Fear of Forces? Keep Calm and Draw Free Body Diagrams

Why do so many students hold pernicious and persistent misconceptions about forces?

Partly, I think, because of the apparent clash between our intuitive, gut-level knowledge of real world physics. For example, a typical student might find the statement ‘If I push this box, it will stop moving shortly after I stop pushing because force is needed to move things‘ entirely unobjectionable; whilst in the theoretical, rarefied world of the physicist the statement ‘The box will keep moving at a constant velocity after I stop pushing it, unless it is acted on by a resultant force such as friction‘ would get a tick whereas the former would get a big angry X and and a darkly muttered comment about ‘bloody Aristotleans.’

After all, ‘pernicious’ is in the eye of the beholder. Physics teachers have to remember that they suffer mightily under the ‘curse of knowledge’ and have forgotten what it’s like to look at the world through anything than the lens of Newtonian mechanics.

We learn about the world through the power of example. Human beings are ‘inference engines’: we strive to make sense of the world by constructing general rules based on the examples presented to us.

Many of the examples of forces in action presented to students are in the form of force diagrams; and in my experience, all too many force diagrams add to students’ confusion.

A bad force diagram

Force Diagram 1: version 1 (really bad)

Over the years, I have seen many versions of this diagram. To my own chagrin, I must admit that I, personally, have drawn versions of this diagram in the past. But I now recognise it has one major, irredeemable flaw: the arrows are drawn hanging in mid-air.

OK, let’s address this. Is this better?

Force Diagram 1: version 2 (still bad)

No, it isn’t because it is still unclear which forces are acting on which object. Is the blue 75 N arrow the person pushing the cart forward or the cart pulling the person forward? Is the red 75 N arrow the cart pushing back on the person or the person pulling back on the cart?

From both versions of this diagram shown above: we simply cannot tell.

As a consequence, I think the explanatory value of this diagram is limited.

Free Body Diagrams to the Rescue!

A free body diagram is simply one where we consider the forces on each object in the situation in turn.

Force Diagram 1: version 3 (much better!)

We begin with a situation diagram. This shows the relationship between the objects we are considering. Next, we draw a free body diagram for each object; that is, we draw each object involved and consider the forces acting on it.

From version 3 of Force Diagram 1, we can see that it was an attempt to illustrate Newton’s Third Law i.e. that if body A exerts a force on body B then body B exerts an equal and opposite force on body A.

Another bad force diagram

Force Diagram 2: version 1 (very bad)

This is a bad force diagram because it is unclear which forces are acting on the cart and which are acting on the person. Apart from a very general ‘Well, 50 N minus 50 N means zero resultant force so zero acceleration’, there is not a lot of information that can be extracted from this diagram.

Also, the most likely mechanism to produce the red retarding force of 50 N is friction between the wheels of the cart and the ground (and note that since the cart is being pushed by an external body and the wheels are not powered like those of a car, the frictional force opposes the motion). Showing this force acting on the handle of the cart is not helpful, in my opinion.

Free body diagrams to the rescue (again)!

The Newton 3 pairs are colour coded. For example, the orange 50 N forward force on the person (object A) is produced as a direct result of Newton’s 3rd Law because the person’s foot is using friction to grip the floor surface (object B) and push backwards on it (the orange arrow in the bottom diagram).

This diagram shows a complete free body diagram body analysis for all three objects (cart, person, floor) involved in this simple interaction.

I’m not suggesting that all three free body diagrams always need to be discussed. For example, at KS3 the discussion might be limited at the teacher’s discretion to the top ‘Forces on Cart’ diagram as an example of Newton’s First Law in action. Or equally, the teacher may wish to extend the analysis to include the second and third diagrams, depending on their own judgement of their students’ understanding. The Key Stage ticks and crosses on the diagram are indicative suggestions only.

At KS3 and KS4, there is not a pressing need to explicitly label this technique as ‘free body force diagrams’. Instead, what I suggest (perhaps after drawing the situation diagram without any force arrows on it) is the simple statement that ‘OK, let’s look at the forces acting on just the cart’ before drawing the top diagram. Further diagrams can be introduced with a similar statements such as ‘Next, let’s look at the forces acting on just the person’ and so on. Linking the diagrams with dotted lines as shown is, I think, useful in not losing sight of the fact that we are dealing piecemeal with a complex and nuanced whole.

Conclusion

The free body force diagram technique (whether or not the teacher decides to explicitly call it that) offers a useful tool that will allow us all to (fingers crossed!) draw better force diagrams.

  1. Draw a situation diagram with NO FORCE ARROWS.
  2. ‘Now let’s look at the forces acting on just object 1’ and draw a separate free body diagram (i.e. a diagram showing just object 1 and the forces acting on it)
  3. Repeat step 2 for some or all of the other objects at your discretion.
  4. (Optional) Link all the diagrams with dotted lines to emphasise that they are facets of a more complex, nuanced whole

In the next post, I hope to show how the technique can be used to explain common problems such as how a car tyre interacts with the ground to drive a car forward.

You can read Part 2 here.

2 thoughts on “Fear of Forces? Keep Calm and Draw Free Body Diagrams

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