If you drop a penny from the Empire state building – could it really puncture a …

If you drop a penny from the Empire state building – could it really puncture a hole in a car because of its constant acceleration?

Probably not. If the penny were to fall sideways, so that it had as little air resistance as possible, it would reach about 280 km/h (175 mph). That speed ought to be enough to drive the penny into the car if its top were thin enough. However, studies have shown (see http://www.urbanlegends.com/science/penny_falling_impact.html) that coins tumble as they fall and experience substantial air resistance. As a result, you could probably catch a falling penny in your hand, although it might sting a bit. A falling ballpoint pen, because of its aerodynamic shape, is another matter.

What is the difference between mass and weight?

What is the difference between mass and weight?

Mass is the measure of an object’s inertia. You have more mass than a book, meaning that you are harder to accelerate than a book. If you and the book were each inside boxes, mounted on wheels, I could quickly determine which box you were in. I would simply push on both boxes and see which one accelerated most easily. That box would contain the book and you would be in the box that’s hard to accelerate. Weight, on the other hand, is the amount of force that gravity (usually the earth’s gravity) exerts on an object. You weigh more than a book, meaning that the earth pulls downward on you harder than it does on the book. Again, I could figure out which box you were in by weighing the two boxes. You’d be in the heavier box. So mass and weight refer to very different characteristics of objects. They don’t even have the same units (mass is measured in kilograms, while weight is measured in newtons. But fortunately, there is a wonderful relationship between mass and weight: an object’s weight is exactly proportional to its mass. Because of this relationship, all objects fall at the same rate. Also, you can use a measurement of weight to determine an object’s mass. That’s what you do when you weigh yourself on a bathroom spring scale; you are trying to determine how much of you there is-your mass-but you are doing it by measuring how hard gravity is pulling on you—your weight.

Why is force = mass * acceleration an exact relationship (i.e. why not force = 2…

Why is force = mass * acceleration an exact relationship (i.e. why not force = 2 * mass * acceleration)?

The answer to this puzzle lies in the definition of force. How would you measure the amount of a force? Well, you would push on something with a known mass and see how much it accelerates! Thus this relationship (Newton’s second law) actually establishes the scale for measuring forces. If your second relationship were chosen as the standard, then all the forces in the universe would simply be redefined up by a factor of two! This redefinition wouldn’t harm anything but then Newton’s second law would have a clunky numerical constant in it. Naturally, the 2 is omitted in the official law.

If you dropped a bullet and at the same time, fired a bullet directly at the gro…

If you dropped a bullet and at the same time, fired a bullet directly at the ground, wouldn’t the bullet fired at the ground hit the ground first?

Sure it would. The fired bullet will only hit the ground at the same time as the dropped bullet if the fired bullet is shot exactly horizontally. If you fire the bullet at the ground, then it starts out with an enormous downward component to its velocity. The falling bullet doesn’t have this initial downward component to its velocity and never catches up.