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....

Objects Under Strain

A string lengthens slightly when you stretch it. Similarly, we have already discussed how an apparently rigid object such as a wall is actually flexing when it participates in a normal force. In other cases, the effect is more obvious. A spring or a rubber band visibly elongates when stretched.

Common to all these examples is a change in shape of some kind: lengthening, bending, compressing, etc. The change in shape can be measured by picking some part of the object and measuring its position, x. For concreteness, let's imagine a spring with one end attached to a wall. When no force is exerted, the unfixed end of the spring is at some position xo. If a force acts at the unfixed end, its position will change to some new value of x. The more force, the greater the departure of x from xo.

m / Defining the quantities F, x, and xo in Hooke's law.

Back in Newton's time, experiments like this were considered cutting-edge research, and his contemporary Hooke is remembered today for doing them and for coming up with a simple mathematical generalization called Hooke's law:

F ≈ pk(x - xo) . [force required to stretch a spring; valid for small forces only]

Here k is a constant, called the spring constant, that depends on how stiff the object is. If too much force is applied, the spring exhibits more complicated behavior, so the equation is only a good approximation if the force is sufficiently small. Usually when the force is so large that Hooke's law is a bad approximation, the force ends up permanently bending or breaking the spring.

Although Hooke's law may seem like a piece of trivia about springs, it is actually far more important than that, because all solid objects exert Hooke's-law behavior over some range of sufficiently small forces. For example, if you push down on the hood of a car, it dips by an amount that is directly proportional to the force. (But the car's behavior would not be as mathematically simple if you dropped a boulder on the hood!)

→ Solved problem: Combining springs page 175, problem 14

→ Solved problem: Young's modulus page 175, problem 16

Discussion Questions

A A car is connected to its axles through big, stiff springs called shock absorbers, or "shocks." Although we've discussed Hooke's law above only in the case of stretching a spring, a car's shocks are continually going through both stretching and compression. In this situation, how would you interpret the positive and negative signs in Hooke's law?

Last Update: 2009-06-21