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.... 
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Collisions in One Dimension
Physicists employ the term collision in a broader sense than ordinary usage, applying it to any situation where objects interact for a certain period of time. A bat hitting a baseball, a radioactively emitted particle damaging DNA, and a gun and a bullet going their separate ways are all examples of collisions in this sense. Physical contact is not even required. A comet swinging past the sun on a hyperbolic orbit is considered to undergo a collision, even though it never touches the sun. All that matters is that the comet and the sun exerted gravitational forces on each other. The reason for broadening the term collision in this way is that all of these situations can be attacked mathematically using the same conservation laws in similar ways. In the first example, conservation of momentum is all that is required.
The above example was simple because both cars had the same velocity afterward. In many onedimensional collisions, however, the two objects do not stick. If we wish to predict the result of such a collision, conservation of momentum does not suffice, because both velocities after the collision are unknown, so we have one equation in two unknowns. Conservation of energy can provide a second equation, but its application is not as straightforward, because kinetic energy is only the particular form of energy that has to do with motion. In many collisions, part of the kinetic energy that was present before the collision is used to create heat or sound, or to break the objects or permanently bend them. Cars, in fact, are carefully designed to crumple in a collision. Crumpling the car uses up energy, and that's good because the goal is to get rid of all that kinetic energy in a relatively safe and controlled way. At the opposite extreme, a superball is super because it emerges from a collision with almost all its original kinetic energy, having only stored it briefly as potential energy while it was being squashed by the impact. Collisions of the superball type, in which almost no kinetic energy is converted to other forms of energy, can thus be analyzed more thoroughly, because they have KE_{f} = KE_{i}, as opposed to the less useful inequality KE_{f} < KE_{i} for a case like a tennis ball bouncing on grass.
Often, as in the example above, the details of the algebra are the least interesting part of the problem, and considerable physical insight can be gained simply by counting the number of unknowns and comparing to the number of equations. Suppose a beginner at pool notices a case where her cue ball hits an initially stationary ball and stops dead. Wow, what a good trick, she thinks. I bet I could never do that again in a million years. But she tries again, and finds that she can't help doing it even if she doesn't want to. Luckily she has just learned about collisions in her physics course. Once she has written down the equations for conservation of energy and no loss of kinetic energy, she really doesn't have to complete the algebra. She knows that she has two equations in two unknowns, so there must be a welldefined solution. Once she has seen the result of one such collision, she knows that the same thing must happen every time. The same thing would happen with colliding marbles or croquet balls. It doesn't matter if the masses or velocities are different, because that just multiplies both equations by some constant factor.


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