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....

A toppling box

If you place a box on a frictionless surface, it will fall over with a very complicated motion that is hard to predict in detail. We know, however, that its center of mass moves in the same direction as its momentum vector points. There are two forces, a normal force and a gravitational force, both of which are vertical. (The gravitational force is actually many gravitational forces acting on all the atoms in the box.) The total force must be vertical, so the momentum vector must be purely vertical too, and the center of mass travels vertically. This is true even if the box bounces and tumbles. [Based on an example by Kleppner and Kolenkow.]

Last Update: 2009-06-21