Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Improving Origami Planes With Physics at the APS March Meeting

Not many know, but the APS March meeting hosts quite a large number of undergraduate students from all over the world. They present posters about their research, lecture about their REUs and publications, and network with like-minded professional physicists.

And they fold paper planes, too. All in the name of science!

This year APS Education department and AIP's GradschoolShopper.com joined forces to cooperate on a Graduate Fair that took place in the Undergraduate Student lounge at the APS March Meeting. The event encouraged the students to interact with graduate departments in a casual setting, discuss their future studies, and network with recruiters and department representatives. There was also food and coffee, which always make things even better.

In the GradschoolShopper booth, we decided to spruce things up a bit. Sure, we have a flyer - and it has a lot of information for students on how to find the best graduate degree in Physics, Astronomy and Related Fields through our (free) online search engine. Sure, it's a great flyer and we gave it away like hotcakes, along with our super fashionable string backpack -- but why not go a step further and make our flyer fly, literally?

Cool, right? We thought so too, so on the back of the flyer we printed an origami template for an actual paper airplane (flyer-flyer, see?) and then challenged the young physicist undergrads to improve it. The challenge was simple: The student who manages to tweak the plane and make it glide the farthest wins our book, 2012 Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy and Related Fields.

The following were the only rules:

  • (A) No change in the paper: it must be the same paper, and the same size, for all planes.

  • (B) The flyer must glide.

You would think that rules (A) and (B) are obvious, but we are, after all, talking about physicists, albeit young ones, who do not lack imagination and resourcefulness, especially when showing off their ability to "MacGyver" a paper airplane.

Some students, for instance, asked if they could attach the flyer to an RC-chopper and mechanically maneuver it to the finish line. Ah, technicalities. That started a debate about whether or not the movement will be considered "gliding" or "hovering," and continued to a full-blown discussion about the physics of a helicopter.

Two other students argued about how much the force of the toss itself affected the gliding effect and distance, and proceeded to run multiple tests in which they tried to fling a mockup flyer as far as they can with powerful and weak tosses. The interesting part here was a dilemma about forces, as the initial velocity also affects the opposing friction (or in this case, air resistance).

We also had to tell students they can't simply crumple the plane and then toss it baseball style. The latter would be a great demonstration of projectile motion, but not really much of a gliding motion. At least none of the students came up with spherical planes in a vacuum.

We ended up with a group of 8 students competing for the prize. The plane designs were elaborate. Some featured paperclips as weights, others, intricate folds and aerodynamic shapes, and packing tape. Two planes got really close to being the best, but there was only one winner. A relatively simple design by Tim Clark from the University of West Florida took everyone by surprise. Tim’s plane reached the longest distance while traveling diagonally (I'll let you calculate what that means.) A definite win! It appears that on some occasions, simplicity triumphs over elaborate attempts to conquer gravity.

Well done, Tim, and good luck in your quest for a Graduate degree!

If you want to try our competition, we're still interested to see if our flyer-flyer can be tweaked to fly-fly the farthest-est. You can contact us for a copy, then print it at home, tweak it with physics, and send us a picture to our facebook or twitter with the short description of why you think your plane is the best plane.

We will be more than happy to share your creation with the world and do some physics while we're at it.

See you at the next APS March Meeting!

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