Newton’s Second Law
Test the validity of Newton’s Second Law
Measure the frictional force on a body on a “low-friction” air track
An air track, one glider, pulley, clamp, masses and two photogate timers will be used (see
Figure 1 below).
Newton’s Second Law states that the acceleration of a body is proportional to the net
force acting on the body ( a ∝ FNET ) and inversely proportional to the mass of the body
( a ∝ ). Combining these two, we can replace the proportionality with equality. That
FNET = ma
FNET is the sum of all of the forces acting on the body. In many textbooks this is denoted
by ∑ F . So, Newton’s Second Law is:
∑ F = ma
In this experiment a low friction air track will be used to test the validity of Newton’s
Second Law. A hanging mass will be attached to a glider placed on the air track by
means of a light (negligible mass) string. By varying the mass of the hanging mass we
will vary the net force acting on this two body system. We will however, keep the total
mass of the system constant. This is accomplished by moving mass from the glider to the
hanger. With the air track turned on, the hanging mass will be released and the glider will
pass through two photogate timers. The photogate timers will be used to measure two
velocities. Recall, v =
in our case Δx will be the length of a fin place on top of the
glider. If you know the separation between the two photogate timers, you can use an
equation from kinematics to determine the acceleration of the glider:
v F2 = v I2 + 2 ∗ a ∗ s
Where, vF is the velocity measured with the second photogate, vI is the velocity measured
with the first photogate, a is the acceleration and s is the distance between the two
photogate timers. Solving for the acceleration yields:
v F2 − v I2
Figure 2: Free body diagrams
Separate free body diagrams of the glider and the hanging mass are shown in Figure 2
above. In the figure, f is the net frictional force acting on the body (assume this includes
the frictional forces between the airtrack and the glider and the frictional losses in the
pulley; N is the upward force the air track exerts on the glider; T is the tension in the
string; MGg is the weight of the glider; and MHg is the weight of the hanging mass
(FH=MHg). Note: the air track is horizontal and the glider does not accelerate in the
vertical direction, therefore N = MGg. Applying Newton’s Second Law to the glider in
the horizontal direction and using right as the positive direction yields:
+T – f = MG*a
If we now apply Newton’s Second Law to the hanging mass, and this time define
downward as the positive direction we find:
-T + MH*g = MH*a
We have no way to directly measure the tension in the string (T), therefore we will
combine equations (3) and (4) to eliminate the tension from the resulting equation:
FH – f = (MH + MG)*a
There are only two unbalanced forces acting on our two-mass system (i.e. the weight of
the hanging mass and friction). Notice what equation (5) states: the left hand side is the
net force and the right hand side is the product of the system’s mass and its acceleration.
This is Newton’s Second Law applied to our two body system. If we rearrange equation
(5) we obtain:
FH = (MH + MG)*a + f
Equation (6) has the same form as the equation for a straight line y = mx + b, where the
weight of the hanging mass (FH) plays the role of y and the acceleration (a) plays the role
1. Set up the air track as shown in Figure 1. With the hanging mass disconnected
from the glider and the air supply on, level the air track by carefully adjusting the
air track leveling feet. The glider should sit on the track without accelerating in
either direction. There may be some small movement due to unequal air flow
beneath the glider, but it should not accelerate steadily in either direction.
2. Measure the length (L) of the fin on top of the glider and record it along with its
uncertainty in your spreadsheet. See Figure 3.
3. Make sure the hook and counter balance are both inserted in the lower hole on the
4. Measure the mass of the empty glider and empty hanger (MG0 and MH0) and
record these masses in your spreadsheet.
5. Using 5, 10 and/or 20 gram masses place 40 grams of mass to the glider.
Distribute the masses symmetrically so that the glider is balanced. Determine the
total mass of the glider (MG0 + the mass you just added) and record this in your
6. Place 10 grams of mass on the mass hanger. Determine the total mass of the full
hanger (MH0 + the mass you just added to the hanger) and record this in your
7. Determine the total mass of your system (MG + MH) – this should be the sum of
the masses you entered in steps 5 and 6. Record the system mass in your
8. Choose a starting position (X0) for the glider near the end of the track. Using the
ruler permanently affixed to the air track, measure and record this location in your
spreadsheet. Also, measure and record the location of the two photogate timers
(X1 and X2) and assign a reasonable uncertainty to these positions (δx). It is very
important that your glider always starts from the same location (X0) and that the
two photogate timers are not moved. If they are accidentally bumped or moved,
return them to their original location. Calculate the magnitude of the
displacement between the two timers using S = | X2 – X1 | and record this in your
spreadsheet. See Figure 3. In addition, calculate the uncertainty in this
9. Set your photogate timer to GATE mode and make sure the memory switch is set
to on. The GATE mode will only record time when the glider is passing through
one of the two photogates. In this mode, the timer will only display the time the
glider took to pass through the first photogate (t1). The time the glider took to
pass through the second photogate will be added to the memory. Flipping the
toggle switch to read will display the total time the glider took to pass through
both photogates (tmem). To obtain the time the glider took to pass through the
second photogate, simply subtract t1 from the time stored in the photogate’s
memory t2 = tmem – t1. The uncertainty in a measurement of time is δt=0.5ms.
Using the rules for addition and subtraction, the uncertainty in t2 = 2 δt=1.0ms.
10. With the air supply on, hold the leading edge of the glider stationary at X0; press
the reset button on the photogate timer, then release the glider. Make sure the
glider does not bounce off the far end of the air track and pass through the second
photogate a second time. The time displayed on the photogate’s screen will be the
time the glider took to pass through the first photogate (t1). Record t1 in your
spreadsheet. Flip the memory toggle switch to read the displayed time (tmem) in
your spreadsheet; use the displayed time (tmem) and t1 to calculate t2.
11. Return the glider to X0. Make sure all of the masses are still on the hanging mass
hanger and the string is still over the pulley.
12. Move 10 grams from the glider to the hanger. Calculate the total glider mass and
the new total hanger mass. (NOTE: the total system mass has not changed.)
Repeat steps 10-11.
13. You should have data for 10g, 20g, 30g, 40g and 50g added to your hanger.
14. Have Excel calculate v1, v2 and their respective uncertainties.
⎛ δL δt ⎞
δv = v⎜
15. Have Excel use equation 2 to calculate the acceleration.
16. Have Excel calculate the uncertainty in the acceleration δa.
⎡ δs 2(v 2δv 2 + v1δv1 ) ⎤
v 22 − v12
δa = a ⎢
17. Have Excel calculate the weight (FH) of each of the hanging masses. Transfer
your data into Kaleidagraph and make a graph of FH vs. a. Make sure you include
horizontal error bars associated with the acceleration (a).
1. From the equation of your best fit line and equation 6, what is the net frictional
force acting on the glider? What is the significance of this net frictional force?
2. Discuss the consistency of the slope of your best fit line with the theoretical value
(see equation 6).
3. Do your results support Newton’s Second Law? Why or why not?
Instruction Manual and Experiment Guide for the PASCO Scientific Model ME-9206A
and ME-9215A Photogate Timers, Pasco Scientific, 1994.