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 Gravitational Field

The wind patterns in a certain area of the ocean could be charted in a "sea of arrows" representation like this. Each arrow represents both the wind's strength and its direction at a certain location.

Given that fields of force are real, how do we define, measure, and calculate them? A fruitful metaphor will be the wind patterns experienced by a sailing ship. Wherever the ship goes, it will feel a certain amount of force from the wind, and that force will be in a certain direction. The weather is everchanging, of course, but for now let's just imagine steady wind patterns. Definitions in physics are operational, i.e. they describe how to measure the thing being defined. The ship's captain can measure the wind's "field of force" by going to the location of interest and determining both the direction of the wind and the strength with which it is blowing. Charting all these measurements on a map leads to a depiction of the field of wind force like the one shown in the figure. This is known as the "sea of arrows" method of visualizing a field.

If want to get more experience with vector fields, you should download the vector field simulation from the Learning by Simulations site.

Now let's see how these concepts are applied to the fundamental force fields of the universe. We'll start with the gravitational field, which is the easiest to understand. As with the wind patterns, we'll start by imagining gravity as a static field, even though the existence of the tides proves that there are continual changes in the gravity field in our region of space. Defining the direction of the gravitational field is easy enough: we simply go to the location of interest and measure the direction of the gravitational force on an object, such as a weight tied to the end of a string.

But how should we define the strength of the gravitational field? Gravitational forces are weaker on the moon than on the earth, but we cannot specify the strength of gravity simply by giving a certain number of newtons. The number of newtons of gravitational force depends not just on the strength of the local gravitational field but also on the mass of the object on which we're testing gravity, our "test mass." A boulder on the moon feels a stronger gravitational force than a pebble on the earth. We can get around this problem by defining the strength of the gravitational field as the force acting on an object, divided by the object's mass.

Definition of the gravitational field

The gravitational field vector, g, at any location in space is found by placing a test mass mt at that point. The field vector is then given by g=F/mt, where F is the gravitational force on the test mass.

The magnitude of the gravitational field near the surface of the earth is about 9.8 N/kg, and it's no coincidence that this number looks familiar, or that the symbol g is the same as the one for gravitational acceleration. The force of gravity on a test mass will equal m t g, where g is the gravitational acceleration. Dividing by m t simply gives the gravitational acceleration. Why define a new name and new units for the same old quantity? The main reason is that it prepares us with the right approach for defining other fields.

The most subtle point about all this is that the gravitational field tells us about what forces would be exerted on a test mass by the earth, sun, moon, and the rest of the universe, if we inserted a test mass at the point in question. The field still exists at all the places where we didn't measure it.

Gravitational field of the earth

Sources and sinks

(a) The gravitational field surrounding a clump of mass such as the earth. (b) The gravitational fields of the earth and moon superpose. Note how the fields cancel at one point, and how there is no boundary between the interpenetrating fields surrounding the two bodies.

If we make a sea-of-arrows picture of the gravitational fields surrounding the earth, (a), the result is evocative of water going down a drain. For this reason, anything that creates an inward-pointing field around itself is called a sink. The earth is a gravitational sink. The term "source" can refer specifically to things that make outward fields, or it can be used as a more general term for both "outies" and "innies." However confusing the terminology, we know that gravitational fields are only attractive, so we will never find a region of space with an outward-pointing field pattern.

Knowledge of the field is interchangeable with knowledge of its sources (at least in the case of a static, unchanging field). If aliens saw the earth's gravitational field pattern they could immediately infer the existence of the planet, and conversely if they knew the mass of the earth they could predict its influence on the surrounding gravitational field.

Superposition of fields

A very important fact about all fields of force is that when there is more than one source (or sink), the fields add according to the rules of vector addition. The gravitational field certainly will have this property, since it is defined in terms of the force on a test mass, and forces add like vectors. Superposition is an important characteristics of waves, so the superposition property of fields is consistent with the idea that disturbances can propagate outward as waves in a field.

Reduction in gravity on Io due to Jupiter's gravity

Last Update: 2009-06-21