It is a common misconception for students to assume that when a book is placed on a table, its weight and the normal contact force acting on it are action-reaction pairs because they are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction.

While we can emphasise the other requirements for action-reaction pairs – that they must act on two different bodies and be of the same type of force – I have tried a different approach to prevent this misconception from taking root. After reading this article on the use of the system schema representational tool to promote understanding of Newton’s third law, I tried it out with my IP3 students.

The system schema identifies the bodies in a question and represents them with shapes detached from each other to give space to draw the connecting arrows between them. The arrows must be labelled with the type of force, either by coding them (e.g. r for reaction force, g for gravitational force) or in full.

Every force will be drawn as a double-headed arrow between two bodies to represent that they are action-reaction pairs. It is important for students to understand that every force in the universe comes in such a pair, and the system schema can help them visualise that. If there is a force without a partner, it just means the system is not in the frame yet.

The next step to using the system schema is for students to isolate the object in question and draw its free-body diagram. Each force vector in the diagram should be accompanied by a name that includes: 1. the type of force and 2. the subject which exerts that force on the object.

The effectiveness of this method of instruction is clearly presented in the paper mentioned above, as performance on the force concept inventory’s questions on the third law saw an improved average from 2.8 ± 1.2 to 3.7 ± 0.8.

I just took the elevator in my apartment building with the PhyPhox mobile app and recorded the acceleration in the z-direction as the lift went down and up. This was done in the middle of the night to reduce the chances of my neighbours getting into the elevator along the way and disrupting this experiment, and more importantly, thinking I was crazy. The YouTube video below is the result of this impromptu experiment and I intend to use it in class tomorrow.

I used to do this experiment with a weighing scale, and a datalogger, but with smartphone apps being able to demonstrate the same phenomenon, it was worth a try.

To complement the activity, I will be using this simulation as well. Best viewed in original format: https://ejss.s3.ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/elevator_Simulation.xhtml, this simulation done in 2016 was used to connect the changes in acceleration and velocity to the changes in normal contact force as an elevator makes its way up or down a building.

This applet was designed with simple interactive features to adjust two opposing forces along the horizontal direction in order to demonstrate the effect on acceleration and velocity.

This pendulum-powered car is constructed using Lego Technic parts. I used mainly Lego beams to create the chassis and an “A” frame from which the pendulum is suspended. The pendulum is made of Lego beams and some wheels.

When the pendulum swings, it experiences an acceleration towards its equilibrium position. By the principle of conservation of momentum, the car experiences a change in momentum in the opposite direction. Since the acceleration of the pendulum changes its direction every half a cycle of its oscillation, the car will only oscillate about its original position if the wheels of the car are free to turn throughout the oscillation.

A escapement mechanism which consists of a beam resting on a pair of 40-tooth gears attached to the front wheels prevent the wheels from rotating in the opposite direction. This means that the car will only be moving forward during the half of the pendulum’s oscillation when its displacement is at the front of its equilibrium position and pauses during the other half.

Students are often confused about the forces in drawing free-body diagrams, especially so when they have to consider the different parts of multiple bodies in motion.

Two-Body Motion

Let’s consider the case of a two-body problem, where, a force F is applied to push two boxes horizontally. If we were to consider the free-body diagram of the two boxes as a single system, we only need to draw it like this.

For the sake of problem solving, there is no need to draw the normal forces or weights since they cancel each other out, so the diagram can look neater. Applying Newton’s 2nd law of motion, $F=(m_A+m_B) \times a$, where $m_A$ is the mass of box A, $m_B$ is the mass of box B, F is the force applied on the system and a is the acceleration of both boxes.

You may also consider box A on its own.

The equation is $F-F_{AB}=m_A \times a$, where $F_{AB}$ is the force exerted on box A by box B.

The third option is to consider box B on its own.

The equation is $F_{BA}=m_B \times a$, where $F_{BA}$ is the force exerted on box B by box A. Applying Newton’s 3rd law, $F_{BA}=F_{AB}$ in magnitude.

Never Draw Everything Together

NEVER draw the free-body diagram with all the forces and moving objects in the same diagram, like this:

You will not be able to decide which forces acting on which body and much less be able to form a sensible equation of motion.

Interactive

Use the following app to observe the changes in the forces considered in the 3 different scenarios. You can vary the masses of the bodies or the external force applied.

Multiple-Body Problems

For the two-body problem above, we can consider 3 different free-body diagrams.

For three bodies in motion together, we can consider up to 6 different free-body diagrams: the 3 objects independently, 2 objects at a go, and all 3 together. Find the force between any two bodies by simplifying a 3-body diagram into 2 bodies. This trick can be applied to problems with even more bodies.

I created this post here to bookmark some useful tools for use during my upcoming JC1 lectures on Dynamics.

This is a simulation for collisions that show the momenta before and after collisions. It requires registration after one visit.

A better choice for now could be the EJSS version (created by my ex-colleague Lawrence) which is far more detailed.

I had wanted to build one using GeoGebra and in fact, was halfway through it, but the Covid-19 pandemic has created other areas of work that now take priority.