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Nigel Latta takes on some big names in science – Galileo and Isaac Newton – and puts his body on the line to test the fundamentals of gravity. Through his adventures, we are introduced to the tentative and empirical nature of science.

We tend to think of gravity as stuff falling, but the law of gravity is way, way weirder than you could ever imagine.

Nigel Latta

Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up
Watch Series 1/Episode 8: Gravity

Science ideas and concepts in Episode 8: Gravity

In between the drama and humour, Nigel introduces a number of important science concepts. This episode explores:

  • gravity is a force that attracts all objects towards each other
  • gravitational energy is potential or stored energy
  • gravitational energy can turn into kinetic energy
  • air resistance is the force that opposes the relative motion of an object through the air
  • scientists depend on empirical evidence to produce scientific knowledge (nature of science)
  • scientific knowledge is subject to change (nature of science)
  • science is an adventure that people everywhere can take part in, as they have for many centuries (nature of science).

Resources on the Science Learning Hub provide an in-depth – and safer – means to further explore these concepts.

Fundamentals of gravity

Nigel says we tend to think of gravity as “stuff falling”. But the concept of gravity is actually more complicated, as Nigel demonstrates in adventurous ways.

Gravity is a force that attracts all objects towards each other. Gravity only becomes noticeable if one (or both) of the objects has a lot of mass, such as the Earth. Earth has 80 billion trillion times more mass than Nigel, so Nigel does most of the falling and Earth a bit of the attracting.

Nigel uses a roller coaster to demonstrate gravitational energy as potential or stored energy. The amount of stored energy depends on its mass and height above the Earth. For example, a pen sitting on your desk contains less gravitational potential energy than the roller coaster car at the top of the track. Gravitational energy turns into kinetic energy – which Nigel describes as “the fun stuff” – as the object descends.

Learn more about the fundamentals of gravity

Every object in the universe is attracted towards every other object by gravity. These Hub articles explain more about gravity and gravitational energy.
Gravity and satellite motion
What is energy?

Activity ideas

Students often hold alternative conceptions about gravity. Use the following activity as a pre-test to establish student understanding. The teacher resource details common student misconceptions and suggests teaching approaches to address them. They are suitable for mid primary level and above.
Gravity and satellites: true or false?
Teacher resource – Alternative conceptions about gravity

This activity identifies forms of kinetic and potential energy and uses formulae to calculate the energy of an object. It is suitable for secondary level.
Calculating potential and kinetic energy

I had to hang upside down in this harness as we were doing the filming … after a couple of hours of this, it’s the most physically painful thing I’ve ever done.

Nigel Latta

Air resistance

Nigel is aware that air resistance will affect the outcome of his experiment with the orange. In his typical laconic manner, Nigel tells us, “The atmosphere is made up of lots and lots of stuff. Those gases and other pieces act like a brake slowing things down.”

Air resistance, or drag, is a force that pushes in the opposite direction to the motion of an object. Nigel demonstrates that the fuzz on the tennis ball and the dimples on the orange slow their fall to Earth. Air resistance acts as a separate force, pushing against the force of gravity.

Learn more about air resistance

The following articles provide information about air resistance and how to reduce it.
Causes of aerodynamic drag
Faster bikes
Creating new cycle helmets
Principles of flight

Activity ideas

These activities explore air resistance. They are suitable for mid primary level and above.
Investigating airflow over shapes
On your bikes

The nature of scientific knowledge

This episode demonstrates that scientific knowledge is both empirical (based on evidence) and tentative (it can change as new evidence comes to light).

Nigel explains that Galileo’s experiment involving a cannon ball, wooden ball and the Tower of Pisa was probably a thought experiment – so he jumps out of an aeroplane in an attempt to gather ‘real’ data.

While Nigel’s skydive does not alter existing scientific knowledge, it does demonstrate the tenacious side of scientific endeavour. Scientists test, revise and occasionally discard previously accepted knowledge. Science is a never-ending process to better understand how the world works.

Nature of science

New ideas that are not too far from the expected norm are usually accepted – provided they are backed up with evidence. The acceptance of radical ideas is not so straightforward. Some examples of these are the Sun-centred solar system and continental drift.

Finally, Nigel reminds us all that science is an adventure in which anyone can take part. It can be as simple as dropping an egg, a feather or a coin to see what happens next.

Nature of science resources

The Hub has a collection of resources designed to unpack the nature of science, including an interactive How science works . The resources link to articles, research, videos, animations and activities throughout the Hub.

Learn more about how science knowledge and ideas change over time by looking at the lives and work of past New Zealand scientists. Our heritage scientists have profiles and timelines about aspects of their life and work and how these fit into a wider science picture.

Activity ideas

The Hub’s Nature of science resources have a number of student activities that can be used to introduce aspects of the nature of science. As generic activities, they can be used to explicitly teach about the nature of science and then linked to the science content that you are teaching.
What might we miss?
Mystery boxes
The extra piece
Scrambled sentence
Communicating in science
Alternative conceptions about the nature of science

Useful links

Visit the Exploratorium website to find your weight on different worlds – and to learn about the relationship between mass, gravity and distance.

Watch this video as Brian Cox and the team at NASA’s Space Power Facility drop a bowling ball and feathers in a near perfect vacuum.

Use literacy resources from Connected and the School Journal to learn more about gravity and drag.
Make a spinner Connected Number 1 1999
The chicken-leg effect Connected Number 3 2000
Speed freaks Connected Number 3 2009
Mission to Jupiter Connected Number 3 2009
Beating the wind Connected Level 4 2014
The wall of death School Journal Part 4 Number 2 1993

Learn more about Connected.

Learn more about the School Journal.


    Published 10 June 2015 Referencing Hub articles