Physicists Race Usain Bolt with a Dinosaur

Physicists Race Usain Bolt with a Dinosaur

With each new semester, thousands of students dive into introductory physics classes. However, one of the persistent problems that haunt the instructors is to ensure that students attend math-heavy classes.

Scott Lee, professor of physics at the University of Toledo, has developed a number of learning activities to help entry-level students engage in the subject. His latest innovative activity, published in The Physics Teacher, is “Can Usain Bolt run faster than a 400-pound dinosaur?” addresses the question.

In the exercise, students are asked to apply 1D kinematics (displacement, velocity, velocity, and acceleration) concepts and use spreadsheets to determine whether a Jamaican runner can beat Dilophosaurus wetherilli in the 100-meter run.

“One of the big challenges we face in physics education is getting students interested in the course material,” Lee says. “These dinosaur problems are of great interest among students.”

Lee’s interest in dinosaurs began when he and his family found fossils when he was little. Years later, after discovering a book on the physics of dinosaur movement with her daughter, she developed a general education course based on dinosaurs for non-science majors.

“Over the years, these general education classes were used in a number of physics majors because they thought dinosaurs were so beautiful,” he says. “Then I realized that physics majors would be excited to work with dinosaur examples that relate to the principles of physics.”

Lee set out to search for the right dinosaur to exercise in introductory physics classes. Students can recognize the genus Dilopod from the novel and movie Jurassic Park.

“The top running speeds of other dinosaurs are significantly different from Usain Bolt’s average speed,” Lee says. “So it wouldn’t be an interesting race. Unfortunately, the more familiar Tyrannosaur Rex is thought to be slower than Usain Bolt.”

The event also includes discussions about Newton’s second law, in which acceleration is determined by the combination of mass and force. For example, Bolt’s smaller size gives him an initial advantage.

After calculating the winner of the race, Lee’s exercise prompts students to discuss similar speed tests taking place today; for example, how lionesses use their acceleration to catch faster-running prey…

Ultimately, Bolt makes Diloposora swallow dust by 2 seconds, thanks to Newton’s second law and his own acceleration.

Lee hopes his paper will push other physicists to think differently in order to get students excited about the problems physics can solve.

Source: American Institute of Physics.

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