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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics

Problem-Solving Guide


HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide


The problem with Physics 1 (Mechanics) ........................................................................................ 3

How to use this thing ................................................................................................................................ 4

(1) Problem statement ............................................................................................................................. 5

(2) Whats it asking for? .......................................................................................................................... 6

(3) Take a guess .......................................................................................................................................... 7

(4) Draw it yourself ................................................................................................................................... 8

(5) Variables ................................................................................................................................................. 9

(6) Free-body/Torque diagram AND/OR Energy state diagram ....................................... 10

(7) Equations ............................................................................................................................................. 12

(8) Solve ...................................................................................................................................................... 13

(9) Plug in ................................................................................................................................................... 14

What now? .................................................................................................................................................. 15

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

The problem with Physics 1 (Mechanics)


How many times have you come across a homework problem like this:

And have promptly followed by filling your paper with this:

Or to quote the words of the infamously-terrible-student-later-to-become-British-Prime-


Minister, Winston Churchill:

I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of
the question 1. After much reflection, I put a bracket round it thus
(1). But thereafter I could not think of anything with it that was
either relevant or true.

The truth is, no one ever showed us how to solve physics problems.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

The professor gets up there, throws out a bunch of concepts and example problems and
then were left to figure out the rest.

But what we dont realize is that learning the approach, the methodology of breaking
down and working through practice problems, is far more important than learning the
actual material itself.

Get the right approach down, and any concept, from Newtons laws to centripetal
acceleration to harmonic oscillation, becomes manageable dare I say even
straightforward.

How to use this thing


This template is meant to make your Physics life easier in 3 ways:

1. To give you a basic framework to break down any mechanics problem

2. To guide you into building your Physics Intuition using subtle cues

3. To train you to efficiently dissect and solve homework and exam problems
quickly, with as little frustration as possible

Use it as a training tool first.

Learn the process of breaking down difficult problems, and teasing apart their structure.

This will help you grasp how to attack the problems themselves, as well as guide you
towards a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts and equations.

Then, build your repetition, solving a diverse and difficult set of practice problems for
each concept area. Youll want to make this as automatic as possible, so that come
midterms you can perform under the pressure.

Once you have the process down, go free-form. Put the template aside and let it ride.

You can return to it for new types of problems, or when you need a re-fresher, but at this
point youll have internalized the steps so well that you can virtually see them in your head.

Welcome to Physics problem nirvana

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(1) Problem statement



First, get your head around the problem.

As youre already too familiar, practice problems are typically presented in hieroglyphic-like
jargon like this one below.



How many times did you just read those 4 sentences? Dont lie

What you should do though, is put it into your own words, as simply as possible.

In this case Ive written out the problem statement as one bullet point to cover the specifics
of the situation (initial speed, height, and speed constraint), and one bullet point to cover
the actual question.



Now that weve got the problem in a slightly more understandable form, lets move on to
figuring out what exactly were supposed to do here.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(2) Whats it asking for?



This is the single most important step in solving any Physics problem!

Done incorrectly, you can send yourself down a rabbit-hole of convoluted and irrelevant
equations, algebra, and nonsensical answers that will have you pulling out your hair while
simultaneously fighting off the urge to flip over your desk in a hulk-like rage.

Done correctly, and it will ease your nerves and will virtually guarantee at least 50% credit
on the problem (assuming youre at least vaguely familiar with the material).

To do the job, we need to probe a little deeper into what the question is asking for in
our plain-English problem statement from Step (1).

Are you going to get a speeding ticket?

When do people get speeding tickets?

When their speed is greater than the limit shown on the road. Here thats 70 km/hr at the
bottom of the hill.

Okay, we need to figure out how fast the car will be going at the bottom of the hill, and then
compare that speed to the 70 km/hr limit.

If its over 70, well get a ticket (assuming in this case the cop is a total ass). If its under,
were good to go.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(3) Take a guess



Remember back in 2nd grade, when the teacher would pose a question to the class, and 5
different kids would shout out literally the first thing they could think of.

What would happen?

Our level-headed no-nonsense professional instructor would sternly announce, Bobby


dont just yell out anything. Think! Use your brain. Dont be lazy.

Seemed like a reasonable thing to say at the time

Well SCREW THAT TEACH! Retire already.

Guessing, as it actually turns out, is a fine art that activates your brain prior to starting
a problem, allowing you to link your existing knowledge to new information, better solidify
that info in your long-term memory, and to later test your solution against your gut-feel (this
is how Physics Intuition begins to develop).

As some old psychologist once said,

The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a


tentative conclusion these are the most valuable coin of the thinker
at work.
~Jerome Seymour Bruner

So, go from the gut. Take a stab at whatever you think the answer is, even if it
doesnt make any sense how you got there.

Here, Ive boldly leapt to the conclusion that no, a ticket will not be issued. Fifteen
meters doesnt seem like that much of a drop, so maybe youll get up to around 50
km/hr from 30.

Well see how my prediction holds up


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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(4) Draw it yourself



Now lets break down the problem even further and convert words into a sketch.

Its important here not to just use or copy the picture provided with the problem statement.
Drawing it yourself helps to personalize the information, and better solidify the lay-of-the-
land (again helping to build experience for your Physics Intuition).

Images also contain a significant amount more information than text, and are much more
easily processed in the brain. If youve ever said, Nah Ill just wait for it to come out as a
movie, you know what Im talking about.

Now keep in mind, this is not art class. Were looking for a purely functional picture of the
situation. So dont spend time making it pretty, just get it done.

Key components:

1. A representation of the physical action

As you can see below, taken from Step (1) Ive drawn my awesome hot-rod
starting at the top of the hill moving to the right, descending down the hill and
coasting at the bottom.



2. Labels

Along with the car and hill, Ive included the important variables (! , , ! ) again
pulled from my statement in Step (1), along with their actual values if given by the
problem. These will be expanded on in Step (5).

3. Assumptions and constraints

Last, I threw in a 70 kph speed limit sign to represent the constraint I need to
check my final answer against.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(5) Variables

How many times have you F-ed up a problem because of units?

Be honest, weve all done it.

Well its time to end that shit once and for all. This single step will ensure that you never
flush exam points down the toilet again because you couldnt convert ! into ! at the
end of a problem (and we all know whatever old curmudgeonly writer came up with those
practice problems intentionally uses weird units just to screw with us because, lets be
honest, its the only enjoyment he gets out of his day).

First, lay out all of your defined variables given by Step (1) and labeled in Step (4). Ive
done this below with ! , , and ! .

For your undefined variables, put a question mark youll have to solve for these.



The variable came later when I realized I needed it (you can always come back and
update Step (5) as you start to solve).

Now, IMPORTANT before you move on, make sure all of your units are shown in
terms of meters (m ), seconds (s ), and kilograms (kg ).

Dont ask my why, just do it. Somebody decided at some point that these were the
standard units to use. So every other important unit in Mechanics is derived from these
three.

Convert this now, save yourself multiple face-palms later.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(6) Free-body/Torque diagram AND/OR Energy state diagram



Okay now youve got the problem defined in your own terms, youve sketched it out and
have a picture of the situation in your mind, and have identified the variables involved in
the problem.

What next?

Most students, at this point, start whipping out any and all equations they remotely
recognize as related to the variables theyve written down plugging in left and right,
desperately hoping that at some point a numeric answer will pop out the other side.

Dont be most students.

These three types of diagrams free-body, torque, and energy state are extremely
powerful ways of discovering which equations will lead you towards your answer. Any time
invested in this step now, will save you 2x time later on trying to figure out how everything
fits together.

Free-body/Torque diagram

A Free-body diagram (FBD) is a way to illustrate the forces being applied to a


particular body, that takes advantage of Newtons 2nd Law ( = ). (The torque
diagram is basically an FBD applied to a rotation problem.)

Now, some problems will require you to look at interactions between different forces on an
object, some wont. This is always happening in any physical interaction, but its not always
relevant to the problem at hand.

Below is an example of a FBD for a different problem, in which force balance is more
relevant.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

Based on this diagram, constructing a set of force balance equations in Step (6) becomes
relatively straightforward.

However, in cases like the car example were working on, no information is directly given
about the forces involved. An FBD could be a valid approach, and may be worthwhile to
sketch out, but is there a better way to represent the problem? (Hint: there is.)

Energy state diagram

Force and torque diagrams result in a set of kinematics (study of motion) equations.

The energy state diagram results in a set of kinetics (study of energy) equations, which
take advantage of the Law of Conservation of Energy.

In this problem, were comparing two different energy states: E1, when the car is at the top
of the hill, and E2, when the car reaches the bottom of the hill. We know that because
energy is conserved, we can compare the total energy of both of these states to generate
a useful set of equations in Step (7).



Whats awesome about this diagram is that you can map any number of states within a
given problem, and the total energies of those states have to be equal if energy is
conserved.

So in this case, the energy associated with the car moving at 35 kph at a height of 15 m
(E1) ends up being equal to the energy associated with the car moving at its final velocity
at a height of 0 m (E2).

Bottom line: use these diagrams to further dissect the situation and pave the way for
the equations youll use, rather than blindly plucking them out of your textbook.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(7) Equations

Ahh equations

The very first thing we tend to write on our paper, and the very last thing we glimpse before
giving up, crumpling the half-empty sheet into a tight ball, and throwing it at our
unsuspecting roommate in a fit of rage.

Here in Step (7) well save you from yourself, and pull together the information youve
put together in Steps (2), (5), and (6) to get you a set of expertly chose equations that
will set you up for a successful solving attempt.

Keeping in mind what the problem is ultimately looking for, use your diagrams to
construct the basic relationships that hold for your particular problem.

In this case, equation #1 is simply conservation of energy between energy state 1 and
energy state 2. The second equation expands that total energy E into the sum of potential
and kinetic mechanical energy. The 3rd and 4th equations describe the potential and kinetic
energy in terms of the variables were working with in this problem.

I did not pull these out of thin air.


I did not look them up in the textbook.

I did pull from my memory the most basic relationship I could think of while looking at my
energy state diagram in Step (6) and trying to figure out how to incorporate ! , , and ! .



Its okay if youre not sure if your list is complete.

Just put down what you think will hold for the problem, and make sure you have your
variables covered.

We can always return to this step once weve made a solving attempt.

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(8) Solve

Okay this is where the magic happens where all of your work breaking down the problem
pays off. Begin by selecting from your set of equations put together in Step (7), and
attempt to work towards the variable you need to solve for.

Dont plug in any numbers yet, were working in the symbolic world here.

By working through all the steps symbolically (all variables, no numbers), its (1) much less
likely that youll make a calculation error, and (2) the TA grading your homework or exam
will be much more likely to award you partial credit if you had it right, but just made a small
algebra error.

In this case, starting from 1 = 2, were able to plug in for PE and KE for each, and use
some algebra to get ! by itself.



Page 2 of the template also includes additional space if needed (oh how we all love
unnecessarily complex algebra).

Your final equation should solve for the unknown variable, and should all be in terms of
known variables.

If you still have some unknowns in there, dont panic simply back-track to your diagrams
and equations and try to generate an additional relationship or two that you didnt
recognize the first time around.

Then wash and repeat.


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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

(9) Plug in

Finally! Youre there.

This is easy street.

Plug and chug baby!

Because youve already converted all of your units correctly per Step (5), you can simply
throw your numbers in there as-is. (See how much better life is now?)

Now just make sure the units in your final answer agree with those asked for by the
problem. In this case, we needed to convert back to km/hr to get to our final answer.



And BAM, there you have it. Final answer.

Now, one final step How did we do on our guess in Step (3)?

Well looks like we were off. We ended up gaining ~36 km/hr over our 15 m drop more
than we thought. Our guess of 50 km/hr has cost us dearly, in the form of a check out to
our highways finest.

But what weve gained is some insight into how energy tradeoffs work, how powerful
gravity is, and how you might go about building the worlds fastest roller coaster

Feel your Physics Intuition grow with each successive problem. And may the force of
mechanics-midterm-kickassery be with you

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HACKING PHYSICS Mechanics Problem-Solving Guide

What now?

Have questions? Feedback?

Want more answers?

Want to tell your prof. to shove-it because you never knew how simple it could be??

Send me a note at tom@wtfprofessor.com.

Or check out tons more learning strategies, problem-solving tactics, and practice problem
solutions at http://wtfprofessor.com.

And if youve found this guide useful please, share it far and wide, and help fight back
against the needless agony experienced by college Physics students everywhere.

*Note: example problem on Page 5 taken from Knights Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A
Strategic Approach with Modern Physics (2nd Edition)

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