1. 2011

    Bird Balance

    A lot of the discussion about the physics in the latest Mythbusters episode focused on the giant Newton’s cradle. But what about the other myth? While Adam and Jamie were playing around with their giant balls, Kari, Tory and Grant balanced a car on a cliff in order to test whether a bird landing on the hood would be able to send it falling over the edge. Unsurprisingly, it turns out there’s some interesting physics to be found there as well.

    Potential Energy and Equilibrium

    First of all, what does it take to balance a car on a cliff? The easiest way to think about this physically is in terms of gravitational potential energy. Let’s say that the top of the cliff, at the point where the car is resting on it, is at height zero. Then the potential energy of the car is \(U = mgh_\text{cm}\), where \(h_\text{cm}\) is the height of the car’s center of mass. As a rough rule of thumb, the car “seeks out” the configuration of lowest potential energy (there are a bunch of caveats to that statement but it’s good enough for now), which means its …