Physics KS3 / GCSE: How micro-gravity disorientates us

Kevin Fong explains that modern tablet computers and mobile phones can tell which way is up using accelerometers.

Humans have a much more sensitive system for detecting movement and orientation and this is located within the inner ear.

The three semi-circular canals detect rotational acceleration and the adjacent swelling contains two linear accelerometers.

However, the inner ear relies on gravity as a reference, so astronauts commonly suffer from disorientation during the first few days in the International Space Station.

Kevin uses a volunteer from the audience to demonstrate this, by spinning the student on a swivel chair with his head inclined to one side and his eyes closed.

He becomes extremely dizzy.

This clip is from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2015.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 3

Before watching the clip, you could ask students how many of them get travel sickness and if they know what typically causes it.

How many of them enjoy fairground rides? If it is safe to do so, the demonstration could be repeated in the lesson, but care should be taken before allowing the volunteer to stand up.

Key Stage 4

After watching this clip, students could research motion sickness or dizziness on fairground rides.

Is it true that adults do not enjoy fairground rides as much as children (opportunity for investigative survey) and is there a scientific explanation for this?

Curriculum Notes

This clip will be relevant for teaching Physics.

This topic appears at KS3 and in OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA National 4/5 in Scotland.

More from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2015

What is Newton's Canon and Third Law?
Using Earth’s rotation to launch a rocket
How the vacuum of space affects the human body
Resonant Frequency
Orbital Rendezvous
What does gas weigh?
Why are bones weaker in orbit?
The danger of orbital debris
Demonstrating heat shield material
Why Earth rock is found on the Moon
Demonstrating radiation detectors
How Earth protects us from radiation
Why tardigrades can survive in orbit
How to recycle urine in space