Slowing down time to think [about strain energy]

161-6167_imgLet me take you bungee jumping.  I should declare that I am not qualified to do so, unless you count an instructor’s certificate for rock-climbing and abseiling, obtained about forty years ago.  For our imaginary jump, pick a bridge with a good view and a big drop to the water below and I’ll meet you there with the ropes and safety gear.

It’s a clear early morning and the air is crisp and fresh – ideal for throwing yourself off a bridge attached to a rope.  The rope is the star of this event.  It’s brand new, which is reassuring, and arrived coiled over my shoulder.  A few days ago, I asked you how much you weigh – that’s your real weight fully clothed, at least I hope that’s the number you gave me otherwise my calculations will be wrong and you’ll get wet this morning!  I have calculated how much the rope will stretch when it arrests your free-fall from the bridge parapet; so, now I am measuring out enough rope to give you an exciting fall but to stop you short of the water.  I’m a professor of structural materials and mechanics so I feel confident of getting this bit right; but it’s a long time since I worked as an abseiling instructor so I suggest you check those knots and that harness that we’ve just tightened around you.

You’ve swung yourself over the parapet and you’re standing on the ledge that the civil engineers conveniently left for bridge jumpers.  The rope is loosely coiled ready with its end secured to a solid chunk of parapet.  As you alternate between soaking up the beautiful view and contemplating the chasm at your feet, you wonder why you agreed to come with me.  At this moment, you have a lot of potential energy due to your height above the sparkling water [potential energy is your mass multiplied by your height and gravitational acceleration], but no kinetic energy because you are standing motionless.  The rope is relaxed or undeformed and has zero strain energy.

Finally, you jump and time seems to stand still for you as the fall appears to be happening in slow motion.  The air begins to rush past your ears in a whoosh as you build up speed and gain kinetic energy [equal to one half your mass multiplied by your velocity squared].  The bridge disappeared quickly but the water below seems only to be approaching slowly as you lose height and potential energy.  In reality, your brain is playing tricks on you because you are being accelerated towards the water by gravity [at about 10 metres per second squared] but your total energy is constant [potential plus kinetic energy unchanged].  Suddenly, your speed becomes very apparent.  The water seems very close and you cry out in surprise.  But the rope is beginning to stretch converting your kinetic energy into strain energy stored by stretching its fibres [at a molecular level work is being done to move molecules apart and away from their equilibrium position].  Suddenly, you stop moving downwards and just before you hit the water surface, the rope hurls you upwards – your potential energy reached a minimum and you ran out of kinetic energy to give the rope; so now it’s giving you back that stored strain energy [and the molecules are relaxing to their equilibrium position].  You are gaining height and speed so both your kinetic and potential energy are rising with that squeal that just escaped from you.

Now, you’ve noticed that the rope has gone slack and you’re passing a loop of it as you continue upwards but more slowly.  The rope ran out of strain energy and you’re converting kinetic energy into potential energy.  Just as you work out that’s happening, you run out of kinetic energy and you start to free-fall again.

Time no longer appears to stationary and your brain is working more normally.  You begin to wonder how many times you’ll bounce [quite a lot because the energy losses due to frictional heating in the rope and drag on your body are relatively small] and why you didn’t ask me what happens at the end.  You probably didn’t ask because you were more worried about jumping and were confident that I knew what I was doing, which was foolish because, didn’t I tell you, I’ve never been bungee jumping and I have no idea how to get you back up onto the bridge.  How good were you at rope-climbing in the gym at school?

When eventually you stop oscillating, the rope will still be stretched due to the force on it generated by your weight.  However, we can show mathematically that the strain energy and deformation under this static load will be half the values experienced under the dynamic loading caused by your fall from the bridge parapet.  That means you’ll have a little less distance to climb to the parapet!

Today’s post is a preview for my new MOOC on ‘Understanding Super Structures’, which is scheduled to start on May 22nd, 2017.  This is the script for a step in week 2 of the five-week course, unless the director decides it’s too dangerous.  By the way, don’t try this home or on a bridge anywhere.

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