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....

# Collisions in One Dimension

 This Hubble Space Telescope photo shows a small galaxy (yellow blob in the lower right) that has collided with a larger galaxy (spiral near the center), producing a wave of star formation (blue track) due to the shock waves passing through the galaxies' clouds of gas. This is considered a collision in the physics sense, even though it is statistically certain that no star in either galaxy ever struck a star in the other. (This is because the stars are very small compared to the distances between them.)

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.

 Getting rear-ended

The above example was simple because both cars had the same velocity afterward. In many one-dimensional 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 KEf = KEi, as opposed to the less useful inequality KEf < KEi for a case like a tennis ball bouncing on grass.