Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

The Newton, the Metric Unit of Force

A force is a push or a pull, or more generally anything that can change an object's speed or direction of motion. A force is required to start a car moving, to slow down a baseball player sliding in to home base, or to make an airplane turn. (Forces may fail to change an object's motion if they are canceled by other forces, e.g., the force of gravity pulling you down right now is being canceled by the force of the chair pushing up on you.) The metric unit of force is the Newton, defined as the force which, if applied for one second, will cause a 1-kilogram object starting from rest to reach a speed of 1 m/s. Later chapters will discuss the force concept in more detail. In fact, this entire book is about the relationship between force and motion.

In the previous section, I gave a gravitational definition of mass, but by defining a numerical scale of force, we can also turn around and define a scale of mass without reference to gravity. For instance, if a force of two Newtons is required to accelerate a certain object from rest to 1 m/s in 1 s, then that object must have a mass of 2 kg. From this point of view, mass characterizes an object's resistance to a change in its motion, which we call inertia or inertial mass. Although there is no fundamental reason why an object's resistance to a change in its motion must be related to how strongly gravity affects it, careful and precise experiments have shown that the inertial definition and the gravitational definition of mass are highly consistent for a variety of objects. It therefore doesn't really matter for any practical purpose which definition one adopts.

Discussion Question

A A Spending a long time in weightlessness is unhealthy. One of the most important negative effects experienced by astronauts is a loss of muscle and bone mass. Since an ordinary scale won't work for an astronaut in orbit, what is a possible way of monitoring this change in mass? (Measuring the astronaut's waist or biceps with a measuring tape is not good enough, because it doesn't tell anything about bone mass, or about the replacement of muscle with fat.)

Last Update: 2009-06-21