in flux to oppose, Lenz’s Law does not apply. The magnet will be accelerating downwards at g.

Picture 4

As the magnet emerges from the bottom of the coil, the magnetic flux through the coil decreases. This results in a flow of induced current as per Faraday’s Law. The direction of induced current flow will be as shown so that the red field lines are in the same direction as the purple field lines; Lenz’s Law is now working to oppose the reduction of magnetic flux through the coil!

A temporary north magnetic pole is generated by the induced current at the lower end of the coil. This will produce an upward magnetic force on the falling magnet so that it accelerates downward at a rate less than g. This, again, is the ‘mechanical force which opposes the motion’ mentioned in Lenz’s Law.


Dropping a magnet through a coil in graphical form

This would be one of my desert island graphs since it is such a powerfully concise summary of some beautiful physics.

The graph shows the reversal in the direction of the current as discussed above. Also, the maximum induced emf in region 2 (blue line) is less than that in region 4 (red line) since the magnet is moving more slowly.

What is more, from Faraday’s Law (where ℇ is the induced emf and N is total number of turns of the coil), the blue area is equal to the red area since:

and N and ∆Φ are fixed values for a given coil and bar magnet.

As I said previously, there is so much fascinating physics in this graph that I think it worth exploring in depth with your A level Physics students 🙂

Other news

If you have enjoyed this post, then you may be interested to know that I’ve written a book! Cracking Key Concepts in Secondary Science (co-authored with Adam Boxer and Heena Dave) is due to be published by Corwin in July 2021.

References

Lenz, E. (1834), “Ueber die Bestimmung der Richtung der durch elektodynamische Vertheilung erregten galvanischen Ströme”, Annalen der Physik und Chemie107 (31), pp. 483–494

Griffiths, David (2013). Introduction to Electrodynamics. p. 315.

The Coulomb Train Model Revisited (Part 4)

In this post, we will look at parallel circuits.

The Coulomb Train Model (CTM) is a helpful model for both explaining and predicting the behaviour of real electric circuits which I think is useful for KS3 and KS4 students.

Without further ado, here is a a summary.

This is part 4 of a continuing series. (Click to read Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3.)


The ‘Parallel First’ Heresy

I advocate teaching parallel circuits before teaching series circuits. This, I must confess, sometimes makes me feel like Captain Rum from Blackadder Two:

The main reason for this is that parallel circuits are conceptually easier to analyse than series circuits because you can do so using a relatively naive notion of ‘flow’ and gives students an opportunity to explore and apply the recently-introduced concept of ‘flow of charge’ in a straightforward context.

Redish and Kuo (2015: 584) argue that ‘flow’ is an example of embodied cognition in the sense that its meaning is grounded in physical experience:

The thesis of embodied cognition states that ultimately our conceptual system grounded in our interaction with the physical world: How we construe even highly abstract meaning is constrained by and is often derived from our very concrete experiences in the physical world.

Redish and Kuo (2015: 569)

As an aside, I would mention that Redish and Kuo (2015) is an enduringly fascinating paper with a wealth of insights for any teacher of physics and I would strongly recommend that everyone reads it (see link in the Reference section).


Let’s Go Parallel First — but not yet

Let’s start with a very simple circuit.

This is not a parallel circuit (yet) because switch S is open. Resistors R1 and R2 are identical.

This can be represented on the coulomb train model like this:

Five coulombs pass through the ammeter in 20 seconds so the current I = Q/t = 5/20 = 0.25 amperes.

Let’s assume we have a 1.5 V cell so 1.5 joules of energy are added to each coulomb as they pass through the cell. Let’s also assume that we have negligible resistance in the cell and the connecting wires so 1.5 joules of energy will be removed from each coulomb as they pass through the resistor. The voltmeter as shown will read 1.5 volts.

The resistance of the resistor R1 is R=V/I = 1.5/0.25 = 6.0 ohms.


Let’s Go Parallel First — for real this time.

Now let’s close switch S.

This is example of changing an example by continuous conversion which removes the need for multiple ammeters in the circuit. The changed circuit can be represented on the CTM as shown

Now, ten coulombs pass through the ammeter in twenty seconds so I = Q/t = 10/20 = 0.5 amperes (double the reading in the first circuit shown).

Questioning may be useful at this point to reinforce the ‘flow’ paradigm that we hope students will be using:

  • What will be the reading if the ammeter moved to a similar position on the other side? (0.5 amps since current is not ‘used up’.)
  • What would be the reading if the ammeter was placed just before resistor R1? (0.25 amps since only half the current goes through R1.)

To calculate the total resistance of the whole circuit we use R = V/I = 1.5/0.5 = 3.0 ohms– which is half of the value of the circuit with just R1. Adding resistors in parallel has the surprising result of reducing the total resistance of the circuit.

This is a concrete example which helps students understand the concept of resistance as a property which reduces current: the current is larger when a second resistor is added so the total resistance must be smaller. Students often struggle with the idea of inverse relationships (i.e. as x increases y decreases and vice versa) so this is a point well worth emphasising.


Potential Difference and Parallel Circuits (1)

Let’s expand on the primitive ‘flow’ model we have been using until now and adapt the circuit a little bit.

This can be represented on the CTM like this:

Each coulomb passing through R2 loses 1.5 joules of energy so the voltmeter would read 1.5 volts.

One other point worth making is that the resistance of R2 (and R1) individually is still R = V/I = 1.5/0.25 = 6.0 ohms: it is only the combined effect of R1 and R2 together in parallel that reduces the total resistance of the circuit.


Potential Difference and Parallel Circuits (2)

Let’s have one last look at a different aspect of this circuit.

This can be represented on the CTM like this:

Each coulomb passing through the cell from X to Y gains 1.5 joules of energy, so the voltmeter would read 1.5 volts.

However, since we have twice the number of coulombs passing through the cell as when switch S is open, then the cell has to load twice as many coulombs with 1.5 joules in the same time.

This means that, although the potential difference is still 1.5 volts, the cell is working twice as hard.

The result of this is that the cell’s chemical energy store will be depleted more quickly when switch S is closed: parallel circuits will make cells go ‘flat’ in a much shorter time compared with a similar series circuit.

Bulbs in parallel may shine brighter (at least in terms of total brightness rather than individual brightness) but they won’t burn for as long.

To some ways of thinking, a parallel circuit with two bulbs is very much like burning a candle at both ends…


More fun and high jinks with coulomb train model in the next instalment when we will look at series circuits.

You can read part 5 here.


Reference

Redish, E. F., & Kuo, E. (2015). Language of physics, language of math: Disciplinary culture and dynamic epistemologyScience & Education24(5), 561-590.

The Coulomb Train Revisited (Part 2)

In this post, we will look at understanding potential difference (or voltage) using the Coulomb Train Model.

This is part 2 of a continuing series. You can read part 1 here.

The Coulomb Train Model (CTM) is a helpful model for both explaining and predicting the behaviour of real electric circuits which I think is suitable for use with KS3 and KS4 students (that’s 11-16 year olds for non-UK educators).

To summarise what has been discussed so far:


Modelling potential difference using the CTM

Potential difference is the ‘push’ needed to make electric charge move around a closed circuit. On the CTM, we can represent the ‘push’ as a gain in the energy of the coulomb. (This is consistent with the actual definition of the volt V = E/Q, where one volt is a change in energy of one joule per coulomb.)

How can we observe this gain in energy? Simple, we use a voltmeter.

Kudos to https://www.circuit-diagram.org/editor/ for the lovely circuit diagrams

On the CTM, this would look like this:

What the voltmeter does is compare the energy contained by two coulombs: one at A and the other at B. The coulombs at B, having passed through the 1.5 V cell, each have 1.5 joules of energy more than than the coulombs at A. This means that the voltmeter in this position reads 1.5 volts. We would say that the potential difference across the cell is 1.5 V. (Try and avoid talking about the potential difference ‘through’ or ‘of’ any part of the circuit.)


More potential difference measurements using the CTM

Let’s move the voltmeter to a different position.

On the CTM, this would look like this:

Let’s make the very reasonable assumption that the connecting wires have zero resistance. This would mean that the coulombs at C have 1.5 joules of energy and that the coulombs at D have 1.5 joules of energy. They have not lost any energy since they have not passed through any part of the circuit that actually has a resistance. The voltmeter would therefore read 0 volts since it cannot detect any energy difference.

Now let’s move the voltmeter one last time.

On the CTM, this would look like this:

Notice that the coulombs at F have 1.5 fewer joules than the coulombs at E. The coulombs transfer 1.5 joules of energy to the bulb because the bulb has a resistance.

Any part of the circuit that has non-zero resistance will ‘rob’ coulombs of their energy. On this very simple model, we assume that only the bulb has a resistance and so only the bulb will ‘push back’ against the movement of the coulombs and cost them energy.

Also on this simple model, the potential difference across the bulb is identical to the potential difference across the cell — but this is not always the case. For example, if the wires had a small but non-negligible resistance and if the cell had an internal resistance, but these would only come into play at A-level.

The bulb is shown as ‘flashing’ on the CTM to provide a visual cue to help students mentally model the transfer of energy from the coulombs to the bulb. In reality, instead of just one coulomb transferring a largish ‘chunk’ of energy, there would be approximately 1.25 billion billion electrons continuously transferring a tiny fraction of this energy over the course of one second (assuming a d.c. current of 0.2 amps) so we wouldn’t see the bulb ‘flash’ in reality.


How do the coulombs ‘know’ how much energy to drop off?

This section is probably more of interest to specialist physics teachers, but all are welcome.

One frequent criticism of donation models like the CTM is how do the coulombs ‘know’ to drop off all their energy at the bulb?

The response to this, of course, is that they don’t. This criticism is an artefact of an (arguably) over-simplified model whereby we assume that only the bulb has resistance. The energy carried by the coulombs according to this model could be shown as a sketch graph, and let’s be honest it does look a little dodgy…

But, more accurately, of course, the energy loss is a process rather than an event. And the connecting wires actually have a small resistance. This leads to this graph:

Realistically speaking, the coulombs don’t lose all their energy passing through the bulb: they merely lose most of their energy here due to the process of passing through a high resistance part of the circuit.

In part 3 of this series, we’ll look at how resistance can be modelled using the CTM.

You can read part 3 here.

Sussing Out Solenoids With Dot and Cross

A solenoid is an electromagnet made of a wire in the form of a spiral whose length is larger than its diameter.

A solenoid

The word solenoid literally means ‘pipe-thing‘ since it comes from the Greek word ‘solen‘ for ‘pipe’ and ‘-oid‘ for ‘thing’.

An alternate universe version of the Troggs’ famous 1966 hit record

And they are such an all-embracingly useful bit of kit that one might imagine an alternate universe where The Troggs might have sang:

Pipe-thing! You make my heart sing!
You make everything groovy, pipe-thing!

And pipe-things do indeed make everything groovy: solenoids are at the heart of the magnetic pickups that capture the magnificent guitar riffs of The Troggs at their finest.

The Butterfly Field

Very few minerals are naturally magnetised. Lodestones are pieces of the ore magnetite that can attract iron. (The origin of the name is probably not what you think — it’s named after the region, Magnesia, where it was first found). In ancient times, lodestones were so rare and precious that they were worth more than their weight in gold.

Over many centuries, by patient trial-and-error, humans learned how to magnetise a piece of iron to make a permanent magnet. Permanent magnets now became as cheap as chips.

A permanent bar magnet is wrapped in an invisible evanescent magnetic field that, given sufficient poetic license, can remind one of the soft gossamery wings of a butterfly…

Orient a bar magnet vertically so that students can see the ‘butterfly field’ analogy…

The field lines seem to begin at the north pole and end at the south pole. ‘Seem to’ because magnetic field lines always form closed loops.

This is a consequence of Maxwell’s second equation of Electromagnetism (one of a system of four equations developed by James Clark Maxwell in 1873 that summarise our current understanding of electromagnetism).

Using the elegant differential notation, Maxwell’s second equation is written like this:

Maxwell’s second equation of electromagnetism.

It could be read aloud as ‘del dot B equals zero’ where B is the magnetic field and del (the inverted delta symbol) does not represent a quantity but is the differential operator which describes how the field lines curl in three dimensional space.

This also tells us that magnetic monopoles (that is to say, isolated N and S poles) are impossible. A north-seeking pole is always paired with a south-seeking pole.

Magnetising a solenoid

A current-carrying coil will create a magnetic field as shown below.

The magnetic field of a solenoid. (Note that the field lines in the centre are truncated to save space, but would form very large loops as mentioned above.)

The wire is usually insulated (often with a tough, transparent and nearly invisible enamel coating for commercial solenoids), but doesn’t have to be. Insulation prevents annoying ‘short circuits’ if the coils touch. At first sight, we see the familiar ‘butterfly field’ pattern, but we also see a very intense magnetic field in the centre of the solenoid,

For a typical air-cored solenoid used in a school laboratory carrying one ampere of current, the magnetic field in the centre would have a strength of about 84 microtesla. This is of the same order as the Earth’s magnetic field (which has a typical value of about 50 microtesla). This is just strong enough to deflect the needle of a magnetic compass placed a few centimetres away and (probably) make iron filings align to show the magnetic field pattern around the solenoid, but not strong enough to attract even a small steel paper clip. For reference, the strength of a typical school bar magnet is about 10 000 microtesla, so our solenoid is over one hundred times weaker than a bar magnet.

However, we can ‘boost’ the magnetic field by adding an iron core. The relative permeability of a material is a measurement of how ‘transparent’ it is to magnetic field lines. The relative permeability of pure iron is about 1500 (no units since it’s relative permeability and we are comparing its magnetic properties with that of empty space). However, the core material used in the school laboratory is more likely to be steel rather than iron, which has a much more modest relative permeability of 100.

So placing a steel nail in the centre of a solenoid boosts its magnetic field strength by a factor of 100 — which would make the solenoid roughly as strong as a typical bar magnet.

But which end is north…?

The N and S-poles of a solenoid can change depending on the direction of current flow and the geometry of the loops.

The typical methods used to identify the N and S poles are shown below.

Methods of locating N and S pole of a solenoid that you should NOT use…

To go in reverse order for no particular reason, I don’t like using the second method because it involves a tricky mental rotation of the plane of view by 90 degrees to imagine the current direction as viewed when looking directly at the ends of the magnet. Most students, understandably in my opinion, find this hard.

The first method I dislike because it creates confusion with the ‘proper’ right hand grip rule which tells us the direction of the magnetic field lines around a long straight conductor and which I’ve written about before . . .

The right hand grip rule illustrated: the field line curl in the same direction as the finger when the thumb is pointed in the direction of the current.

The direction of the current in the last diagram is shown using the ‘dot and cross’ convention which, by a strange coincidence, I have also written about before . . .

If King Harold had been more familiar with the dot and cross notation, history could have turned out very differently…

How a solenoid ‘makes’ its magnetic field . . .

To begin the analysis we imagine the solenoid cut in half: what biologists would call a longitudinal section. Then we show the current directions of each element using the dot and cross convention. Then we consider just two elements, say A and B as shown below.

Continuing this analysis below:

The region inside the solenoid has a very strong and nearly uniform magnetic field. By ‘uniform’ we mean that the field lines are nearly straight and equally spaced meaning that the magnetic field has the same strength at any point.

The region outside the solenoid has a magnetic field which gradually weakens as you move away from the solenoid (indicated by the increased spacing between the field lines); its shape is also nearly identical to the ‘butterfly field’ of a bar magnet as mentioned above.

Since the field lines are emerging from X, we can confidently assert that this is a north-seeking pole, while Y is a south-seeking pole.

Which end is north, using only the ‘proper’ right hand grip rule…

First, look very carefully at the geometry of current flow (1).

Secondly, isolate one current element, such as the one shown in picture (2) above.

Thirdly, establish the direction of the field lines using the standard right hand grip rule (3).

Since the field lines are heading into this end of the solenoid, we can conclude that the right hand side of this solenoid is, in fact, a south-seeking pole.

In my opinion, this is easier and more reliable than using any of the other alternative methods. I hope that readers that have read this far will (eventually) come to agree.

Forces and Inclined Planes

I don’t want to turn the world upside down — I just want to make it a little bit tilty.

In this post, I want to look at the physics of inclined planes, as this is a topic that can trip up students at GCSE and A-level. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that students often have only a fuzzy notion of what we mean by ‘vertical’ and ‘perpendicular’. These terms are often treated as synonymous so I think they could do with some unpicking.

The absolute vertical

The absolute vertical anywhere on the Earth surface is defined by the direction of the Earth’s gravitational field. It will be a radial line connected with the centre of mass of the planet. The direction of the absolute vertical will be shown by line of a plumb line as shown in the diagram.

Using plumb lines to identify the line of the absolute vertical

(As a short aside, A and B indicate why the towers of the Humber Bridge are 3.6 cm further apart at the top than they are at the bottom. Take that, flat-earthers!)

Picture from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humber_Bridge_From_Air.jpg

The local perpendicular

We define the local perpendicular as a line which is at 90o to the plane or surface or table top we are working on. We can find its direction with a set square as shown in the picture below.

Example of when the local perpendicular is aligned with the absolute vertical

Next we tilt the table so that the local perpendicular and absolute vertical are no longer aligned. (Thanks to my colleague Bruce Pawsey for this idea.)

Example of the local perpendicular and the absolute vertical no longer in alignment.

Forces on a dynamics trolley on an inclined plane (GCSE level analysis)

Next we place a dynamics trolley on a horizontal table top. We observe that it is is equilibrium. This is easy to explain if we draw a free body diagram to show the forces on the trolley.

The forces on a trolley on a horizontal surface

The normal reaction force N on the trolley is equal and opposite to the weight W of the trolley. The resultant (total) force on the trolley is zero so it is not accelerating.

But now note what happens if we tilt the table so that it becomes an inclined plane: the trolley accelerates to the left.

At GCSE, it is probably best to restrict the analysis to what happens in the absolute vertical (shown by the plumb line) and the absolute horizontal (at 90o to the plumb line).

If we resolve the normal reaction force into two components, we see that N has a small horizontal component (see above). This is the resultant force that causes the trolley to accelerate to the left as shown.

Forces on an object on an inclined plane (A level analysis for static equilibrium)

If we flip the trolley so that it is upside down, then there will be a frictional force acting parallel to the slope. This means that, as long as the angle of tilt is not too steep, the object will be in equilibrium.

It now makes sense to resolve W into components parallel and perpendicular to the slope, since it is the only force of the three which is aligned with the absolute vertical. F and W are aligned with the local perpendicular and horizontal to it’s less onerous to use these as the ‘reference’ grid in this instance.

The normal reaction force N is equal to W cos 𝜃 not W and since cos 𝜃 is always less than 1 (for angles other than 90o). If we placed the trolley on some digital scales then the reading on the scales would decrease as we increased 𝜃.

This effect was used to simulate the lower gravitational field strength on the Moon for training astronauts for the Apollo programme. In effect, they trained on an inclined plane. (‘To attain the Moon’s terrain / One trains mainly on an inclined plane.‘)

See Photos of How Astronauts Trained for the Apollo Moon Missions - HISTORY
Apollo astronauts training for a low gravity environment on an inclined plane.

If the wheels of the trolley were in contact with the table surface so that the frictional force were negligible, then the trolley would accelerate down the slope because of the resultant force of W sin 𝜃 parallel to the slope. The direction of the acceleration is parallel to the slope (i.e. at 90o to the local perpendicular) and not along the absolute horizontal as suggested by the earlier, simpler GCSE-level analysis in the previous section.

Cornell versus Ebbinghaus

Most of us are only too familiar with the mordant truth of Shakespeare’s observation that “Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot”. In fact, things are generally even worse than the Bard suggests: everyone forgets, all the time.

In time, all shall indeed be forgot.

This was established experimentally by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1880. The graph below shows Ebbinghaus’ original results with some more recent replications (from Murre and Dros 2015).

Diagram from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0120644

However, there is a workaround or “hack” that allows us to beat the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetfulness.

The Power of Review

Diagram from Chun and Heo 2018. (Top annotations with coloured circles added to original.)

If the content is reviewed at regular intervals, not only do we remember more but the review process also slows down the rate at which knowledge decays.

Cornell notes as a structure for regular review

‘Cornell notes’ is a two column note-taking system developed by Cornell University Professor of Education Walter Pauk (1974). (See also this link.)

I developed its use in Physics classes with a mind to defeating the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve using this template (click on the link to download a blank printable pdf version).

Example of Cornell style notes on the photoelectric effect

Step 1 Students write notes

In the lesson, students complete the sections highlighted in red but they should leave the other sections blank. This can be a bit of struggle with some students, but is actually a vital part of the process.

Then the students wait 24 hours.

The first couple of times you try this with a class, it might be worth insisting that all students hand in their incomplete Cornell notes at this point just to make sure they follow the process correctly. As students learn to appreciate the effectiveness of the process, you can trust them to follow it without taking control of their work (hopefully!)

Step 2 Students complete the Questions / Key Words section

After a pause of 24 hours, students then complete the section highlighted in green. Of course, they have to thoroughly review and think hard about the material in the notes section to do this, and in Daniel Willingham’s resonant phrase: “Memory is the residue of thought.”

Then, wait a further 48 hours. (Again, the first couple of times you do this with a class, you may want to take in the incomplete Cornell notes to make sure the process is followed correctly: many students seem to find it impossible to “let it be”!)

Step 3 Students complete the summary section

48 hours after completing the Questions / Key Words section, students complete the Summary section.

Students often find writing the Summary the hardest part of the process and usually need the most support with this section. The limited space forces concision and an intense focus on the most important concepts — which, of course, is no bad thing in itself!

As an addition to step 3 and following Cho (2011), writing a Reflection on the back of the Cornell notes sheet can be useful to encourage retention. The Reflection is intended to elicit or memorialise an emotional reaction to the content. The context of this could be “Big Picture”, professional, historical or personal.

Students are encouraged to select one context and write something that has emotional resonance for them. Examples relevant to the photoelectric effect (see above) might be:

  • “Big picture”: The photoelectric effect is the basis of all light detection technology. Without the science of the photoelectric effect, the fibre optic data networks on which our interconnected society depends would be not only impossible but unthinkable.
  • Professional: As an electronic engineer, I would use the photoelectric effect to design super-sensitive electronic cameras that can be used with large aperture telescopes to build up — photon by photon — images of galaxies that are so distant that their light left them four and a half billion years before the Sun formed.
  • Historical: Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect was one of the trio of papers published in his “Annus Miriablis” (“Miracle Year”). In the other two he outlined the theory of Special Relativity and used Brownian motion to prove the existence of atoms. Historians of science say that any one of the three would have been enough to secure his reputation as one of the most important physicists of the 20th Century!
  • Personal: I thought this was one of the most mathematically challenging topics that we have covered so far in Physics. I am really pleased that I can successfully handle the algebra but also have a good understanding of the physical meaning of all the terms.

Step 4 Independent Review

This can be as simple as covering the red section 1 with a piece of paper and using the Questions and Key Words section as a cue to recall the hidden content.

Conclusion

This was run as a pilot project in Y12 with A-level Physics students. In Y13, they were taught by different teachers who did not use the adapted system. About one quarter of the students who had been taught the process were still using it for Y13 revision and were enthusiastic about how much they felt it boosted their recall of content and understanding.

Some research (e.g. Ahmad 2019) suggests learning gains for students who use the traditional (non-adapted) Cornell notes system. Interestingly, Jacobs (2008) suggests a large improvement in “higher level question” scores for Cornell notes students (again, not the adapted Cornell notes version outlined above).

References

Ahmad, S. Z. (2019). Impact of Cornell Notes vs. REAP on EFL Secondary School Students’ Critical Reading Skills. International Education Studies12(10), 60-74.

Cho, J. (2011). Improving science learning through using interactive science notebook (ISN). In P. Gouzouasis (Ed.), Pedagogy in a new tonality (pp. 149-166). Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense Publishers. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6091-669-4_10

Chun, B. A., & Heo, H. J. (2018). The effect of flipped learning on academic performance as an innovative method for overcoming Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Information and Education Technology (pp. 56-60).

Jacobs, K. (2008). A comparison of two note taking methods in a secondary English classroom. Proceedings of the 4th Annual GRASP Symposium, Wichita State University, 2008 (pp. 119-120).

Murre, J. M., & Dros, J. (2015). Replication and analysis of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. PloS one10(7), e0120644.

Pauk, W. (1974). How to study in college. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Physics Six Mark Calculation Question? Give it the old FIFA-One-Two!

Batman gives a Physics-Six-Marker the ol’ FIFA-One-Two,

Many students struggle with Physics calculation questions at KS3 and KS4. Since 40% of the marks on GCSE Physics papers are for maths, this is a real worry for their teachers.

The FIFA system (if that’s not too grandiose a description) provides a minimal and flexible framework that helps students to successfully attempt calculation questions.

Since adopting the system, we encounter far fewer blanks on test and exam scripts where students simply skip over a calculation question. A typical student can gain 10-20 marks.

The FIFA system is outlined here but essentially consists of:

  • Formula: students write the formula or equation
  • Insert values: students insert the known data from the question.
  • Fine-tune: rearrange, convert units, simplify etc.
  • Answer: students state the final answer.

The “Fine-tune” stage is not — repeat, not — synonymous with re-arranging and is designed to be “creatively ambiguous” and allow space to “do what needs to be done” and can include unit conversion (e.g. kilowatts to watts), algebraic rearrangement and simplification.

The FIFA-One-Two

Uniquely for Physics, instead of the dreaded “Six Marker” extended writing question, we have the even-more-dreaded “Six Marker” long calculation question. (Actually, they can be awarded anywhere between 4 to 6 marks, but we’ll keep calling them “Six Markers” for convenience.)

The “FIFA-one-two” strategy can help students gain marks in these questions.

Let’s look how it could be applied to a typical “Six mark” long calculation question. We prepare the ground like this:

FIFA-one-two: the set up. (Note that since the expected unit of the final answer is given, this is actually a five marker not a six marker; however, the system works equally well in both cases.)

Since the question mentions the power output of the kettle first, let’s begin by writing down the energy transferred equation.

Next we insert the values. It’s quite helpful to write in any “non standard” units such as kilowatts, minutes etc as a reminder that these need to be converted in the Fine-tune phase.

And so we arrive at the final answer for this first section:

Next we write down the specific heat capacity equation:

And going through the second FIFA operation:

Conclusion

I think every “Six Marker” extended calculation question can be approached in a productive way using the FIFA-One-Two approach.

This means that, even if students can’t reach the final answer, they will pick up some method marks along the way.

I hope you give the FIFA-One-Two method a go with your students.

Talk from Chat Physics 2021 https://chatphysics.org/chat-physics-live-2021

Fear of Forces? Keep Calm and Draw Free Body Diagrams

Why do so many students hold pernicious and persistent misconceptions about forces?

Partly, I think, because of the apparent clash between our intuitive, gut-level knowledge of real world physics. For example, a typical student might find the statement ‘If I push this box, it will stop moving shortly after I stop pushing because force is needed to move things‘ entirely unobjectionable; whilst in the theoretical, rarefied world of the physicist the statement ‘The box will keep moving at a constant velocity after I stop pushing it, unless it is acted on by a resultant force such as friction‘ would get a tick whereas the former would get a big angry X and and a darkly muttered comment about ‘bloody Aristotleans.’

After all, ‘pernicious’ is in the eye of the beholder. Physics teachers have to remember that they suffer mightily under the ‘curse of knowledge’ and have forgotten what it’s like to look at the world through anything than the lens of Newtonian mechanics.

We learn about the world through the power of example. Human beings are ‘inference engines’: we strive to make sense of the world by constructing general rules based on the examples presented to us.

Many of the examples of forces in action presented to students are in the form of force diagrams; and in my experience, all too many force diagrams add to students’ confusion.

A bad force diagram

Force Diagram 1: version 1 (really bad)

Over the years, I have seen many versions of this diagram. To my own chagrin, I must admit that I, personally, have drawn versions of this diagram in the past. But I now recognise it has one major, irredeemable flaw: the arrows are drawn hanging in mid-air.

OK, let’s address this. Is this better?

Force Diagram 1: version 2 (still bad)

No, it isn’t because it is still unclear which forces are acting on which object. Is the blue 75 N arrow the person pushing the cart forward or the cart pulling the person forward? Is the red 75 N arrow the cart pushing back on the person or the person pulling back on the cart?

From both versions of this diagram shown above: we simply cannot tell.

As a consequence, I think the explanatory value of this diagram is limited.

Free Body Diagrams to the Rescue!

A free body diagram is simply one where we consider the forces on each object in the situation in turn.

Force Diagram 1: version 3 (much better!)

We begin with a situation diagram. This shows the relationship between the objects we are considering. Next, we draw a free body diagram for each object; that is, we draw each object involved and consider the forces acting on it.

From version 3 of Force Diagram 1, we can see that it was an attempt to illustrate Newton’s Third Law i.e. that if body A exerts a force on body B then body B exerts an equal and opposite force on body A.

Another bad force diagram

Force Diagram 2: version 1 (very bad)

This is a bad force diagram because it is unclear which forces are acting on the cart and which are acting on the person. Apart from a very general ‘Well, 50 N minus 50 N means zero resultant force so zero acceleration’, there is not a lot of information that can be extracted from this diagram.

Also, the most likely mechanism to produce the red retarding force of 50 N is friction between the wheels of the cart and the ground (and note that since the cart is being pushed by an external body and the wheels are not powered like those of a car, the frictional force opposes the motion). Showing this force acting on the handle of the cart is not helpful, in my opinion.

Free body diagrams to the rescue (again)!

The Newton 3 pairs are colour coded. For example, the orange 50 N forward force on the person (object A) is produced as a direct result of Newton’s 3rd Law because the person’s foot is using friction to grip the floor surface (object B) and push backwards on it (the orange arrow in the bottom diagram).

This diagram shows a complete free body diagram body analysis for all three objects (cart, person, floor) involved in this simple interaction.

I’m not suggesting that all three free body diagrams always need to be discussed. For example, at KS3 the discussion might be limited at the teacher’s discretion to the top ‘Forces on Cart’ diagram as an example of Newton’s First Law in action. Or equally, the teacher may wish to extend the analysis to include the second and third diagrams, depending on their own judgement of their students’ understanding. The Key Stage ticks and crosses on the diagram are indicative suggestions only.

At KS3 and KS4, there is not a pressing need to explicitly label this technique as ‘free body force diagrams’. Instead, what I suggest (perhaps after drawing the situation diagram without any force arrows on it) is the simple statement that ‘OK, let’s look at the forces acting on just the cart’ before drawing the top diagram. Further diagrams can be introduced with a similar statements such as ‘Next, let’s look at the forces acting on just the person’ and so on. Linking the diagrams with dotted lines as shown is, I think, useful in not losing sight of the fact that we are dealing piecemeal with a complex and nuanced whole.

Conclusion

The free body force diagram technique (whether or not the teacher decides to explicitly call it that) offers a useful tool that will allow us all to (fingers crossed!) draw better force diagrams.

  1. Draw a situation diagram with NO FORCE ARROWS.
  2. ‘Now let’s look at the forces acting on just object 1’ and draw a separate free body diagram (i.e. a diagram showing just object 1 and the forces acting on it)
  3. Repeat step 2 for some or all of the other objects at your discretion.
  4. (Optional) Link all the diagrams with dotted lines to emphasise that they are facets of a more complex, nuanced whole

In the next post, I hope to show how the technique can be used to explain common problems such as how a car tyre interacts with the ground to drive a car forward.

You can read Part 2 here.

SHM and the Top Gear Challenge

There are three things that everyone should know about simple harmonic motion (SHM).

  • Firstly, it is simple;
  • Secondly, it is harmonic;
  • Thirdly, it is a type of motion.

There, my work here is done. H’mmm — it looks like this physics teaching lark is much easier than is generally acknowledged…

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 17.00.00.png

[The above joke courtesy of the excellent Blackadder 2 (1986), of course.]

Misconceptions to the left of us, misconceptions to the right of us…

In my opinion, the misconceptions which hamper students’ attempts to understand simple harmonic motion are:

  • A shallow understanding of dynamics which does not differentiate between ‘displacement’ ‘velocity’ and ‘acceleration’ but lumps them together as interchangeable flavours of ‘movement’
  • The idea that ‘acceleration’ invariably leads to an increase in the magnitude of velocity and that only the materially different ‘deceleration’ (which is exclusively produced by resistive forces such as friction or drag) can result in a decrease.
  • Not understanding the positive and negative direction conventions when analysing motion.

All of these misconceptions can, I believe, be helpfully addressed by using a form of dual coding which I outlined in a previous post.

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 18.12.42.png

Top Gear presenters: Assemble!

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 11.10.37.png

The discussion context which I present is that of a rather strange episode of the motoring programme Top Gear. You have been given the opportunity to win the car of your dreams if — and only if — you can drive it so that it performs SHM (simple harmonic motion) with a period of 30 seconds and an amplitude of 120 m.

This is a fairly reasonable challenge as it would lead to a maximum acceleration of 5.3 m s-2. For reference, a typical production car can go 0-27 m/s in 4.0 s (a = 6.8 m s-2)) but a Tesla Model S can go 0-27 m/s in a scorching 2.28 s (a = 11.8 m s-2). BTW ‘0-27 m/s’ is the SI civilised way of saying 0-60 mph. It can also be an excellent extension activity for students to check the plausibility of this challenge(!)

Timing and the Top Gear SHM Challenge

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.06.48.png

  • At what time should the car reach E on its outward journey to ensure we meet the Top Gear SHM Challenge? (15 s since A to E is half of a full oscillation and T should be 30 seconds according to the challenge)
  • At what time should the car reach C? (7.5 s since this is a quarter of a full oscillation.)

All physics teachers, to a greater or lesser degree, labour under the ‘curse of knowledge’. What we think is ‘obvious’ is not always so obvious to the learner. There is an egregiously underappreciated value in making our implicit assumptions and thinking explicit, and I think diagrams like the above are invaluable in this process.

But what is this SHM (of which you speak of so knowledgeably) anyway?

Simple harmonic motion must fulfil two conditions:

  1. The acceleration must always be directed towards a fixed point.
  2. The magnitude of the acceleration is directly proportional to its displacement from the fixed point.

In other words:

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 21.33.31.png

Let’s look at this definition in terms of our fanciful Top Gear challenge. More to the point, let’s look at the situation when t = 0 s:

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.08.29.png

Questions that could be discussed here:

  • Why is the displacement at A labelled as ‘+120 m’? (Displacement is a vector and at A it is in the same direction as the [arbitrary] positive direction we have selected and show as the grey arrow labelled +ve.)
  • The equation suggests that the value of a should be negative when x is positive. Is the diagram consistent with this? (Yes. The acceleration arrow is directed towards the fixed point C and is in the opposite direction to the positive direction indicated by the grey arrow.)
  • What is the value of v indicated on the diagram? Is this consistent with the terms of the challenge? (Zero. Yes, since 120 m is the required amplitude or maximum displacement so if v was greater than zero at this point the car would go beyond 120 m.)
  • How could you operate the car controls so as to achieve this part of simple harmonic motion? (You should be depressing the gas pedal to the floor, or ‘pedal to the metal’, to achieve maximum acceleration.)

Model the thinking explicitlyScreenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.17.49.png

Hands up who thinks the time on the second clock on the diagram above should read 3.75 seconds? It makes sense, doesn’t it? It takes 7.5 s to reach C (one quarter of an oscillation) so the temptation to ‘split the difference’ is nigh on irresistible — except that it would be wrong — and I must confess, it took several revisions of this post before I spotted this error myself (!).

The vehicle is accelerating, so it does not cover equal distances in equal times. It takes longer to travel from A to B than B to C on this part of the journey because the vehicle is gaining speed.

So what is the time when x = 60 m

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.40.24.png

So we can redraw the diagram as follows:

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.41.24

Some further questions that could be asked are:

  • Is the acceleration arrow at B smaller or larger than the acceleration arrow at A? Is this consistent with what we know about SHM? (Smaller. Yes, because for SHM, acceleration is proportional to displacement. The displacement at B is +60 m; the acceleration at B is half the value of the acceleration at A because of this. Note that the magnitude of the acceleration is reduced but the direction of a is still negative since the displacement is positive.)
  • Is the velocity at B positive or negative? (Negative, since it is opposite to the positive direction selected on the diagram and shown by the grey ‘+ve’ arrow.)
  • Is the magnitude of the velocity at B smaller or larger than at A, and is this consistent with a negative acceleration? (Larger. Yes, since both acceleration and velocity are in the same direction. Note that this is an important point to highlight since many students hold the misconception that a negative acceleration is always a ‘deceleration’.)
  • How could you operate the car controls so as to achieve this part of simple harmonic motion? (You should have eased off the gas pedal at this point to achieve half the acceleration obtained at A.)

Next, we move on to this diagram and ask students to use their knowledge of SHM to decide the values of the question marks on the diagram.

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.44.43.png

Which hopefully should lead to a diagram like the one below, and realisation that at this point, the driver’s foot should be entirely off the gas pedal.

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.46.00.png

‘Are we there yet?’

And thence to this:

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.47.18.png

One of the most salient points to highlight in the above diagram is the question: how could you operate the car controls at this point? The answer is of course, that you would be pressing the foot brake pedal to achieve a medium magnitude deceleration. This is often a point of confusion for students: how can a positive acceleration produce a decrease in the magnitude of the velocity? Hopefully, the dual coding convention suggested in this blog post will make this clearer to students.

‘No, really, ARE WE THERE YET?!!’

Nearly.

Over time, we can build up a picture of a complete cycle of SHM, such as the one show below. This shows the car reversing backwards at t = 25 s while the driver gradually increases the pressure on the brake.

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.48.21.png

From this, it should be easier to relate the results above to graphs of SHM:

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 10.51.23.png

A quick check reveals that the displacement is positive and half its maximum value; the acceleration is negative and half of its maximum magnitude; and the velocity is positive and just below its maximum value (since the average deceleration is smaller between C and B than it will be between B and A) .

And finally…

I shall leave the final word to the estimable Top Gear team…

Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 11.08.21.png

So there you have it: JOB DONE!