Ian’s Corner — The Physics of the “Tilting-Wall” Endurance Competition

by Ian Terry


With the long lockdown the HouseGuests faced today, many are speculating that tonight’s competition for Head of Household will be an endurance competition. While earlier seasons of Big Brother featured endurance competitions that solely measured concentration and just “how bad” a player wanted power (“Pressure Cooker” anybody?), the modern game utilizes endurance comps that much more physical tests of will. So, since endurance competitions are tests of physical skill, why is it that notorious “physical threats”, like Frank or Brendon, struggle with these contests? The answer, at its base, lies in one of my favorite subjects: Physics!

One of the common types of Big Brother endurance competitions is to have contestants stand on a small ledge against a wall. Gradually, the wall would tilt forward, forcing the players to maintain their balance by holding onto a handrail behind them. While being massive certainly doesn’t help you much in this competition, it definitely is a lot more difficult if you’re tall. The reason for this is actually quite simple: a taller person has a higher center of mass. The higher your center mass is, the more difficult it is to maintain your balance on an inclined plane (which in this case is the ledge). In order for an object to be balanced, its center of mass must be above whatever is supporting (in the case of a human playing this endurance comp, that’d be your feet on the platform). Since this could be confusing, here’s a picture. The center of mass of the blue block is directly above the lower face of the block, so it would be balanced. The taller, red block however, does not have the center of mass above its lower face, so it wouldn’t be balanced. BlocksPlane For a taller person, the moment that the angle the wall is tilted at an angle that no longer allows their center of mass be above their supporting feet, they must rely solely on their arms to hold them in place. In general, shorter players have an advantage here since their center of mass will be above their feet for a considerably longer time. The shorter players don’t need to rely on their arm strength nearly as long as the taller players do, so it’s easy for them to save their energy.

The further out the center of mass is from the above your feet, the more strain there’s going to be on your arms! Once none of the players are supported by their feet, the lighter players have an advantage over heavier ones here, since their arms have much less weight to hold up.

Height isn’t everything when determining a person’s center of mass. Women tend to have lower centers of mass than men do since they typically have more mass concentrated at the lower part of their body. That said, the ideal player for this sort of game would be a shorter female with strong arms and wide hips.

Last week’s article: Ian’s Corner — Costume Curse?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bob Flynne July 25, 2014 at 8:46 am

Wow. I always knew there was something to this, but I never read this far into it! Thanks so much for your insight Ian! Always a pleasure to read your articles :)


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