Modeling a falling slinky

I already posted some stuff about the MythBusters Jr. slinky defying gravity thing—here are those notes.

But how do you make a model of a falling slinky? Remember, you don’t fully understand something until you model it.

Also, with a model you can quickly test different situations. What happens if you put a car on one end of the slinky (or massive spring). What kind of spring constant do you need? What if the two masses are different?

All of these questions can be investigated with a model.

Let’s get to it. Of course, I am building my model with python—because I like python (and so should you). Here is my code. This is what most of it looks like (sorry, I can’t embed here).


Here is a gif of the output.

Some notes:

  • The balls wait a short time before dropping—just to make it dramatic.
  • I have calculated the position of the bottom mass so that it starts in equilibrium. If you don’t do that, the bottom mass will just oscillate up and down and ruin the whole thing.
  • I added two objects—a stick on the side and a free falling ball. That way you can see how the spring thingy falls.
  • Oh, you should absolutely try changing things up and running the model.

Here is how the model works.

  • There are two masses (the ball1 and ball2)—just ignore the other objects, they don’t matter.
  • Once the top mass is let go, there are two forces on the two balls. The downward gravitational force and then the spring force. Whatever the spring force on the bottom ball is, the top ball has the opposite.
  • The gravitational force is easy to calculate.
  • For the spring force, you need to know the natural length of the spring and the distance between the masses. The spring force depends on the difference between the distance and the natural length—then just multiply by the spring constant. Yes, I often mess up the sign on this force so that the two objects get pushed away in a weird motion.
  • After that, you are pretty much done. Use this force to update the momentum and then use the momentum to update the position.

Homework.

Here are some things for you to try.

  • What if the top mass is 0.1 times the bottom mass? Does this still work?
  • What if the bottom mass is 0.1 times the top mass?
  • See if you can calculate and plot the vertical motion of the center of mass of the two ball system.
  • What if the spring also has mass? There is a way to model this, but I’m going to make you think about it first.
  • Suppose I want to do this with a 2000 kg car. What spring constant would I need? What natural length of a spring should I use?

MythBusters Jr. Slinky Drop Stuff

Tonight’s episode (actually there are two episodes tonight) looks at the famous slinky drop problem. Let’s start with the first place I saw this—from Derek Muller (Veritasium) even though he didn’t invent this either.

That’s pretty awesome, right? Of course the first thing I want to do is to make a model of a falling slinky. Here is that first post.

Some important comments.

  • It’s important that the slinky itself has mass. You can’t use the normal assumption of a massless spring.
  • The best way to model a spring with mass is to have a bunch of smaller masses connected by massless springs.
  • When the slinky is dropped, the center of mass falls with a downward acceleration of -9.8 m/s^2.
  • However, since the slinky is contracting this makes the bottom of the slinky motionless.
Untitled 2

Here is an animation of my python model.

Slinky 3

Sorry—this code is older and I don’t have it on some online platform (I will try to update that soon). But here is the important plot. What if you look at the vertical position of the top, bottom and center of mass for this “slinky”? Here’s what that looks like.

Slinkydrop 2.png

The red curve is the bottom mass. Notice how it “hangs” there? Awesome.

But can you just put a mass (like a car) on the end of a spring and drop it? Yes, but it won’t look very cool. The key is the center of mass. You want the center of mass to fall such that the bottom mass stays in place. With a car and a spring, there is no top mass moving down faster than the acceleration due to gravity to make the bottom mass (the car) move up relative to the center of mass.

In the end, you need some type of mass at the top of the spring too. So, that could work. Two large masses separated by a spring. When you hang and then drop, the bottom mass will be stationary.

But wait! You can try this yourself. Get two masses and connect them with rubber bands (even though rubber bands aren’t ideal springs). Hold one mass and let the other hang below. Now drop.

Here’s what that looks like in slow motion. Sorry about the vertical video, when I recorded this I didn’t think I would post it.

Pretty awesome.

But wait! What if you want to make something like the slinky? In that case you can get a bunch of masses and connect them with rubber bands. It will be just like the python animation above, but in real life.

I should have recorded this in slow motion. Oh well.

Just for fun, here are some of my original notes in which I estimate what kind of spring you would need to do this drop thing with two cars.