• A Festive Time: Happy Isaac Newton's Birthday

     Apple tree in England by W. Carter, public domain

    Alas, Isaac Newton did not actually suddenly understand gravity due to an apple falling on his head. He might have eaten lot of them, though, as he was stuck at home avoiding a pandemic while he was studying it. Sound familiar, anyone? 

    But, nonetheless, this week is his birthday! So we're sharing a fun resource about Newton's Second Law of Motion, which to give you something to play with at home this week while there's not much else going on... and while you're waiting for classes to start up again so you can see some of our demonstrations of Newton's 2nd!

    The PhET Collection at the University of Colorado has a delightful simulation of Newton's second law in action: Forces and Motion.  There are four different simulations within this one site.

    The first, Net Force, is shown in the image below. A wagon (which appears to be loaded with candy, potentially a sticky situation) has ropes coming off either end. You can drag pulling humanoids onto the rope on either side; the different sizes are scaled to represent the different force they can apply. Try combining different forces, then press “Go” and watch the wagon start moving. You can add and remove figures from the task to change the force beforehand and while it’s in motion, to see how changing the force changes the acceleration.

    3 examples from PhET Forces & Motion

    The second simulation, Motion, has a skateboard on a level plane; you can load people or objects (a box, a trash can, a refrigerator) onto the skateboard and give it a push; see how changing the force or the mass changes the motion.

    The third, Friction, gives us pretty much the same setup – but without the skateboard! See how the force of friction slows the motion compared to moving on the skateboard.

    And finally, Acceleration adds a very simple accelerometer to the setup: a bucket of water! See how the angle of the water’s surface changes as different forces are applied. Fortunately, the bucket doesn’t appear to be able to fall off and get everyone wet, always a good thing on a chilly day.

     See you in January!

  • Animation Highlight: Pendulum Waves

    Our pendulum wave demonstrations (G1-82 and G1-83) are popular ways of showing wave phenomena. These demonstrations consist of a series of pendulums in a line, each with incrementally different periods. They are all started into motion at once, so their first swing is in phase, but then they move out of synchronization due to their slightly different periods. The differences in period were chosen such that the array of pendulums would themselves describe a wave, with a period related to the difference in periods of the pendulums. So over time they evolve a series of wave patterns as different pendulums move in and out of synchronization, before eventually briefly synching up again when they finally reach an integral multiple of all of their periods.

     In a simulation, we can go beyond this, as removing the need for physical strings can enable even more complex wave patterns. Check out Don's latest animation below!

  • Atwood's Machine: Testing Newton’s Second Law

    Atwood's Machine demonstration: identical masses hang stationary from a string looped over a lightweight pulley, next to a mounted meter stick Figure 1

    Atwood’s Machine is a device initially developed by George Atwood in the 18th century as a way of testing Newton’s Laws mechanically. We have a three demonstrations of this device, C4-21: Atwood Machine, C4-22: Horizontal Atwood Machine, and C4-23: Atwood Machine with Heavy Pulleywhich can be used in the classroom to measure the acceleration of masses under gravity.

     At its simplest, Atwood’s Machine is a pulley with a string over it, with an object hanging on each end of the string, pulled down by gravity. According to Newton’s Laws, the force on each end of the string is dependent on the mass. In Atwood’s idealized, theoretical mathematical model of the experiment, the pulley and string themselves have no mass, so only the hanging objects’ mass we add affects the force.

    So long as the masses are equal, there is the same force pulling down on each object – so there is no net force on the system. So if the two objects start out stationary, they remain stationary, by the principle of inertia. If they start out moving, they continue moving at the same speed (until they run out of string).

    If one mass is greater than the other, then there are different forces acting on each end, so there is a net force on the system. This net force will cause the masses to accelerate. But this is where it gets complicated: the force on each end of the string from gravity is proportional to the mass on that end. But because the masses are tied together and transmit force to each other through the tension in the string, the acceleration is proportional to the net force and to the total mass of the system. But since each of the component forces is proportional to that mass, the final acceleration ends up being proportional to the ratio between the difference in masses and the total mass.



    You can also use this device another way – by timing how fast the objects accelerate, if you know their masses, then you can measure the force of gravity!


    In a real experiment, of course, the string and pulley very much do have mass. Additionally, there is another source of force on the system: the friction in the pulley. This frictional force acts to reduce the speed of the moving masses. Additionally, the force from gravity must move the mass of the rotating pulley as well as the mass of the hanging objects.

    For one version of this demonstration (figure 1 above), we carefully chose a pulley with a very low mass, so it behaves very much like the theory predicts.

    For the other (figure 2 below), we have a much heavier pulley. It has greater mass, and thus accelerating the hanging objects also means overcoming the pulley’s inertia as well.

    Atwood's machine demonstration: weighted strings hang over both a light pulley and a heavy pullet Figure 2

    This is an important aspect of the difference between theory, simulation, and experiment, and valuable to talk about in class. In a theoretical model, we can propose things that don’t really exist in the real world – massless strings, frictionless pulleys, objects of constant mass but zero size. We use these theoretical experiments to test out theories mathematically, to see if our theories will give results that make sense, and to plan an experiment.

    With a real experiment, there are more variables we have to take into account that can affect the results – friction, inertia, heat, objects that stretch and swing and wear down over time. But it’ is these real-world experiments that let us take that final step and ensure that our theories accurately predict the outcome of real-world physics.

     A simulation is somewhere in between the two. We can simulate a physics experiment inside a computer, as another way of testing our theories. This has its own limitations, since the computer only knows about the laws of physics we program into it – if our initial assumptions are wrong or if we set them up incorrectly, the simulation may give inaccurate results. But the simulation lets us try out many combinations of factors in succession, making tiny changes each time, in ways we might not be able to in the laboratory. It’s much faster to adjust a measurement in a simulation than it is to build a new device on the workbench.

     And, importantly, we can use a simulation to practice an experiment when we can’t get to the laboratory at all!

     This simulation, by Andrew Duffy of Boston University, lets us try out the Atwood Machine at home on our computers, or on the screen in the classroom 

    We can vary the mass of each of the two hanging objects, from 0.1 kilograms (100 grams, about the mass of a small bar of soap) to 2 kilograms (2,000 grams, close to the mass of a 5-pound bag of flour). You can set the masses and then start the simulation running, and it will measure the forces and acceleration as it runs. Try it out and see if you can replicate our demonstration, then experiment and test its limits!


  • Demo Highlight: Air Table

     We have many demonstrations of the mechanics of collisions in our collection. You can explore them in section C7 of our website.

     a collage of many demonstrations of collisions

     Among the most valuable for illustrating all kinds of collisions are the air table demonstrations, the large C7-42 and the smaller C7-43, and their portable cousin the hoverpucks, C7-44. All three of these demonstrations use pucks floating on a cushion of air to allow you to show very low friction collisions with various masses. The air tables use an air blower beneath the surface, while the hoverpucks have their own integral fans so they can skitter across the floor of the classroom. All three, of course, require quite a bit of space to use!

    Demonstration C7-42: large air table with pucks

     So it’s a valuable supplement to them that the PhET Collection at the University of Colorado Boulder has introduced their online simulated Collision Lab, which lets you experiment with collisions of pucks at the comfort of your desk or couch. You can use the air table in the classroom, then try to replicate the experiment at home for further analysis!








  • Demo Highlight: Electromagnet With Bang

    One of our most popular electromagnetism demonstrations is J6-01: Electromagnet With A Bang! We discussed this demonstration in a previous highlight article. But now, you can see it in action in this new video with Landry Horimbere.

    A massive block of steel is suspended by an electromagnet, courtesy of a single D-cell flashlight battery. When the switch is flipped to open the circuit, the electromagnet turns off, and the block falls dramatically to the table.

    The operation of an electromagnet is based on the discovery that an electrical current generates a magnetic field as it flows through a conductor. By grouping many conductors together in a coil, arranged so that their fields align, we can sum their individual electromagnetic fields into a much stronger one. Thus, we can create a strong electromagnet even from a relatively weak current.

    You can also try this out at home and in the classroom with this updated magnet simulator from the PhET collection at the University of Colorado.

     PhET EM simulator screenshot

    The simulator has both permanent magnet and electromagnet options. Flip to the electromagnet tab; you should see, as in the screencap above, a battery connected to a coil, with many magnetic field indicators all around. Controls in the margin let you adjust the number of loops in the coil, and a slider lets you vary the voltage. Both the large magnetic compass and the magnetic field meter can be dragged around the screen to measure at different points. You can also swap the battery out for an AC power supply. Try it out!

  • Demo Highlight: Hydraulic Press

     Demonstration F1-11: Hydraulic Press is a popular and dramatic way of illustrating Pascal’s Law. See it in action in this new video starring engineering student Sarah Hall:

    Pascal’s Law states that, given an incompressible fluid, any change in pressure at one point in the fluid is transmitted throughout that fluid. In a closed container, like this hydraulic cylinder, that pressure exerts a force perpendicular to the walls of the container. The force is dependent on the pressure and on the area. Here, that force is then transmitted up into a wooden board, breaking it.

    hydraulic cylinder diagram - based on public domain illustration by Olivier Cleynen

     You can see this illustrated in this EduMedia animation:

    Experiment with it yourself and see how the force vectors change with area in this simulation by Seng Kwang:

  • Demo Highlight: Newton's Cradle

    A popular demonstration for illustrating elastic collisions and the conservation of energy and momentum in the classroom is C7-11: Collisions of Balls of Equal Masses. Also popularly called Newton’s Cradle, as it helps us illustrate Newton’s laws of motion even if Newton himself may never have had one, you can find these in many places as entertaining desk toys; but they show us some important physics.

     You can see the demonstration in action in our new video featuring Dave Buehrle.


     The simplest and most straightforward explanation for the behaviour of this device is just that – that it is an application of basic conservation laws. The collisions between these hard steel spheres are very nearly elastic, so nearly all of the momentum of the incoming spheres is transferred to the outgoing spheres, and nearly all the energy as well so they rise to the same height on the other side. A pendulum swinging back and forth is a classic illustration of the exchange between kinetic energy (from the velocity of the pendulum) and gravitational potential energy (the potential energy the stationary pendulum has as a result of its position when paused at the top of its swing). And this demonstration is, in a sense, just a set of pendula all swinging together, exchanging their energies and momenta, and we can simplify it be treating only the displaced balls as a single pendulum.

     You can likewise see this illustrated in this simulation by B. Surendranath of Hyderabad: 

    Try it out at home and see what happens when you change the number of balls you move and how far you move them.

    However, we can also explore more complex analyses. We could also analyze the system as a series of coupled oscillators, transferring energy between them much like a phonon in a crystal lattice – the “wave” of motion does have an observable speed, after all, so we could look at it as a propagation problem. Or we could treat each ball as a mostly elastic but slightly inelastic mass, and calculate its interactions with each of the other balls. This might give us an even more accurate picture of

    This is a good example of just how the process of doing physics works. No mathematical model of a physical system is every perfect, and different models can be “right” for different situations. We choose the way of modeling a system that bests helps us understand the system at the level we need to understand it at, whether it’s an atom or a galaxy or a desk-top toy.

     To explore more about this device, consider reading the article “Newton’s Cradle and Scientific Explanation” by David Gavenda and Judith Edgington in The Physics Teacher.

  • Demo Highlight: Pendulum Length Ratio

    This week we’re taking a look at a popular demonstration of simple harmonic motion, G1-15. This demonstration consists of a pair of pendula, with one four times the length of the other. You can see them in action in this video with PhD student Subhayan Sahu.

    We can see that as the pendulum oscillates, its period is proportional to the square root of its length. The fact that a simple pendulum’s period is dependent only on its length and on the force of gravity is very handy for other purposes, too! Mechanical clocks are built around a pendulum for this reason, and if you have no clock at all you can make a simple time-measuring device by just making a pendulum and counting its oscillations. Very sensitive measurements of the motion of a pendulum have even been used to measure minute differences in the force of gravity, letting us map Earth’s gravitational field.

     You can also experiment with this at home, with any heavy object and some string. (But advice: ask before using somebody else’s shoelaces for this, they might need them!) If you’re short on string, or if you want to try adjusting different variables at the same time to see how the pendulum’s motion changes, you can also check out this simulation at The Physics Aviary:


  • Demo Highlight: Racing Balls 2

    Earlier this summer, we introduced these demonstration highlight of the week articles with the Racing Balls demo. It’s been one of our most popular ever! This week we’re returning to it to check out some new resources.

    Thanks to a UMD Teaching Innovation Grant, we’ve created new videos of many demonstrations, including this one, where Eliot Hammer presents the Racing Balls demo!

    And Don Lynch has created a new animation of the demonstration as well, seen here:

    This lets us see the balls in motion and compare their positions to an energy graph, showing the transition between kinetic and potential energy and how it affects the motion of the balls in the tracks. The balls each begin and end with the same potential and kinetic energy and the same velocity. But for a distance in the middle, the ball on the lowered track exchanges some of its potential energy for more kinetic energy, and a greater velocity. When the track returns to the original height, the ball is back to having the same potential and kinetic energy, and the same velocity it started with. But in the meantime, it has moved farther ahead in space during the time it had greater velocity, and so reaches the end of the track first.

    This is a valuable way of showing the relationship between energy and velocity, and between velocity, position, and time. It’s also a good example of how the combination of real-world demonstrations and simulations can enhance our physics teaching.

     Check out additional videos, animations, and simulations in the Tools & Resources menu above!

  • Demo Highlight: Rolling vs. Sliding

    This week we’re taking a look at a deceptively simple demonstration, D1-61: Rolling versus Sliding. An aluminum cylinder rolls down an inclined plane. An identical aluminum cylinder has tiny bearings on one end, so that when stood upright on that end it effectively slides almost without friction down the incline. You might invite your students to make a prediction: If the two cylinders are started from the top at the same time, will the rolling cylinder or the sliding cylinder reach the bottom of the incline first?

    one aluminum cylinder lying on its roudned side, an identical one stands on its flat end with tiny bearings

    The two cylinders start at the same height with the same potential energy. As they slide or roll down the ramp, that potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. Linear kinetic energy is proportional to the mass of the cylinder and the square of its velocity. However, the rolling one also has rotational kinetic energy, which is proportional to the moment of inertia of the cylinder and the square of its angular velocity. So for the rolling cylinder, some of the potential energy is converted into rotational kinetic energy as it rolls, and only some of the potential energy is converted into linear potential energy, giving it a lower velocity as it goes down the ramp.

    So the sliding cylinder reaches the bottom first!

    It can be helpful to illustrate this exchange of energies with graphs. Andrew Duffy at Boston University has created simulations with animated energy graphs, one here for a mass sliding down a ramp, and another here for a mass rolling down a ramp. Try them out for yourself! You can see that the potential and kinetic components always sum to the same total energy, showing that energy is conserved.


  • Demo Highlight: Suspended Slinky

    This week, we’re taking a look At the ever-popular demonstration G3-28: Suspended Slinky®. This handy device lets us demonstrate both transverse and longitudinal waves in the classroom. You can see it in action in this new video with physics student Jeffrey Wack.

    As Jeffrey shows us, there are two directions that matter when characterizing a wave: the direction of propagation, where the wave as a whole is going; and the direction of displacement, the motion of the individual elements that make up a wave. In a longitudinal wave, these are parallel – the individual particles of air in a sound wave move back and forth in the direction of travel of the sound, or the individual loops of wire in a spring move back and forth along the length of the spring. In a transverse wave, by contrast, they are perpendicular – the electric and magnetic fields in a radio wave oscillating perpendicular to the direction of propagation, or the loops of a spring swinging side to side as a transverse wave moves down the length of the spring.

    There are many kinds of waves in the world, some transverse and some longitudinal, and some that combine characteristics of both! These animations by Dan Russell of Penn State illustrate some examples of this, such as waves in water where the individual water molecules are actually moving in a circle as the wave propagates through.

    You can experiment with comparing longitudinal and transverse waves at home with this simulator from Tom Walsh at oPhysics. Try setting different amplitudes and frequencies, and see what changes in each wave as you do so.


  • Demo Highlight: The Ripple Tank and a Ripple Tank Simulator

    .Welcome back! This week, we’re looking at one of our particularly popular and versatile demonstrations, the Ripple Tank.

    a ripple tank, with circular waves going out from a single point

     The Physics Demonstration Facility has two versions of this demo, so we can reach as many audiences as possible. We have a table top version for outreach events and local classrooms, and a portable version to reach out-of-building locations. These ripple tank demonstrations can both be used to highlight a variety of wave phenomena.

    a ripple tank, with waves from two slits interfering

    A properly set up ripple tank with its various accessories, can illustrate many different aspects of the physics of waves – single and double point source circular waves, plane waves, interference, diffraction through openings and around obstacles. With a movable mount and careful planning, it can even show the Doppler effect!

    Some of this is hard to do at home, but fortunately, there are options. Simulators exist that can carry out at least some of the experiments you might usually use the ripple tank for. You can take screenshots of them to illustrate lectures, or send the link to students to experiment with at home.

     a small ripple tank with waves coming from two vibrating wires

    There are several different ripple tank simulators, such as this versatile one from Paul Falstad: 

    • When first opened, the simulator defaults to emulating a tank of water with a single oscillating source in it. It is tinted a cerulean color for easy viewing, but can be switched to several different color schemes via a drop-down menu. If you prefer the traditional view, #4 on that menu is a greyscale view that closely approximates the familiar shadow projection of the tabletop ripple tank.

    • A checkbox below this allows the simulation to be frozen and restarted; another lets you shift to an angled three-dimensional view that can be more difficult to see on small screens, but can be helpful in clarifying complex wave behaviour.

    • Sliders adjacent to this let you vary the frequency of the oscillation, and turn on damping.

    • Other sliders let you adjust aspects of the simulation process, changing the speed, brightness, and resolution of the simulation box; these are best left alone unless you are struggling with making it work on a slower computer or are having difficulty clarifying complex wave behaviour at an interface.

    • In addition to the preprogrammed oscillators, you can excite the simulated ripple tank manually by clicking on it, just like dipping your finger into the water of a real ripple tank.

    • A variety of oscillation sources and tank configurations can be selected from the Example dropdown menu. Some likely to be useful for our purposes include:

    1. Single Source and Double Source for circular waves from point sources

    2. Plane Wave (which does show edge effects at the sides of the “tank”)

    3. Single Slit and Double Slit which show diffraction via a plane wave striking a barrier with one or two holes and producing the expected circular waves and interference pattern

    4. Obstacle (with a single source circular wave and a small rectangular barrier)

    5. Doppler Effect 1 (with a moving source of circular waves).

    • For more complex uses, you can also modify the simulation. By right-clicking in the simulation box, you can place additional sources, barriers, and refracting elements. You can also right-click on existing elements and delete them, allowing you to clear the screen and produce an empty “tank” to create your own experiment in.

    • You can also place “probes” that will display the wave pattern at that point in a movable oscilloscope-style box. This can be valuable as a challenge for students, to predict the pattern that a probe would read at a given point, or to construct a simulation to produce a particular result.



  • Demo Highlight: The Shive Wave Machine with Prof. Peter Shawhan

    Today, let’s take look at a popular multi-function demonstration apparatus: The Shive Wave Machine. You can see it in action in this new video featuring Prof. Peter Shawhan.


     Invented in 1959 by Dr. John Shive, a Baltimore native who became a physicist at Bell Labs, the Shive Wave Machine consists of a series of heavy steel rods connected at their centers by a stiff wire; it functions like a torsional spring. You can create a pulse by gently moving the rod at one end up and down; then you can see how the pulse propagates as a wave along the length of the wire, watching each rod move in turn. Our demonstration collection has two such devices; one has longer rods, the other has shorter rods; as you can see in the video, the different weights thus give them different transmission speeds and impedances.


    This can be used to demonstrate a variety of wave phenomena. You can make a simple model of a traveling wave by first sending a single pulse down the length of the apparatus. The torsion wire in the center transmits energy from one rod to the next. As in all mechanical waves, the individual components that make up the wave, whether they be rods on a wire or molecules in air or water, do not travel far from their starting points; what travels from the beginning to end is not the particles or other elements, but the energy of the wave and the pattern of disturbance it creates. The disturbance moves down the line, but the rods return to their starting points. No matter how large or small the pulse, it travels at the same speed within a given medium, determined by the impedance. If we create the same pulse on the other unit, with a different impedance, the wave travels at a different speed.

    Similarly, you can model superposition of waves by sending pulses from both ends simultaneously. We can see that the two pulses pass through one another without interacting. At the point where they cross, the pulses may superimpose additively or subtractively, depending on whether they are in phase or out of phase, but they then each move on in their original directions.

    When we send a pulse down the length of the device and it reaches the far end, the pulse reflects off the open end and returns to where it started, looking much like it did when it was going the other way.

    But if we clamp the far end in place so that the last rod is fixed in place, then when we send the same pulse down the length of the device and it reaches the end, it still reflects back – but inverted! The pulse is upside-down from its original orientation. Whether reflection from an end is upright or inverted depends on whether the end is open and free to move, or closed and fixed. If instead we clamp the two Shive devices with different impedances together, we can see a partial reflection – part of the pulse reflects back and part of it passes on into the second medium. How much reflects and how much passes through depends on the difference in impedance. The reflection from an open or fixed end is essentially the extreme case of this – in a sense, it’s reflecting back all of the energy from something with effectively zero or infinite impedance.


    You can see Prof. Shawhan put the Shive apparatus through its paces in the video above! To explore this device some more, try out this simulator [click here for simulator]. This simulator replicates some of the behaviours of the Shive wave machine. The dropdown menu at the top lets to adjust the configuration, and the Play button can initiate a pulse.


    Also, you can make a simple one at home! The Science House at North Carolina State University has published plans for making your own simple wave machine from household items. Check them out in pdf form here: and visit their site for other fun remote learning ideas!


    Some Shive Wave Machine demonstrations in our collection


  • Demo Highlight: Van de Graaff and Pie Pans

    The Van de Graaff Generator was featured recently with a new animation of its inner workings. This week, we’re taking a look at the physics behind one of the most popular demonstrations that use it: demonstration J1-26, the levitating pie pans.

    aluminum pie pans atop a Van de Graaff dome

    In this new video featuring Landry Horimbere, we can see the demonstration in action!

    As the belt moves inside the Van de Graaff generator, it deposits an imbalance of charge on the combs inside the dome. These charges accumulate on the outside of the dome. When the conductive plates are placed on top of the dome, they accumulate the same charge.

    Because like charges repel each other, the pie plates gradually try to push apart. When there is enough charge built up on the top plate to have a repulsive force greater than the force of gravity pulling it down, it lifts off and flies away.

    In these animations by Don Lynch, you can see how the generator builds up charge…

    and how the charges distribute through the pans to create the repulsion effect.

    Also, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory has shared this tutorial on Van de Graaffs:, another fun way to explore this electrifying demonstration!

  • Demo Highlight: Vector Addition

    A vector is a mathematical construct that has two traits: a magnitude and a direction. Many common quantities in physics, like velocity and force, are vectors. Adding together two vectors is not as simple as just adding the magnitudes together; because a vector is pointing in a particular direction, you have to add together the components of the vectors in any given direction to find out the final vector’s total magnitude and final direction. For example, if you tell someone to walk three meters east and then four meters north, they are not actually seven meters away from where they started!

     Arrows representing vectors stuck to a chalkboard with magnets. Vectors 3 units long and 4 units long are fixed at a right angle; the vector representing their sum is 5 units long.

    In physics, we often need to add vector quantities, and we have developed several demonstrations to help model this.

    Demonstrations A2-22: Magnetic Vectors and A2-24: Vector Algebra are a popular way to provide visible, manipulable vector models in the classroom. Magnetic vectors of several lengths can be attached to the lecture hall chalkboards, and a projected grid can both serve as length measurement and provide axes. If we rotate the grid, we see that the vectors themselves, and their sum, stay the same even if we’re measuring them on different axes.

     magnetized vectors seen with a grid projected over them 

    Demonstration C2-41 presents a physical example of adding vectors together. Two hammers are mounted 90 degrees apart above a ball. If we drop one hammer, it hits the ball and sends it in one direction. If we drop the other hammer, it hits them ball and sends the ball in a direction 90 degrees off from the first. If both hammers strike the ball at the same time and with the same force, the ball moves off faster, and at an angle 45 degrees between the two. One force vector produces an acceleration in the same direction as the force; adding two force vectors gives an acceleration in the direction of the sum of the two forces.

     c2 41 1

    You can try this out at home, if you happen to have some balls and mallets and a lot of patience. But if you don’t, or if your family gets upset when you break things, you can try out vector addition with a simulator instead.

    This simulator (linked here), developed by Dr. Andrew Duffy of the Boston University physics department, allows you to add vectors together at home without the risk of breaking any windows. The simulator is set up to add direction vectors together, but as we have seen with the model vectors in the classroom, the addition is the same no matter what the units are.

    Two sliders let you adjust the length, or magnitude, of each vector. Two more let you adjust the angle each vector makes with the horizontal axis. If you want to add two vectors at right angles, like our demonstration with the hammers does, set one to 0 degrees and one to 90 degrees, then set the two magnitudes equal. You should see a new sum vector that connects the two. On this graph, the vectors are added up tip-to-tail, rather than all starting from the same point like the velocity of a ball does. But as we saw in the photos of the demonstrations above, the addition is the same no matter how we slide them around! Changing the axes doesn't change how the underlying mathematics works.

    Now try experimenting – change the magnitude of one vector and see how that change affects the sum. Try changing the angle. See if you can do it in reverse – note what the sum of two vectors is, change one of the vectors to that magnitude, then change the angle to see what angle you need to get the original vector’s magnitude out.

  • Demonstration Highlight: Astro Blaster

    This little toy, C7-18 in our collection and sold in many shops as the Astro Blaster, is a fun way to demonstrate some interesting and complicated collision physics. John Ball presents it in this video:


     This device has four balls of graduated masses on a central shaft. When the whole assembly is dropped, the smallest ball on the end flies with considerable velocity, potentially rising to significantly greater than the initial height.

     The balls are highly elastic, and when they collide, they transfer much of their energy to the smallest ball, which has a slightly larger hole in it and thus is the only one free to move off the shaft. Since it now carries the kinetic energy of the greater mass of falling balls, it can bounce higher than it started! Meanwhile, the rest of the balls fall quietly (more or less) to the surface.

    c7 18 drawing of balls

    It is believed that the use of this kind of collision in physics classes was initiated by Stirling Colgate of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It was also popularized by an article in The Physics Teacher by Richard Mancuso and Kevin Long, .

     Once you’ve seen it in action in the video, you can also try it out in this simulation. Or try it at home with a couple of elastic balls, one high mass and one low mass, such as a small rubber ball and a well inflated basketball. If you can drop them together (this takes practice), you should see the smaller ball bounce away with much greater velocity. Just try not to break anything!

  • Demonstration Highlight: Buoyancy

    Welcome back! For our latest demonstration highlight, we’re exploring the concept of buoyancy, and a few of our demonstrations that let us see buoyancy in action in the classroom.

    Technically speaking, buoyancy is the upward force that a fluid exerts on an object that is immersed (partly or wholly) in it. This is the force that determines whether things float or sink, and why some things feel lighter when you hold them in the water rather than in air.

    First developed more that 2200 years ago, Archimedes’ Principle (in more modern terms) states that the upward force (or buoyant force) on an object submerged in a fluid is equal to the weight of fluid that it displaces. This means that if the average density (the mass per unit volume) of an object is greater than that of the fluid, it will sing, as the force of gravity on it is still greater than the buoyant force. If its average density is less than that of water, it will float, as the buoyant force is greater than the force of gravity.

     two cylinders hang from a spring scale over a bucket of water

    We can show the physics behind this in the classroom with demonstration F2-01. Hanging from a spring scale are two cylinders of equal volume – one solid metal cylinder, and one an empty bucket. We lower the solid cylinder into the water, and can measure the buoyant force as the change in weight on the scale. Then, we pour water into the empty cylinder. A volume of water has a weight equal to the buoyant force on an object of that volume, so when we’ve poured in water to equal the volume of the solid cylinder, the weight shown on the scale is back to where it was when both cylinders were hanging in the air!

    Conversely, consider demonstration F2-05. A lightweight model boat containing a small, dense weight is floating in a tank water. We can use tape to make the height of the water on the side of the tank. Then the weight is removed from the boat and placed in the bottom of the tank, and we see that the water level on the side of the tank goes down, as the boat floats higher in the water.

    a clear plastic boat floats in a clear glass tank of water. A lead weight rests in the boat.

    The weight is denser than the water. When it is sitting in the bottom of the tank, it displaces an amount of water equal to its fairly small volume. When it is in the boat, though, in order to float the boat-and-weight combination has to displace enough water to match the mass of this boat-rock system, pushing the level in the tank higher. When the weight is removed, the average density of the boat is reduced.

    You can experiment with this in the classroom or at home with this Buoyancy Simulation by physics teacher Tom Walsh. Try changing the density of the submerged object and the density of the fluid, and see how it floats! You can have the simulation add a free-body diagram to show you the forces in action.






  • Demonstration Highlight: Chaotic Pendula

    Welcome back to the Demonstration Highlight of the Week! This week, we’re taking a look at demonstration G1-60: Chaos with Two Bifilar Pendula. You can see the demonstration in action in this video featuring doctoral student Subhayan Sahu.

    We have two essentially identical sets of physical pendulums suspended from a single rod. The physical laws governing their behaviour are quite simple, merely the conservation of linear and angular momentum and the force of gravity. The two pendulums are started into apparently identical oscillations, but starting the pendula with identical initial conditions is nearly impossible. So no matter what, their motion soon diverges. No matter how closely the motions of the two pendulums are started, they eventually must undergo virtually total divergence. This extreme sensitivity to initial conditions is a form of chaos, the mathematical study of irregularity in dynamical systems.

    g1 60wide

     Wikipedia has a surprisingly good article on the mathematics of the double pendulum. ( Also, Eric Neumann has created an online simulation that can be used to model one of the legs of the pendulum. Try experimenting with the simulation as well, and see how sensitive it can be to its initial conditions. (



  • Demonstration Highlight: Charged Balloon

     Welcome back! Today we’re checking out a classic demonstration and party trick: the triboelectrically charged balloon, demonstration J1-05.



    Triboelectricity is the phenomenon whereby some combinations of materials become electrically charged from contact and separation. We sometimes refer to this as “charging by friction,” though this is not really accurate – simple contact causes the charge transfer, not movement, but rubbing the materials together often allows more surface contact and thus more charge transfer.

    Once an object carries an imbalance of charge, such as this balloon picking up charge from some fabric or your hair, it will tend to be attracted to objects with a different charge, or even to neutrally charged objects that have enough charge mobility to let an imbalance form via induction.

    This simulation, in the PhET Collection and the University of Colorado, shows graphically what happens. Touching the balloon to some fabric causes it to pick up an imbalance of charge. While close to the fabric, it tends to cling there, as the unlike charges attract. Once brought near the wall, though, we see an induced imbalance of charge form, as charges like that on the balloon are slightly repelled and charges unlike that on the balloon are slightly attracted, causing the balloon to cling to the wall in electrostatic attraction.





  • Demonstration Highlight: Diameter and Circumference

    Today, Third Month Fourteenth, we celebrate Pi Day. π=3.14…. is a well known fact of science, from our grade school mathematics classes and many dessert-related puns, but what does that actually mean?

     Demonstration A2-11: a horizontally mounted metal cylinder with a chain wrapped around it once

    Let’s take a look at demonstration A2-11. We see a large metal cylinder mounted on a stand. A bead chain can be wrapped around the cylinder, or pulled off and stretched out straight. When you stretch it out, π is the ratio between its length and the diameter of the cylinder. Technically, π= ½ (c/r), where c is the circumference and r is the radius, radius being the distance from the center to the edge or half the diameter.

     Why don’t we define the ratio without the ½? Or why do we use radius rather than diameter? The answer is that using radius makes it easier to generalize to other calculations. If we want to calculate the area, rather than the circumference, we use the square of the radius – which is less annoying to calculate than the square of half the diameter. And even more so when we generalize to three or more dimensions. Ultimately, the factor of 2 falls out from the process of taking derivatives and integrals, just like in elementary calculus.

     To see this effect virtually, check out this animation from wikipedia: Pi unrolled. As you can see, if you  have a cylinder 1 unit in diameter, its circumference “unrolls” to be approximately 3.14 units long.

    Now, check out the Pi(e) Day events at the Maryland Science Center