Cartoon Physics

High School Physical Science Activities: Cartoon Physics

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One of the things that make cartoons funny is they play with our innate understanding of physics by exaggerating or blatantly breaking the laws of physics. Try the following activity with your physics student and help bring the “phun” back into physics!

What You Need:

  • Cartoons (Road Runner and old Looney Tunes cartoons work great for this activity!)
  • Television set
  • Stopwatch
  • Calculator

What You Do:

Ask your teen which of the following physics concepts he is familiar with and have him explain the concepts to you. Have him review any of these concepts that he has heard of but isn’t quite comfortable with. (Your child may not have covered all of these concepts depending how much of his physics class he has completed.)

Physics Concepts:

  • Speed
  • Acceleration
  • Momentum
  • Impulse
  • Friction
  • Free-fall
  • Gravity
  • Terminal Velocity
  • Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Balanced and Unbalanced Forces
  • Potential and Kinetic Energy
  • Laws of Conservation
  • Law of Universal Gravitation
  • Projective Motion

Watch a cartoon (or a few!) together and see what laws of physics are exaggerated or broken. In order to do this activity justice, a cartoon usually needs to be watched several times, sometimes in slow-motion. The more you watch, the more “phundamental” laws of physics you will find shattered! Some examples:

  • Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff. Have your budding physicist use a stopwatch and time how long it takes the bruised and battered coyote to hit the ground. If Wile E. falls for 6 seconds, your student can use the abbreviated formula d=1/2gt2 - distance equals one half times gravity times time squared - to calculate the height of the cliff. (d = 1⁄2 x 9.8 m/s2 x 62 s = 70.56 m) The coyote just fell off a 70 meter cliff (roughly 230 feet) and walked away! Amazing!
  • Wile E. Coyote falls (again!) this time with a boulder. As he falls (from spectacular heights yet again!) first he is falling faster than the boulder, then the boulder falls faster, then Wile E., until he inevitably hits the ground and the boulder lands on top of him. Under the influence of gravity alone, both Wile E and the boulder should land at the same time because they are both in free-fall and accelerating at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. Taking air resistance into account, the boulder should hit the ground first because it undergoes less resistance than the fluffy coyote. Under no circumstances would Wile E. and the boulder be “changing” falling positions or would coyote hit the ground before the boulder!
  • Whenever Wile E. gets an idea to try to take out Road Runner with some type of gun or explosive device, Newton’s Laws of Motion “blow-up” in his face. Newton’s Third Law states, “Whenever one object exerts a force on a second object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first.” When Wile E. fires a gun at Road Runner, the bullet should accelerate forward (Newton’s Second Law: acceleration = force/mass). A very large force is exerted on a very small bullet, which should generate a large forward acceleration on the bullet and a equal “backwards” kick on the large coyote, results in a rapidly moving bullet and a slight backwards movement for the coyote. Yet when Wile E. fires a gun, instead of the bullet accelerating forward, the bullet drops to the ground and Wile E. accelerates backwards. That is some kick!

Physics concepts may be tough, but there's no better way to get your teen comfortable with the laws of the physical world than to make them accessible. So kick back with some silly cartoons, and let the learning begin!

Lori Stewart is a freelancer specializing in the development of science education materials. As a high school science teacher, Lori had several students place first and second in NASA's Student Involvement Program national competition.

Updated on Jan 13, 2014
See more activities in: High School, Physical Science
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