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 torque due to gravity

Up until now we've been thinking in terms of a force that acts at a single point on an object, such as the force of your hand on the wrench. This is of course an approximation, and for an extremely realistic calculation of your hand's torque on the wrench you might need to add up the torques exerted by each square millimeter where your skin touches the wrench. This is seldom necessary. But in the case of a gravitational force, there is never any single point at which the force is applied. Our planet is exerting a separate tug on every brick in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the total gravitational torque on the tower is the sum of the torques contributed by all the little forces. Luckily there is a trick that allows us to avoid such a massive calculation. It turns out that for purposes of computing the total gravitational torque on an object, you can get the right answer by just pretending that the whole gravitational force acts at the object's center of mass.

Gravitational torque on an outstretched arm

Last Update: 2009-06-21