Buy that special someone an AP Physics prep book, now with 180 five-minute quizzes aligned with the exam: 5 Steps to a 5 AP Physics 1

Visit Burrito Girl's handmade ceramics shop, The Muddy Rabbit: Yarn bowls, tea sets, dinner ware...

17 November 2011

Two Masses and a Pulley, and a New Misconception

The badly sketched picture to the right shows a classic mechanics problem.  Two equal masses are connected by a string over a pulley.  In this case, the table is frictionless.

Typically, a student is asked to determine the tension in the rope and the acceleration of the masses.  Great -- that's (mg)/2 and g/2.*  This problem is richer, though, than a mere calculation might suggest.  Take a look at a quiz I gave the other day:

* The quick way to get this is to consider both objects as a single system.  The net force on that system is the weight of the hanging mass, mg; the mass of the system is 2m.  By Newton's second law, a = g/2.

1.       A block of mass m is attached over a pulley to another hanging mass m, as shown above.   The surface is frictionless.  The system is released from rest.

(a)    What is the direction of the hanging mass’s acceleration?  Explain.
(b)   Is the acceleration of the hanging mass greater than, less than, or equal to g?  Explain.
(c)    Is the tension in the rope greater than, less than, or equal to mg?  Explain.

2.       A block of mass m is attached over a pulley to another hanging mass m, as shown above.   The surface is frictionless.  This time, the top block is given an initial velocity to the left and released.

(a)    What is the direction of the hanging mass’s acceleration?  Explain.
(b)   Is the acceleration of the hanging mass greater than, less than, or equal to g?  Explain.
(c)    Is the tension in the rope greater than, less than, or equal to mg?  Explain.

Ideally, 1(a) is answered with a kinematic approach -- the hanging mass is speeding up and moving down, so acceleration is also down.  For 1(b), I've defined "free fall" as the situation in which no forces besides weight are acting.  Since a tension acts upward on the hanging mass, the mass is not in free fall and the acceleration is less than g.*  And in 1(c), acceleration is downward, so net force must also be down.  That means down forces greater than up forces, so the tension is less than the weight.

* Okay, sure, if the upward tension is twice the block's weight, the acceleration could be g, upward.  That's highly unlikely in hanging-block-and-pulley problems.

Of course, question 2 is identical to question 1!  The hanging mass is moving up but slowing down, so acceleration must still be downward.  (Or, one could argue that the block on the table still experiences only one horizontal force, that of tension, so its acceleration must be to the right; the blocks must move as a unit, so the hanging block has downward acceleration.)  Once it's established that acceleration is still down, questions 2(b) and 2(c) follow as in 1(b) and 1(c).

By far the most common misconception here is that the net force must be in the direction of movement.  A student will commonly get question one reasonably correct, but then say "the block is moving upward, so up forces must be bigger than down forces."  This question is just one more salvo in my arsenal aimed at that piece of nonsense.

Another typical misconception is that in question 1, since the hanging block is falling near earth, its acceleration must be g.  That's taken care of with a request to state the definition of free fall and a sheepish look from the student.

And, a common mistake is to justify (a) and (c) with circular reasoning:  The acceleration is downward because the weight is greater than the tension; the tension is less than the weight because the acceleration is downward.  This student doesn't earn full credit, but I'm not worried so much about his comprehension.

I discovered a new misconception today, though.  One of my brighter students said acceleration was equal to g, and he stated the definition of free fall accurately.  He asked, "since the surface is frictionless, the block on the table doesn't require any force to move.  So why won't the rope will be slack, the tension zero, and gravity the only force on the hanging block?"

At first I was flummoxed.  I set up two carts on my track, and showed him that the string was in fact not slack.  But why on earth would he think that no friction leads to a slack rope?

In further conversation, I discovered that he was referring back to our class's multiple conversations about how no net force is necessary for motion at constant speed in a straight line.  A mass on a frictionless track, once moving, keeps moving, even without any tension to pull it.  My student wasn't processing that this block on this surface was accelerating, not moving at constant speed.  Once I pointed out how the blocks must move together, and therefore accelerate together, he got it.