Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Falling Objects, Same Time
Name: Nanette
Status: educator
Grade: K-3
Location: CA
Country: N/A
Date: 5/31/2005


Question:
Our class did a science project to determine which object would land first if two objects were dropped from the same height at the same time: a heavier object or a lighter one. We were surprised to find that both objects landed at the same time. Why is that?


Replies:
Nanette,

In an ideal situation, all objects dropped from the same height will land at the same time. Gravity causes the same acceleration for everything. Gravity pulls down on an object. The object's mass resists the pull. This resistance is called inertia. In an ideal situation the heavier object gets pulled harder, but resists harder as well. Both the heavier and lighter object therefore move the same way.

In a real situation, the air has an effect. As an object moves through the air, it must push the air out of the way. Small objects, such as marbles, feel very little air resistance. The weight is much more than the air resistance, so the air resistance does not matter very much. For a ping-pong ball, the weight is very small compared to the air resistance. Air resistance slows a ping-pong ball.

Very large objects are slowed by air resistance. A heavy man with a parachute is slowed. Before the parachute opens, the man must push a small amount of air out of the way as he falls. He feels very little air resistance until moving very fast. After opening, the wide parachute must push much more air out of the way. The greater air resistance slows down the man with the open parachute.

As an example, drop a flat full-sheet of paper and a crunched up half-sheet of paper. They will not fall together. The full sheet is heavier, but falls slower.

Another good example is a large book and an index card:

1) When dropped alongside each other, the book hits the floor first. The card is slowed very much by air resistance because it is both wide and light.

2) When the card is against the underside of the book, they fall together. The air tries to slow the card, but the book keeps the card moving.

3) When the card is lying on top of the book, they drop together. The book pushes the air out of the way for the card. With no air resistance, the card falls just as fast as the book.

Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Physics Instructor
Illinois Central College


You have repeated one of the most famous experiments in all of physics, which Galileo is said to have performed at the leaning tower of Pisa around 1600 (though he probably did not). The experiment has been done many times by others, always with the result you found.

The reason is clear from Newton's laws of motion and of gravity, which have by now also been tested very many times and have always been in accord with experiment.

Newton's law of gravity says the gravitational force pulling the balls down is proportional to the masses of the balls. His second law of motion says that for a given force acting on a ball, its acceleration is inversely proportional to the mass of the ball. So the time to fall, which depends on the acceleration, is independent of the mass, since it is proportional to m/m (mass divided by mass).

Notice that this means the gravitational mass is identical to the inertial mass, a rather remarkable result since the gravitational mass is what causes the ball to accelerate and the inertial mass opposes the acceleration. Nonetheless, that seems to be the way the universe is put together.

Best, Dick Plano, Professor of Physics emeritus, Rutgers University


Gravity affects all objects similarly. more massive objects, however, experience a greater gravitational pull. This is balanced out by the extra energy needed to accelerate that greater mass.

For a demonstration, have students try pushing two objects across a desk. Such as a bowling ball and a large marble. The Bowling ball takes far more effort to accelerate to the same speed! (so even though there is more gravity pulling on the heavier object, the acceleration rate remains the same, because it's harder to move.)

Ryan Belscamper


Hi Nanette,

What you have experienced with your experiment is that gravity affects all objects with any mass equally. It does not matter if they are very heavy or very light; all objects are accelerated toward the earth's surface at the same rate.

The only concern with light objects is when the affect of air resistance will take effect. If you drop a bowling ball and a feather, the ball will land first because the feather has been slowed by air resistance. In a total vacuum, they would both land at the same time.

Bob Hartwell



Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory