Momentum Conservation PrincipleOne of the most powerful laws in physics is the law of momentum conservation. The law of momentum conservation can be stated as follows.
For a collision occurring between object 1 and object 2 in an isolated system, the total momentum of the two objects before the collision is equal to the total momentum of the two objects after the collision. That is, the momentum lost by object 1 is equal to the momentum gained by object 2.The above statement tells us that the total momentum of a collection of objects (a system) is conserved - that is, the total amount of momentum is a constant or unchanging value. This law of momentum conservation will be the focus of the remainder of Lesson 2. To understand the basis of momentum conservation, let's begin with a short logical proof.
Consider a collision between two objects - object 1 and object 2. For such a collision, the forces acting between the two objects are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction (Newton's third law). This statement can be expressed in equation form as follows.
A useful analogy for understanding momentum conservation involves a money transaction between two people. Let's refer to the two people as Jack and Jill. Suppose that we were to check the pockets of Jack and Jill before and after the money transaction in order to determine the amount of money that each possesses. Prior to the transaction, Jack possesses $100 and Jill possesses $100. The total amount of money of the two people before the transaction is $200. During the transaction, Jack pays Jill $50 for the given item being bought. There is a transfer of $50 from Jack's pocket to Jill's pocket. Jack has lost $50 and Jill has gained $50. The money lost by Jack is equal to the money gained by Jill. After the transaction, Jack now has $50 in his pocket and Jill has $150 in her pocket. Yet, the total amount of money of the two people after the transaction is $200. The total amount of money (Jack's money plus Jill's money) before the transaction is equal to the total amount of money after the transaction. It could be said that the total amount of money of the system (the collection of two people) is conserved. It is the same before as it is after the transaction.
A useful means of depicting the transfer and the conservation of money between Jack and Jill is by means of a table.
For any collision occurring in an isolated system, momentum is conserved. The total amount of momentum of the collection of objects in the system is the same before the collision as after the collision. A common physics lab involves the dropping of a brick upon a cart in motion.
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Now suppose that a medicine ball is thrown to a clown who is at rest upon the ice; the clown catches the medicine ball and glides together with the ball across the ice. The momentum of the medicine ball is 80 kg*m/s before the collision. The momentum of the clown is 0 m/s before the collision. The total momentum of the system before the collision is 80 kg*m/s. Therefore, the total momentum of the system after the collision must also be 80 kg*m/s. The clown and the medicine ball move together as a single unit after the collision with a combined momentum of 80 kg*m/s. Momentum is conserved in the collision.
Momentum is conserved for any interaction between two objects occurring in an isolated system. This conservation of momentum can be observed by a total system momentum analysis or by a momentum change analysis. Useful means of representing such analyses include a momentum table and a vector diagram. Later in Lesson 2, we will use the momentum conservation principle to solve problems in which the after-collision velocity of objects is predicted.