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....

What Force Is Not

Violin teachers have to endure their beginning students' screeching. A frown appears on the woodwind teacher's face as she watches her student take a breath with an expansion of his ribcage but none in his belly. What makes physics teachers cringe is their students' verbal statements about forces. Below I have listed several dicta about what force is not.

Force is not a property of one object.

A great many of students' incorrect descriptions of forces could be cured by keeping in mind that a force is an interaction of two objects, not a property of one object.

Incorrect statement: "That magnet has a lot of force."

If the magnet is one millimeter away from a steel ball bearing, they may exert a very strong attraction on each other, but if they were a meter apart, the force would be virtually undetectable. The magnet's strength can be rated using certain electrical units (ampere - meters2), but not in units of force.

Force is not a measure of an object's motion.

If force is not a property of a single object, then it cannot be used as a measure of the object's motion.

Incorrect statement: "The freight train rumbled down the tracks with awesome force."

Force is not a measure of motion. If the freight train collides with a stalled cement truck, then some awesome forces will occur, but if it hits a fly the force will be small.

Force is not energy.

There are two main approaches to understanding the motion of objects, one based on force and one on a different concept, called energy. The SI unit of energy is the Joule, but you are probably more familiar with the calorie, used for measuring food's energy, and the kilowatt-hour, the unit the electric company uses for billing you. Physics students' previous familiarity with calories and kilowatthours is matched by their universal unfamiliarity with measuring forces in units of Newtons, but the precise operational definitions of the energy concepts are more complex than those of the force concepts, and textbooks, including this one, almost universally place the force description of physics before the energy description. During the long period after the introduction of force and before the careful definition of energy, students are therefore vulnerable to situations in which, without realizing it, they are imputing the properties of energy to phenomena of force.

Incorrect statement: "How can my chair be making an upward force on my rear end? It has no power!"

Power is a concept related to energy, e.g. 100-watt lightbulb uses up 100 joules per second of energy. When you sit in a chair, no energy is used up, so forces can exist between you and the chair without any need for a source of power.

Force is not stored or used up.

Because energy can be stored and used up, people think force also can be stored or used up.

Incorrect statement: "If you don't fill up your tank with gas, you'll run out of force."

Energy is what you'll run out of, not force.

Forces need not be exerted by living things or machines.

Transforming energy from one form into another usually requires some kind of living or mechanical mechanism. The concept is not applicable to forces, which are an interaction between objects, not a thing to be transferred or transformed.

Incorrect statement: "How can a wooden bench be making an upward force on my rear end? It doesn't have any springs or anything inside it."

No springs or other internal mechanisms are required. If the bench didn't make any force on you, you would obey Newton's second law and fall through it. Evidently it does make a force on you!

A force is the direct cause of a change in motion.

I can click a remote control to make my garage door change from being at rest to being in motion. My finger's force on the button, however, was not the force that acted on the door. When we speak of a force on an object in physics, we are talking about a force that acts directly. Similarly, when you pull a reluctant dog along by its leash, the leash and the dog are making forces on each other, not your hand and the dog. The dog is not even touching your hand.

Self-Check Which of the following things can be correctly described in terms of force?

(1) A nuclear submarine is charging ahead at full steam.

(2) A nuclear submarine's propellers spin in the water.

(3) A nuclear submarine needs to refuel its reactor periodically.

Answer (1) This is motion, not force. (2) This is a description of how the sub is able to get the water to produce a forward force on it. (3) The sub runs out of energy, not force.

Discussion Questions

A Criticize the following incorrect statement: "If you shove a book across a table, friction takes away more and more of its force, until finally it stops."
B You hit a tennis ball against a wall. Explain any and all incorrect ideas in the following description of the physics involved: "The ball gets some force from you when you hit it, and when it hits the wall, it loses part of that force, so it doesn't bounce back as fast. The muscles in your arm are the only things that a force can come from."

Last Update: 2009-06-21