Tag Archives: force

A Furry Friction Funny

Q. Two cats are sitting on a roof.  Which one slides off first?

A. The one with the smaller mu!


Of course this joke assumes that the cat in question is totally complacent to slide off the roof, making no effort to maintain his position.  Strange cat.

Anyway, “mu” is pronounced like “mew“, as in the sound made by a cat.  It is a Greek letter, usually represented by the following symbol: µ.  Mu must be the favorite Greek letter of mathematicians and scientists; it pops up in fields as diverse as computer science, number theory, physics, orbital mechanics, chemistry, and pharmacology.  In this joke, µ is meant to represent the coefficient of friction, about which more in a moment.

What is friction?  To greatly oversimplify things, friction is a force that resists relative motion between two surfaces, or between a surface and a fluid.  When you experience resistance while pushing a refrigerator across a tile floor, you’re working against friction.  When you rub your hands together to warm them up, friction is your friend.  Friction is an even greater friend to the skydiver; when she opens her parachute, fluid friction against the atmosphere reduces her speed from a spine-shattering 120 miles per hour to a totally survivable 10 miles per hour.)

Here’s an interesting side note about friction; scientists used to think that the friction was caused by microscopic grooves and bumps that tended to lock surfaces together, requiring extra force to break their grip and get the surfaces sliding past each other.  Now, scientists think that friction is caused by chemical bonds forming between the atoms in the adjacent surfaces.  That’s a strange thought; merely by touching something, you bond with it.  In a way, you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you.  Deep, man.  Deep.

But I digress.  Mathematically, the friction between two surfaces – such as, say, a roof and a cat’s butt – can be expressed using the following formula:

Ff = µ * m * g * cosθ

Ff represents friction, which is measured in units of force called newtons.  The letter m represents the mass of the cat in kilograms, g is the acceleration due to gravity (On Earth, that’s about 9.8 m/s/s) and cosθ is cosine of angle theta, where theta (another Greek letter strongly favored by the academic elite) is the angle that the roof makes with the ground.

Just to have some numbers to play with, let us assume that the cat’s mass is 3 kilograms, giving her an Earthly weight of about 6.6 pounds.  Now let us assume that the roof has a pitch of, say, 30º.  To find the friction between the cat’s derriere and the rooftop, we would substitute and multiply:

Ff = µ * m * g * cosθ

Ff = µ * 3 kg * 9.8 m/s/s * cos(30º)

Ff = µ * 25.5 newtons

I have not yet specified the roof-feline coefficient of friction, because frankly, I don’t know what it is.  My search of the literature has been fruitless.  For the sake of argument, let’s assign a completely arbitrary value of 0.6 to µ, and see what that gets us.

Ff = 0.6 * 25.5 newtons

Ff = 15.3 newtons (about equal to 3.4 pounds of force)

So there you go; there are 15.3 newtons of friction preventing the cat from sliding down the roof.  Whether the cat actually slides or not depends on whether the gravitational component pulling the cat down the roof is greater than the friction holding the cat in place.

But let us assume that the coefficient of friction between the cat and the hot tin roof were smaller, perhaps because the cat had just finished grooming and her fur was unusually even and smooth.  Instead of 0.6, let’s say the coefficient of friction were only 0.3, giving the cat a static friction of only about 7.7 newtons.  Naturally, with a smaller coefficient of friction – a smaller mu – the cat would be less able to hold its position on the roof and more likely to start sliding downward.

So there you have it: the cat with the smaller mu is the one that starts sliding first.  Next time somebody tells you this joke, they’ll be met with less friction, because you’ll understand it purr-fectly.

Okay, I’ll go now.

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A Pascal Pun

Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Blaise Pascal are playing Hide ‘n’ Seek. It’s Einstein’s turn to count, so he covers his eyes and counts to ten. Pascal runs to hide, but Newton draws a one meter by one meter square on the ground, then stands in the middle of it.

Einstein reaches ten and uncovers his eyes. He sees Newton immediately and exclaims “I found you, Newton! You’re it!”

Newton replies “You didn’t find me. You found a Newton over a square meter. You found Pascal!”


Oh, that rascally Newton. Or should I say, that Pascally Newton?

No, I probably shouldn’t.

Anyway, let’s talk about pressure. Not the emotional pressure of having to meet a deadline, or peer pressure, but fluid pressure. Fluids, like air or water, are drawn towards the center of Earth just like everything else on this planet due to the influence of gravity. These fluids exert their weight on anything beneath them. We experience this weight as pressure.

Unlike the weight of a solid object, pressure doesn’t just push downward; it pushes in all directions. Here, at the bottom of Earth’s atmosphere, you have almost fifteen pounds of force pushing inward on every square inch of your body. A square inch is roughly the area of a postage stamp, so the average human body has a lot of square inches to it. Using the Du Bois formula, we can estimate that a 75-kilogram man (165 pounds) who is 178 cm tall (5′ 10″) ought to have a body surface area of about 1.9 square meters (about 3000 square inches). If that man is at or near sea level, he’ll have nearly 20 metric tons (22 short tons) of force pushing inward.

Now hold on, I hear you saying. If we’re all subject to multiple tons of force, pushing inward from all directions, why don’t we all get squished like bugs?

There are several reasons:

  1. We’re adapted to survive under this pressure.
  2. We’re full of fluids that are pushing outward with equal force.
  3. Most of the stuff inside us is fairly incompressible anyway.

So don’t worry too much about it. Just think about how amazing you are for standing up to that kind of pressure. Go you.

What do Newton, Einstein, and Pascal have to do with any of this? Well, for all of his accomplishments, Einstein is not really necessary to this joke. You can replace him with your favorite scientist; say, Alfred Wegener.

A newton (after Sir Isaac Newton, in case there was any doubt) is the metric unit of force (not pressure, and it’s important to make this distinction!) A force is a push or pull, and for all intents and purposes a force acts on a single point. Pressure, on the other hand, is a force spread out over an area. When you walk about pressure using metric units, you talk about newtons per square meter.

The metric unit of pressure is the newton per square meter, or N/m2. There’s another, shorter name for this unit: the pascal (abbreviated Pa). One pascal is exactly equal to one newton per square meter, and the two terms are used interchangeably. So, by standing on an area of one meter by one meter (a square meter), Newton made himself a Pascal. Cute.