Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Energy and Relative Motion

Although I mentioned Einstein's theory of relativity above, it's more relevant right now to consider how conservation of energy relates to the simpler Galilean idea, which we've already studied, that motion is relative. Galileo's Aristotelian enemies (and it is no exaggeration to call them enemies!) would probably have objected to conservation of energy. After all, the Galilean idea that an object in motion will continue in motion indefinitely in the absence of a force is not so different from the idea that an object's kinetic energy stays the same unless there is a mechanism like frictional heating for converting that energy into some other form.

More subtly, however, it's not immediately obvious that what we've learned so far about energy is strictly mathematically consistent with the principle that motion is relative. Suppose we verify that a certain process, say the collision of two pool balls, conserves energy as measured in a certain frame of reference: the sum of the balls' kinetic energies before the collision is equal to their sum after the collision. (In reality we'd need to add in other forms of energy, like heat and sound, that are liberated by the collision, but let's keep it simple.) But what if we were to measure everything in a frame of reference that was in a different state of motion? A particular pool ball might have less kinetic energy in this new frame; for example, if the new frame of reference was moving right along with it, its kinetic energy in that frame would be zero. On the other hand, some other balls might have a greater kinetic energy in the new frame. It's not immediately obvious that the total energy before the collision will still equal the total energy after the collision. After all, the equation for kinetic energy is fairly complicated, since it involves the square of the velocity, so it would be surprising if everything still worked out in the new frame of reference. It does still work out. Homework problem 13 in this chapter gives a simple numerical example, and the general proof is taken up in ch. 4, problem 15 (with the solution given in the back of the book).

Discussion Questions

A Suppose that, like Young or Einstein, you were trying out different equations for kinetic energy to see if they agreed with the experimental data. Based on the meaning of positive and negative signs of velocity, why would you suspect that a proportionality to mv would be less likely than mv2?
The figure shows a pendulum that is released at A and caught by a peg as it passes through the vertical, B. To what height will the bob rise on the right?

Last Update: 2009-06-21