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By Eric Weld   Date: 12/15/10 Bookmark and Share

The Physics of Falling Pumpkins and Basketballs

If you drop a basketball and a medium-sized pumpkin from the roof of McConnell Hall, which will hit the ground first?

That, in simplified form, is similar to a question that 400 years ago spurred one of the most famous scientific experiments in history, by Galileo Galilei, who dropped objects from the leaning Tower of Pisa to test their rate of fall.

Click on image to view a photo gallery of the Galileo experiment.

Laura Romanowski ’14 (on left) and Blaire Thomson ’14 prepare to drop pumpkins and basketballs. View a 13-second slow-motion video of their test.

Last week, first-year students, Blaire Thomson, a STRIDE scholar, and Laura Romanowski, an AEMES scholar, fashioned their own version of the famous physicist’s experiment for a research project under the supervision of Joyce Fortune, a lecturer and lab instructor in physics.

The students built a “launching” contraption in which two objects can be placed on an overhanging platform affixed to the roof. At the pull of a string, the platform slides out and the objects fall simultaneously toward the ground. (View a 13-second video of the test.) A catch tarp was spread on the McConnell courtyard brick floor to contain the splatter.

Two high-speed video cameras captured the action, one parked across the courtyard shooting through a window from inside a Burton Hall second-floor room, the other on the ground a few feet from the drop cloth.

The experiment was part of an ongoing project conducted by Fortune to gather high-speed video footage of motion happening in very small time scales, she explained, to show to students in her introductory physics classes.

“I want them to know that physics is based on observation, as all science is,” she said, “even if some things are hard to observe.” By shooting high-speed video, Fortune can slow down fast-paced events, such as two objects falling and hitting the ground, for close observation, she said.

Thomson and Romanowski conducted several trials, observing the pumpkins’ spectacular smash against the hard ground while the basketballs bounced 30 feet in the air before settling.

Whoops echoed through the courtyard with each test of the falling objects. “Those were a little off,” the students conferred following the drops, each scribbling notes. “That one was really close.”

Thomson and Romanowski are reviewing the footage of their pumpkins and basketballs to observe in slow motion what the respective objects’ drop rates can tell them—physical statistics like velocity, acceleration, drag and volume.

Their conclusions may support Galileo’s theory. Prior to his experiment, legend goes, Greek philosopher Aristotle had asserted that if two objects were dropped simultaneously, the heavier one would drop faster. Following his experiments in Pisa, however, Galileo concluded that regardless of objects’ weight, when dropped simultaneously from an equal distance, they will fall at the same rate. What alters their rate of fall—and their drag in the air—is the volume and shape of the objects, not their weight.

“Galileo’s results are not in question, but if you ask nearly anyone who has not taken physics—and quite a few who have—they will tell you what Aristotle said: that heavier objects fall more quickly than light objects,” said Fortune. “This is one of the most vexing misconceptions students bring to intro physics, and I wanted a really splashy demonstration that they could remember to help make the point.”

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