Posts Tagged 'Mechanics'

Galileo’s Book of Nature

In 1971, astronaut David Scott, standing on the Moon, dropped a hammer and a feather and found that both reached the surface at the same time. This popular experiment during the Apollo 15 mission was a dramatic demonstration of a prediction made by Galileo three centuries earlier. Galileo was born in Pisa on 15 February 1564, just 454 years ago today [TM133 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Image: NASA

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Slingshot Orbit to Asteroid Bennu

The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft have now left the solar system and will continue into deep space. How did we manage to send them so far? The Voyager spacecraft used gravity assists to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. Gravity assist manoeuvres, known as slingshots, are essential for interplanetary missions. They were first used in the Soviet Luna-3 mission in 1959, when images of the far side of the Moon were obtained. Space mission planners use them because they require no fuel and the gain in speed dramatically shortens the time of missions to the outer planets.


Artist’s impression of OSIRIS-REx orbiting Bennu [Photo Credit: NASA]

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A Life-saving Whirligig

Modern science is big: the gravitational wave detector (LIGO) cost over a billion dollars, and the large hadron collider (LHC) in Geneva took decades to build and cost almost five billion euros. It may seem that scientific advances require enormous financial investment. So, it is refreshing to read in Nature Biomedical Engineering (Vol 1, Article 9) about the development of an ultra-cheap centrifuge that costs only a few cents to manufacture [TM111 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Whirligig, made from a plastic disk and handles and some string

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The Spire of Light


Towering over O’Connell Street in Dublin, the Spire of Light, at 120 metres, is about three times the height of its predecessor [TM109 or search for “thatsmaths” at]. The Spire was erected in 2003, filling the void left by the destruction in 1966 of Nelson’s Pillar. The needle-like structure is a slender cone of stainless steel, the diameter tapering from 3 metres at the base to 15 cm at its apex. The illumination from the top section shines like a beacon throughout the city.


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The Ping Pong Pendulum

Galileo noticed the regular swinging of a candelabra in the cathedral in Pisa and speculated that the swing period was constant. This led him to use a pendulum to measure intervals of time for his experiments in dynamics. Bu not all pendulums behave like clock pendulums.


The ping pong pendulum.

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Which Way did the Bicycle Go?

“A bicycle, certainly, but not the bicycle,” said Holmes.

In Conan-Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Priory School  Sherlock Holmes solved a mystery by deducing the direction of travel of a bicycle. His logic has been minutely examined in many studies, and it seems that in this case his reasoning fell below its normal level of brilliance.

As front wheel moves along the positive {x}-axis the back wheel, initially at {(0,a)}, follows a tractrix curve.

As front wheel moves along the positive x-axis the back wheel, initially at (0,a), follows a tractrix curve (see below).

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Emmy Noether’s beautiful theorem

The number of women who have excelled in mathematics is lamentably small. Many reasons may be given, foremost being that the rules of society well into the twentieth century debarred women from any leading role in mathematics and indeed in science. But a handful of women broke through the gender barrier and made major contributions. [TM070: search for “thatsmaths” at ]

Death of the philosopher Hypatia, by Louis Figuier [Wikimedia Commons].

Death of the philosopher Hypatia, by Louis Figuier
[Wikimedia Commons].

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