Asked by: Terri

When air resistance plays a role, the shape of the object becomes important. In air, a feather and a ball do not fall at the same rate. In the case of a pen and a bowling ball air resistance is small compared to the force a gravity that pulls them to the ground. Therefore, if you drop a pen and a bowling ball you could probably not tell which of the two reached the ground first unless you dropped them from a very very high tower.

Answered by: Dr. Michael Ewart, Researcher at the University of Southern California

The above answer is perfectly correct, but, this is a question that confuses many people, and they are hardly satisfied by us self-assured physcists' answers. There is one good explanation which makes everybody content -- which does not belong to me, but to some famous scientist but I can't remember whom (Galileo?); and I think it would be good to have it up here.

(The argument has nothing to do with air resistance, it is assumed to be absent. The answer by Dr. Michael Ewart answers that part already.)

The argument goes as follows: Assume we have a 10kg ball and a 1kg ball. Let us assume the 10kg ball falls faster than the 1kg ball, since it is heavier. Now, lets tie the two balls together. What will happen then? Will the combined object fall slower, since the 1kg ball will hold back the 10kg ball? Or will the combination fall faster, since it is now an 11kg object? Since both can't happen, the only possibility is that they were falling at the same rate in the first place.

Sounds extremely convincing. But, I think there is a slight fallacy in the argument. It mentions nothing about the nature of the force involved, so it looks like it should work with any kind of force! However, it is not quite true. If we lived on a world where the 'falling' was due to electrical forces, and objects had masses and permanent charges, things would be different. Things with zero charge would not fall no matter what their mass is. In fact, the falling rate would be proportional to q/m, where q is the charge and m is the mass. When you tie two objects, 1 and 2, with charges q

If all objects which have equal weight fall at the same rate, then _all_ objects will fall at the same rate, regardless of their weight.

In mathematical terms, this is equivalent to saying that if q

Going back to the case of gravity.. The gravitational force is

( G is a constant, called constant of gravitation, M is the mass of the attracting body (here, earth), and m

And newton's law of motion is

where m

Now, solving for acceleration, we find:

Which is proportional to m

So, all in all, we are back to square one. Which is just canceling the masses in the equations, thus showing that they must fall at the same rate. The equality of the two masses is a necessity for general relativity, and enters it naturally. Also, the two masses have been found to be equal to extremely good precision experimentally. The correct answer to the question 'why objects with different masses fall at the same rate?' is, 'beacuse the gravitational and inertial masses are equal for all objects.'

Then, why does the argument sound so convincing? Since our daily experience and intuition dictates that things which weigh the same, fall at the same rate. Once we assume that, we have implicitly already assumed that the gravitational mass is equal to the inertial mass. (Wow, what things we do without noticing!). The rest of the argument follows easily and naturally...

Answered by: Yasar Safkan, Physics Ph.D. Candidate, M.I.T.

All rights reserved. © Copyright '1995-'2017 PhysLink.com