Moving with the Tides

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Have you ever been to the beach?

If you’re from California like me, then I’m betting you have. If you’re from a place that’s not near an ocean and you’ve never been near the water all your life, then I’ll tell you a little bit about the tides.

They happen every day, twice a day. If you find yourself a nice comfortable spot overlooking the beach, you can see the waves come into the shore and then gently roll out again. If you stay for hours on end, you’ll see the water level eventually rise a bit.

And if you stay even longer, you’ll see the water level lower back down. When it’s high, it’s called high tide, and when it’s low, it’s called low tide.

The tides are partially responsible for the myth that the moon’s gravity affects you in some kind of metaphysical way. But this isn’t true at all.

So why do the tides happen?

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How Orbits Work

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Since Aristotle’s time over 2000 years ago, we have accepted that the moon orbits the Earth. We didn’t always know why, and we didn’t always accept this for the right reasons.

We used to assume that it happened just because we saw the moon move across the sky, and we believed the Earth to be the center of all motion in the solar system. But even when we realized—in the 1540s CE—that the sun was in fact the center of the solar system, the moon kept its place around the Earth.

And rightfully so. Astronomers now know that the moon orbits the Earth based on scientific observation, rather than the “logical” guesses of Aristotle’s time. And we even know why it orbits—gravity, the one force in all the universe we can’t escape.

But I can tell you, the moon’s orbit isn’t a perfect circle, and if gravity were the only reason it orbited, it would crash straight into the Earth. After all, people stay grounded on Earth’s surface because of gravity, and we don’t orbit our planet, do we?

So how does the moon orbit the Earth? For that matter, how does any satellite?

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Newton and Gravity

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So, the moon stays in orbit around the Earth, right?

Yeah, I thought so. But why? The moon’s orbit is not a straight line, which means it’s accelerated motion (using the physics definition, which is absolutely any change in speed or direction).

And in order for acceleration to happen, according to Newton’s first law of motion, a force has to happen—meaning, something has to reach out, touch the moon, and drag it into orbit around Earth.

Well, that doesn’t happen, last I checked. I mean, it’s not like we have some kind of giant cord connecting us to the moon. How crazy would that be?

So why does the moon orbit the Earth?

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Newton’s Laws of Motion

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It’s said that Sir Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when an apple fell on his head, and that’s when all his discoveries began.

Personally, I doubt that story—just as I doubt that Galileo Galilei ever dropped iron and wooden balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. His goal would have been to show that both objects hit the ground at the same time. Unfortunately, wind resistance would have gotten in the way.

Regardless of how Newton discovered gravity, his scientific achievements are monumental. In fact, we recognize him today as one of the greatest scientists to ever live, second only to the famous Albert Einstein.

Newton’s revelation that gravity draws objects toward Earth changed the course of modern science. But what exactly did he find out?

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Galileo and Motion

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Before Galileo’s time, Aristotle was the god of gravity.

Seriously. Before Galileo came along, the question of how gravity worked was answered with another question: “What would Aristotle say?” Obviously, this method was faulty, since Aristotle was actually wrong about most scientific things he wrote about.

But Galileo began a tradition that would persist into the modern day. He’s credited for having performed the first true science experiments when he observed falling objects.

You could, of course, call Tycho Brahe’s night sky observations and Kepler’s correct application of mathematics to the heavens true science, but neither of them really performed experimental science. That distinction lies with Galileo.

Wait a second…so I thought Isaac Newton was the guy who discovered gravity?

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