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....

Analysis of Forces

Newton's first and second laws deal with the total of all the forces exerted on a specific object, so it is very important to be able to figure out what forces there are. Once you have focused your attention on one object and listed the forces on it, it is also helpful to describe all the corresponding forces that must exist according to Newton's third law. We refer to this as "analyzing the forces" in which the object participates.

A barge.

Often you may be unsure whether you have forgotten one of the forces. Here are three strategies for checking your list:

See what physical result would come from the forces you've found so far. Suppose, for instance, that you'd forgotten the "floating" force on the barge in the example above. Looking at the forces you'd found, you would have found that there was a downward gravitational force on the barge which was not canceled by any upward force. The barge isn't supposed to sink, so you know you need to find a fourth, upward force.

Another technique for finding missing forces is simply to go through the list of all the common types of forces and see if any of them apply.

Make a drawing of the object, and draw a dashed boundary line around it that separates it from its environment. Look for points on the boundary where other objects come in contact with your object. This strategy guarantees that you'll find every contact force that acts on the object, although it won't help you to find non-contact forces.

The following is another example in which we can profit by checking against our physical intuition for what should be happening.


I believe that constructing the type of table described in this section is the best method for beginning students. Most textbooks, however, prescribe a pictorial way of showing all the forces acting on an object. Such a picture is called a free-body diagram. It should not be a big problem if a future physics professor expects you to be able to draw such diagrams, because the conceptual reasoning is the same. You simply draw a picture of the object, with arrows representing the forces that are acting on it. Arrows representing contact forces are drawn from the point of contact, noncontact forces from the center of mass. Free-body diagrams do not show the equal and opposite forces exerted by the object itself.

Discussion Questions

A In the example of the barge going down the canal, I referred to a "floating" or "hydrostatic" force that keeps the boat from sinking. If you were adding a new branch on the force-classification tree to represent this force, where would it go?
B A pool ball is rebounding from the side of the pool table. Analyze the forces in which the ball participates during the short time when it is in contact with the side of the table.

The earth's gravitational force on you, i.e., your weight, is always equal to mg, where m is your mass. So why can you get a shovel to go deeper into the ground by jumping onto it? Just because you're jumping, that doesn't mean your mass or weight is any greater, does it?

Last Update: 2009-06-21