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Name: Unknown
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: Around 1993

Rolling Cans, why do they roll different? I was rolling cans of soup with my students the other day and we noted that they rolled down a ramp in very different ways. Some rolled slowly and gained speed while others seemed to leap away after a slow start. Some stopped quickly once they were off the ramp and others continued on for a considerable distance. Could someone please help me with the physics of this phenomenon?

Sounds like a really fun experiment! Of course, it all depends on what is in the can. If the can contains very viscous material, or essentially solid material, like a can of molasses, it will roll as a solid body, with the inside having exactly the same angular speed as the outside. If the can contains a liquid, then the inside can behave quite differently, and if there are several different materials inside, you could have quite complex interactions, with heavy solid materials trying to stay on the bottom of the can all the time, and therefore preventing its rotation to some extent, for example. The basic physics is that of rotational angular momentum coupling to the gravitational force pulling the can down the plane, and the rotation caused by the fact that the surface of the can rolls, rather than sliding. There should be some treatments of slightly less complex systems (wheels rolling down inclined planes, for example) in a mechanics text that discusses moments of inertia. Then, on the inside of your can, you have a fluid mechanics problem, which should be treated in books that discuss viscosity, since fluid motion in a rotating cylinder is a standard measure of viscosity. And finally you have possible solid objects that are sliding against the can on the inside, causing a frictional force. Hopefully, with all these elements, you can at least model most of the different behaviors you saw!

Arthur Smith

How about doing some experiments in which you control some of the variables Arthur Smith mentioned? Roll a can containing pure water, another containing molasses, another containing water and some experiments at constant volume (full cans) and others at constant weight. Vary the size of the can, keeping the contents fixed, and do this for several different contents. See if you can justify the results against the physical principles Arthur Smith described.


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