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Frisbee Physics

In the late 1940s Fred Morrison performed some experiments with flying discs. Some of the discs he experimented with were made out of metal while others were formed out of a new material called plastic. In 1955 the Wham-O Company purchased the rights and molds from Morrison. It wasn't until the early 1960s when Frisbees became the rage. Whamo-O's former General Manager Ed Headrick provided the organization and groundwork for the growth of the Frisbee craze. Today organized competitions take place each year around the world culminating in the World Frisbee Competition in California.

Two factors influence the flight of a Frisbee, gravity and air. Gravity acts on all objects the same way, accelerating their mass towards the center of the Earth at 10 meters/second. Once in the air, lift and angular momentum act on the Frisbee giving it a ballet-type performance. Lift is generated by the Frisbee's shaped surfaces as it passes through the air. Maintaining a positive angle of attack, the air moving over the top of the Frisbee flows faster than the air moving underneath it. Under the Bernoulli Principle, there is then a lower air pressure on top of the Frisbee than beneath it. The difference in pressure causes the Frisbee to rise or lift. This is the same principle that allows planes to take off, fly and land. Another significant factor in the Frisbee's lift is Newton's Third Law which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Frisbee forces air down (action) and the air forces the Frisbee upward (reaction). The air is deflected downward by the Frisbee's tilt, o angle of attack.

Spinning the Frisbee when it is thrown, or giving it angular momentum, provides it with stability. Angular momentum is a property of any spinning mass. Throwing a Frisbee without any spin allows it to tumble to the ground. The momentum of the spin also gives it orientational stability, allowing the Frisbee to receive a steady lift from the air as it passes through it. The faster the Frisbee spins, the greater its stability.

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