A recent Toyota commercial begins, “In space, the shuttle Endeavor is practically weightless.”
Do we really have to go over this again?
The fact that the word “practically” is in there indicates that the copy writers don’t have a clue about physics at all.
If they had just said that Endeavor is weightless, I’d be more forgiving. Such a statement could mean that Endeavor was millions of miles from the solar system, in deep space, and therefore (almost) weightless. Or it could (more plausibly) mean that Endeavor was in orbit, and that its apparent weight was zero, and they were just confusing weight with apparent weight (like most non-physicists do).
But the Madison Avenue geniuses said Endeavor was “practically weightless.”
This implies, of course, that in space you have weight, but it has been reduced—by being in space, apparently. The acceleration due to gravity, g, does decrease as you leave the Earth, but as I’ve already discussed, it doesn’t go down enough to approach zero—not unless you go ridiculously far from any other massive object.
Now, a commercial with stupid physics wouldn’t normally get me to reblog about a topic I’ve already covered. But it gets worse: the Toyota people double-down on their ignorance, and pile BS onto their BS. The whole point of the commercial is that their truck can pull the space shuttle.
Gee, really? Well guess what—a mini-Cooper could have pulled the space shuttle, too, given enough time. So could I. So could Mr. Burns. You see, Newton’s 2nd Law says that a net force causes an acceleration, so any net force will cause (some) acceleration. Sure, it might be small, but in the absence of friction it will eventually get the job done.
I once saw a video of a flea pulling a hockey puck along the ice, even though the puck (around 160 g) had a mass over 700,000 times bigger than the flea (around 220 μg). It took some time, but the puck eventually moved noticeably. (Sorry, I couldn’t find the video on the internet.)
Well, what about friction? Maybe there’s some horizontal friction between the shuttle and the ground, and a Toyota Tundra is forceful enough to “overcome” that friction whereas a mini-Cooper is not. This is a valid point, but the writers of the commercial were definitely not thinking of this. How do I know they were not thinking of this? Well, because they say (as if it is important), “that bad boy weighed 292,000 pounds.” If that’s all the information we are to be given, then we can’t conclude anything about the merits of their truck: if friction is zero, then the feat is less than impressive. If instead the coefficient of friction is tremendous, and the normal force between the shuttle and the ground is truly 292,000 pounds, then the feat is amazing, in particular because I would wonder why the truck doesn’t subsequently pull itself back towards the shuttle à la Newton’s 3rd law. But they don’t mention friction, and therefore they don’t get to play that card. Occam’s razor suggests that the copy writers just don’t know squat about physics.
Anyway, I have nothing to say about the merits of the Toyota Tundra. Maybe it’s a good truck, maybe it’s not. But as for Toyota Truck commercials…please turn the channel. You’d do better to watch a roadrunner cartoon. The physics isn’t any better, but at least it’s entertaining.