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Swinging through

Spider-Man movie leads to ASMSA physics experiment

By Wayne Bryan

This article was published June 22, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Kajal Bharany attaches fishing line to a weight that her group will use to determine whether Spider-Man can really use his spider-web ropes to swing from building to building like in the movies. Kajal is participating in a summer program for high school students, Science in the Movies at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs.

Sometimes summer classes can get a little informal, but that is not happening at the summer-camp session of the Science Engineering Institute program at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs.

OK, one day students watched Spider-Man, the original 2002 version of the tale of the teenage superhero who can climb walls and cross New York City swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper. But at ASMSA, that’s just the setup for a physics lesson, said Jack Waddle, a member of the faculty of ASMSA and a 1999 graduate of the school.

“We want to see if what happens in the movie really matches up with the physics of the pendulum,” Waddell, who has a doctorate in physics from the University of Michigan, told the class. “In one scene in the movie, Spider-Man swings on his web through the city but, after landing, says, ‘It might have been faster to take the subway.’ We are going to find out.”

Working in teams of two or three, the students in the class were given small weights of various sizes, and they could attach any length of fishing line from the weight and suspend it from a pivot that offered little friction. As long as the line was short enough that the weight did not hit the floor, it would swing in a way just as Spider-Man did in the movie.

Causing the pendulum to swing, the students measured the distance of the swing and the speed as the weight moved from the point it was dropped to the point when it began to swing back.

The students, some of whom will be high school seniors next year and one who will enter the sixth grade, then discussed the conditions that would cause the pendulum to swing from one point to another.

“Two things can change how far the swing will go,” Waddell told the class. “Those are the length of the line and how high it is held.”

As the students got the pendulums going, they saw that the swing to the other side was no higher than the height from which the weight was dropped.

“That is the conservation of energy,” Waddell said. “It measures the amount of two different kinds of energy.”

The teacher explained that height is the potential energy in the swing, to be used much as power is used from a battery. The kinetic energy is the motion of the weight once it is released by the student.

“As the kinetic energy brings the weight down, it uses up the potential energy,” Waddell said. “Yet when the weight begins to swing up from the lowest point, the kinetic energy is used up as the potential energy is again stored as the weight goes higher.”

The same amount of energy was used and stored on the second part of the swing, under ideal conditions, as was stored as the weight fell on the first half of the swing. To prove that, Waddell stood in front of the class holding a larger weight suspended from the ceiling.

“I can stand here and hold the wait next to my face,” Waddell said. “When it comes back, the swing will stop at the point where it began, and it will not hit my face.”

While the teacher did flinch as the weight flew toward him at the end of the reverse swing, he did prove his point, remaining unharmed as the weight stopped without hitting him.

Class members stated that the simple cycle of storing and using energy was not exactly what Spider-man was doing.

“Sometimes he just stepped off the side of a building, and sometime he jumped,” said one member of the class.

The jump would cause the swing to go faster and reach the release point faster, Waddell explains.

“That is increasing the momentum,” Waddell said.

Reviewing parts of the movie, the teacher also reminded the class that Spider-man often jumps from a building and, at the end of the swing, pulls the web cord, extending its length and creating extra potential energy as he releases the tight cord and swings on the next rope of web.

Waddell said that with a close watching of how the swings go in the movie, students will see that the web-swinging Spider-Man is at times breaking the rules of physics, establishing the make-believe of the story.

After the class, Juliette Green, who will enter the 10th grade at Glen Rose High School near Malvern in the fall, said she learned some things about the conservation of energy and kinetic energy. She also gained some other important information.

“What I wanted to learn most from being here was about ASMSA and whether I would want to go to school here.”

Green said she would like to spend her last two years of high school at ASMSA after she completes the 10th grade at Glen Rose.

Along with finding out if a particular movie scene would be possible in the real world, students taking the summer classes will also see if they can build a rocket from a 2-liter soda bottle and try to cook food using just the energy of the sun. The students will also seek clues at a “crime scene” and see if they can use science to figure out what happened.

The second week of the summer Science Engineering Institute program will start Monday and run though Friday. For more information about the class, call Lindsey Waddell, at (501) 622-5133.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at


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