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How Were Apollo Astronauts Able to Walk on the Moon? Why Heavy Boots of Course

In the ongoing mold of “you can’t possibly make this stuff up,” we turn to a recent physics excerpt migrating through cyberspace. It appears to be traceable to Steve Detweiler at the University of Florida and Accelerated Physics 2060, though it is not clear who was the actual observer.

Fundamental of Physical Science

According to the one site that students are not supposed to turn to for research, Wikipedia offers that gravitation is the “natural phenomenon by which objects with mass attract one another.” Without taking that sentence too much further, it is quite evident that if an object has mass (we will skip the debate that an object by definition must have mass) then it will attract other objects.

WikipediaIn physical science, students learn that in order for this attraction to be noticeable, we need a substantially massive object, like the earth or the sun (or, yes, like the moon). In physics, we might take this a bit further to note that the so-called force of gravity exerted on an object by the earth just so happens to be equal and opposite to the attractive force that the object exerts on the earth.

We further reveal that smaller objects fall to the earth because that force of attraction is able to move the very wimpy smaller object easily but is not large enough to reveal any perceptive movement by the more massive earth.

With that in mind, we turn to Detweiler’s post, where it seems that a teaching assistant in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison was explaining Descartes. According to the tale, the TA was trying to create an example that would back the notion that things don’t always happen the way we think they will.

For his concrete example, the TA chose this beauty:

“…..while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.”

The storyteller goes on to note his incredulity at the TA’s false assertion, but that his disbelief was not shared by the majority of the other students in the room.

The storyteller goes on to protest.

“But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.”

To which the TA responds.

luvi“No it wouldn’t, because you’re too far away from the Earth’s gravity,” says the TA who then asks, “You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn’t you?”

To which the storyteller responds, “why didn’t they float away?”

“Because they were wearing heavy boots,” asserted the TA.

Is This for Real?

My first thought when I heard the story was, no sir, no way. This guy had to be making this up.

But then he insists that he went back to his dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book, calling 30 people and asking a two part question, if they could not in fact answer the first one.

He began:

If you’re standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it
a) float away,
b) float where it is,
c) fall to the ground?

According to the storyteller, just 47 percent got the question correct. Of the other 53%, he asked this second follow up:

You’ve seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn’t they fall off?

According to the storyteller, about 20 percent of the people decided at that point that they would change their answer. But according to the legendary story, about half of those getting wrong explained:

“Because they were wearing heavy boots.”

Huh?

Story Continues

If you’re like me, you like this clever little piece that demonstrates just how scientifically illiterate our people are but are still wondering, could this be for real?

It is certainly not likely that he could have randomly called eight of the students who had happened to be in the TA’s classroom that day. And it would seem unlikely that Wisconsin had had done that bad of a job teaching science to its citizens.

dotpolkaYet, later, one begins to think there just might be some merit here as the story continues to the physics classroom one day where two multiple choice questions were placed on a Physics test right after the class had finished the study of elementary mechanics and gravity.

Question one:

If you are standing on the Moon, and holding a rock, and you let it go, it will:
(a) float away
(b) float where it is
(c) move sideways
(d) fall to the ground
(e) none of the above

Question 2:

When the Apollo astronauts were on the Moon, they did not fall off because:
(a) the Earth’s gravity extends to the Moon
(b) the Moon has gravity
(c) they wore heavy boots
(d) they had safety ropes
(e) they had spiked shoes

While the first question was generally considered by the tester as being of average difficulty (especially with the more robust questions that had to have been posed), just 57% of the students got it right. The second proved much easier as 73% went on to get it right.

But guess what? When it comes to the notion of heavy boots, well it still seems to be a tough one for even physics students, at least the weaker ones. Those who scored in the lowest quartile on the entire test actually selected heavy boots as their answer most often.

Then there comes the ultimate sign, the one certifying piece that ensures that the story must be on the up and up.

It seems that after the exam, two students reportedly asked if the professor was going to continue asking “questions about things they had never studied in the class.”

2 comments

1 Guy Macher { 06.03.09 at 9:15 pm }

This belief among students, most teachers, and all administrators, that questions must not be asked on tests unless they have been answered in the classroom, is what prevents serious learning taking place in schools.
Even in a school which prided itself as academic, I was scolded by the principal for asking questions which “required kids to think beyond what they had been taught!” His words, my explanation point.

2 Russ Brown { 09.23.09 at 2:42 pm }

I can verify that the first half of the “heavy boots” web story is true. The events in the philosophy class happened to me as a freshman back in 1981. I posted the story to a usenet group around 1989 and it eventually made its way to the web. The additional story that is sometimes tacked on, with the quiz questions, was added by someone else later on.

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