cars and energy

I worked out a page of dimensional analysis and order-of-magnitude estimation to compare automobile energy expenditure in the form of acceleration with energy expenditure in the form of battling air resistance (ram pressure). After putting it together I realized the obvious: The air resistance losses exceed the acceleration/braking losses when the journey is long enough that the car has swept up its own mass of air! This means that for typical US cars, acceleration/braking dominates for journeys much less than 1 km (or city journeys in which there are stops much more frequently than once every km), and battling air resistance dominates for journeys that are uninterrupted by stops for distances much longer than 1 km.


forces and formality

Yesterday in class I worked through the problem of a bouncing ball, concentrating on estimating the magnitude of the force from the floor at bounce. Not a single student was even close to getting the magnitude of that force correct, even after many minutes of discussion, a few minutes of working in small groups, and more discussion. Eventually two students got it and understood after my demonstration in which I prepare to drop a book on a student's hands (comparing with the case in which the student is just holding the book).

Before, during, and after the class, students asked me if the class is going to be more formal soon or ever. I said yes. But what disturbs me is that if we go and do formal problems with vectors and calculus before the class can see even roughly the magnitude of the normal force on a bouncing ball, we are teaching math, not physics. I understand where the students are coming from: They like physics in part because it is formal. But there is no point in calculating forces when you don't understand what forces are.