Students should have taken the equivalent of a high school physics class before attempting this laboratory exercise. Knowledge of college-level freshman physics would be helpful but is not required.
The lightly-damped oscillator is a fundamental concept from freshman physics. It consists of a spring with constant , a mass , and a damper with a small damping coefficient (see Figure 1, left). It is a very simplified model of a plucked vibrating string (see Figure 1, right). Any string has a rest position. If it is pulled away from its rest position (i.e. plucked), then it will vibrate until friction and other losses cause it to cease its motion. Other analogies may be drawn as well.
When the lightly-damped oscillator is given an initial condition, such as if the kg mass is pulled away from
its resting position to m and released, the mass will vibrate back and
forth (see Figure 2, top). It is assumed that the force of gravity is
negligible in comparison with the force due to the spring. The spring constant
, and so the frequency of vibration is
Hz. The energy of the system is stored
alternately in the potential energy of the displaced spring
and the kinetic energy of the moving mass
. Recall that is the velocity of the
mass. The total energy is the sum of the potential and kinetic
Figure 2 (middle) shows the behavior of the energies. The damper causes the energy stored in the system to dissipate over time, and so eventually the mass will come to rest again. In fact, the faster the mass moves, the more quickly energy is removed from the system. This means that for small amounts of damping, the function of the energy in the system decays exponentially over time. is defined to be the time constant for the exponential decay.
We see that is inversely proportional to the negative of the slope of
. Judging by the red portion of the line in Figure 2 (bottom), we estimate that