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....


We restrict ourselves to a discussion of pressure in fluids at rest and in equilibrium. In physics, the term fluid is used to mean either a gas or a liquid. The important feature of a fluid can be demonstrated by comparing with a cube of jello on a plate. The jello is a solid. If you shake the plate from side to side, the jello will respond by shearing, i.e., by slanting its sides, but it will tend to spring back into its original shape. A solid can sustain shear forces, but a fluid cannot. A fluid does not resist a change in shape unless it involves a change in volume.

If you're at the bottom of a pool, you can't relieve the pain in your ears by turning your head. The water's force on your eardrum is always the same, and is always perpendicular to the surface where the eardrum contacts the water. If your ear is on the east side of your head, the water's force is to the west. If you keep your head in the same spot while turning around so your ear is on the north, the force will still be the same in magnitude, and it will change its direction so that it is still perpendicular to the eardrum: south. This shows that pressure has no direction in space, i.e., it is a scalar. The direction of the force is determined by the orientation of the surface on which the pressure acts, not by the pressure itself. A fluid flowing over a surface can also exert frictional forces, which are parallel to the surface, but the present discussion is restricted to fluids at rest.

Experiments also show that a fluid's force on a surface is proportional to the surface area. The vast force of the water behind a dam, for example, in proportion to the dam's great surface area. (The bottom of the dam experiences a higher proportion of its force.)

Based on these experimental results, it appears that the useful way to define pressure is as follows. The pressure of a fluid at a given point is defined as F/A, where A is the area of a small surface inserted in the fluid at that point, and F is the component of the fluid's force on the surface which is perpendicular to the surface.

A simple pressure gauge consists of a cylinder open at one end, with a piston and a spring inside. The depth to which the spring is depressed is a measure of the pressure. To determine the absolute pressure, the air needs to be pumped out of the interior of the gauge, so that there is no air pressure acting outward on the piston. In many practical gauges, the back of the piston is open to the atmosphere, so the pressure the gauge registers equals the pressure of the fluid minus the pressure of the atmosphere.

This is essentially how a pressure gauge works. The reason that the surface must be small is so that there will not be any significant different in pressure between one part of it and another part. The SI units of pressure are evidently N/m2, and this combination can be abbreviated as the pascal, 1 Pa=1 N/m2. The pascal turns out to be an inconveniently small unit, so car tires, for example, have recommended pressures imprinted on them in units of kilopascals.

Pressure in U.S. units

Atmospheric pressure in U.S. and metric units

If you spend enough time on an airplane, the pain in your ears subsides. This is because your body has gradually been able to admit more air into the cavity behind the eardrum. Once the pressure inside is equalized with the pressure outside, the inward and outward forces on your eardrums cancel out, and there is no physical sensation to tell you that anything unusual is going on. For this reason, it is normally only pressure differences that have any physical significance. Thus deep-sea fish are perfectly healthy in their habitat because their bodies have enough internal pressure to cancel the pressure from the water in which they live; if they are caught in a net and brought to the surface rapidly, they explode because their internal pressure is so much greater than the low pressure outside.

Getting killed by a pool pump

The word suction and other related words contain a hidden misunderstanding related to this point about pressure differences. When you suck water up through a straw, there is nothing in your mouth that is attracting the water upward. The force that lifts the water is from the pressure of the water in the cup. By creating a partial vacuum in your mouth, you decreased the air's downward force on the water so that it no longer exactly canceled the upward force.

This doesn't happen. If pressure could vary horizontally in equilibrium, the cube of water would accelerate horizontally. This is a contradiction, since we assumed the fluid was in equilibrium.

This does happen. The sum of the forces from the surrounding parts of the fluid is upward, canceling the downward force of gravity.

The pressure within a fluid in equilibrium can only depend on depth, due to gravity. If the pressure could vary from side to side, then a piece of the fluid in between, b, would be subject to unequal forces from the parts of the fluid on its two sides. But fluids do not exhibit shear forces, so there would be no other force that could keep this piece of fluid from accelerating. This contradicts the assumption that the fluid was in equilibrium.

Self-Check How does this proof fail for solids?. Answer, p. 158

To find the variation with depth, we consider the vertical forces acting on a tiny, imaginary cube of the fluid having height Δy and areas dA on the top and bottom. Using positive numbers for upward forces, we have

PbottomΔA - PtopΔA - Fg = 0 .

The weight of the fluid is Fg = mg = ρV g = ρ ΔAΔy g, where ρ is the density of the fluid, so the difference in pressure is

ΔP = -ρgΔy . [variation in pressure with depth for a fluid of density ρ in equilibrium; positive y is up.]

The factor of ρ explains why we notice the difference in pressure when diving 3 m down in a pool, but not when going down 3 m of stairs. Note also that the equation only tells us the difference in pressure, not the absolute pressure. The pressure at the surface of a swimming pool equals the atmospheric pressure, not zero, even though the depth is zero at the surface. The blood in your body does not even have an upper surface.

The pressure is the same at all the points marked with dots. Variation of pressure with depth

Pressure of lava underneath a volcano

Atmospheric pressure

Last Update: 2011-01-31