The Physics of Cow-tipping and the Walkie-Scorchie

As a science teacher with a major in Physics, I get special joy from reading about silly applications of technology or human effort that can be avoided with a 10-second physics calculation.  Two such examples came across my radar in the form of Zite articles this morning.  The first is a YouTube video in which Michael Merrifield from the University of Nottingham discusses the geometrical optics of concave mirrors and why the new building in London (the “Walkie-Talkie”, now being renamed the “Walkie-Scorchie”) managed to melt the plastic bits off a Jaguar this week.  Hint:  the curvy bit of the building faces south.  I also like the story about Merrifield starting an urban myth about a piece of art in Nottingham being powerful enough to barbecue pigeons.

In another great bit of physics, Slate magazine published an article this morning about whether or not it’s actually possible to tip a cow.  I’m from Wisconsin, and this urban myth is ridiculously present, almost to the point of state pride (“GO PACKERS!  LET’S TIP A COW!”).  Slate cites a paper by two scientists at the University of British Columbia (where I used to be a faculty member – the stars continue to align weirdly this morning) that claims that 4.43 people on average would need to push on the cow at such-and-so an angle to be able to tip it.  Also, cows don’t sleep standing up (that’s a horse, city folk), so the cow is going to be awake while you try this, which means one of two things will happen.  First, the cow will lean into you to try to get you to stop pushing on it.  Second, and more likely, the cow WILL WALK AWAY.  You shouldn’t be trying to tip cows, anyway.  What did they ever do to you?

So, once again, physics is here to save the day.  Or at least the cows, pigeons, and Jaguars.


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