1. 2010

    Decapitation: Energy or momentum?


    Took the words right out of my mouth. Or right off my keyboard. Whatever. I’m just happy to see other people are considering the same questions.

    But I’ve got a couple of things to add. First of all, kinetic energy can be easily related to momentum using the formula

    $$K = \frac{p^2}{2m}$$

    which tells you directly that an object with the same energy but larger mass will have a larger momentum.

    Also, the big question: is it energy or momentum that gives a collision its decapitating power? My thought is that it actually depends on force. Think about this from the point of view of a particle in the neck. This particle doesn’t “know” (as if a particle could “know” anything) how big the sheet of glass hitting it is; it doesn’t “know” how much energy or momentum the glass has. The reason is that energy and momentum are what I’m going to call global properties, basically meaning that the total amount of them possessed by some object comes from contributions from all different pieces of the object. To measure a global property of the …

  2. 2010

    Soda Cup Killer

    The Mythbusters are back! In their first episode of the new season, Adam and Jamie tested the myth that a cup of soda casually thrown out a car on the highway can smash through a windshield and kill the person sitting behind it. (Technically busted, but still really dangerous!)

    One of the major factors that determines whether or not a projectile (like the cup of soda) will be able to smash a windshield is the force exerted by the cup on the glass. On the show, the Mythbusters used a piezoelectric force sensor to directly measure the force exerted when a cup of soda/ice/slush impacted on a steel plate, but we can also try to calculate the force using Newton’s second law,

    $$\vec{F} = \ud{\vec{p}}{t}$$

    First some simplifying assumptions are in order. I’m going to start by assuming that (1) each part of the cup and its contents continues to move at constant velocity up to the moment it impacts the plate, and that (2) after impacting the plate, the soda/ice/slush flies out in a direction perpendicular to its initial trajectory, along the plane of the plate. Of course, I wouldn …

  3. 2009

    How the Mythbusters skipped a car

    On the last episode before breaking for Christmas, the Mythbusters build team undertook the slightly ambitious project of skipping a car across a pond, as shown in the movie Cannonball Run. At first this probably seems like a ridiculous thing to try — of course, on Mythbusters, what isn’t? But this one actually worked. Here’s a look at the rather interesting physics behind it.

    As Jesse explained on the show, there are basically two physical principles that allow you to skip a stone (or a car) across water: the spin, and the reaction force of the water. This isn’t buoyant force, like they’ve dealt with on previous shows; if buoyancy alone were the only thing pushing up on the stone, it’d float. Stones don’t float. (Neither do cars.) The force that keeps a stone skipping across the water is related to its speed. Spin and speed, that’s the magic formula.

    First, the spin. Any spinning or rotating object has angular momentum, which is like a rotational equivalent of linear momentum: roughly speaking, it measures how difficult it is to change the object’s motion. Objects with a lot of momentum are either very massive …

  4. 2009

    Curving bullets

    This week the Mythbusters tackled the question of whether you can make a bullet follow a curved flight path, as in the movie Wanted. The characters in the movie are able to do this using some fancy flick of the wrist as they fire the gun, but is it really possible? Apparently a lot of people were wondering.

    The short, simple answer is no. It’s an obvious application of Newton’s first law of motion: objects moving in a straight line will continue moving in a straight line at constant speed, unless subject to an external force. But there are only a couple of external forces that can act on a bullet: air resistance and gravity. Gravity certainly isn’t going to make the bullet curve sideways as we see in the movie, and all air resistance will do is slow it down, not change its direction.

    Then again, Kari, Grant, and Tory hit on an important point: bullets are highly symmetric and are typically ejected from the gun barrel with high spin. All this is optimized for motion in a straight line toward whatever you’re aiming the gun at. What happens if you use asymmetric, oddly shaped …