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Is your Physics Textbook Lying? Linear & Nonlinear Springs

100 reviews


Areas of Science
Time Required
Very Short (≤ 1 day)
An introductory high school physics course would be helpful (but not required) for this project.
Material Availability
You may be able to find some springs at home, for example by disassembling pens or toys. If you cannot find any at home, many online retailers such as Amazon.com and specialty companies will have springs.
Very Low (under $20)
No issues.

Ben Finio, Ph.D., Science Buddies

*Note: For this science project you will need to develop your own experimental procedure. Use the information in the summary tab as a starting place. If you would like to discuss your ideas or need help troubleshooting, use the Ask An Expert forum. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions and offer guidance if you come to them with specific questions.

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Spoiler alert: Your physics textbook might contain an inaccurate equation. Are you shocked? Let us explain — many questions in your physics textbooks are simplifications of how things behave in the real world. For example, in physics textbooks, springs are usually modeled with the equation Force = stiffness x displacement:

Equation 1:

  • F is the force in newtons (N)
  • Δx is the spring's displacement from its neutral position in meters (m)
  • k is the spring constant in newtons per meter (N/m)

This equation describes a linear spring — if you plot a curve showing force vs. displacement for such a spring, it will be a straight line with a slope of k. That straight line denotes a "linear relationship" between force and displacement, one in which they are directly proportional to each other.

However, not all springs behave this way. Equation 1 is an approximation. It may be a very good one for certain springs made from certain materials, or springs that don't stretch very much. More generally, a nonlinear spring can have a force vs. displacement curve that is not a straight line (indicating a nonlinear relationship between force and displacement). Because the slope of that curve is not constant, it does not make sense to talk about a "spring constant." Instead we refer to the slope as the stiffness. If you have taken calculus, that means the stiffness can be expressed as the derivative of the force vs. displacement curve:

Equation 2:

If you have not taken calculus, do not worry about Equation 2 — just remember that the stiffness of a nonlinear spring is the slope of the force vs. displacement curve at any given point. For a more in-depth discussion of linear and nonlinear springs, see the Science Buddies' Linear & Nonlinear Springs Tutorial.

In this experiment, you will test a variety of springs (what kind and how many is up to you) to see if they behave in a linear way (where their force and displacement are directly proportional). You will need to conduct experiments to gather data and create force vs. displacement curves for each spring (hint: one good way to do this is to hang weights from the springs while holding them next to a ruler, so you can measure displacement). If the resulting force vs. displacement is linear, then Equation 1 is a good approximation for your spring. If not, then the spring is nonlinear, and you can use Equation 2 to calculate its stiffness as a function of displacement.

Keep in mind that many things can behave like springs even if they do not look like springs. Anything that returns to a neutral position after it is stretched can be treated like a spring. For example, rubber bands exert a force when they are stretched, and return to their original size when they are released, so they behave like springs. However, this does not guarantee that they are linear springs. How can you tell if they are? What experimental procedure can you devise to apply to your collection of springs to determine if they are linear or nonlinear?

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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Is your Physics Textbook Lying? Linear & Nonlinear Springs." Science Buddies, 28 July 2017, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p090/physics/linear-nonlinear-springs. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2017, July 28). Is your Physics Textbook Lying? Linear & Nonlinear Springs. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p090/physics/linear-nonlinear-springs

Last edit date: 2017-07-28
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