Skip to main content
Select Source:

Gravity and Gravitation



Gravity is, quite simply, the force that holds together the universe. People are accustomed to thinking of it purely in terms of the gravitational pull Earth exerts on smaller bodiesa stone, a human being, even the Moonor perhaps in terms of the Sun's gravitational pull on Earth. In fact, everything exerts a gravitational attraction toward everything else, an attraction commensurate with the two body's relative mass, and inversely related to the distance between them. The earliest awareness of gravity emerged in response to a simple question: why do objects fall when released from any restraining force? The answers, which began taking shape in the sixteenth century, were far from obvious. In modern times, understanding of gravitational force has expanded manyfold: gravity is clearly a law throughout the universeyet some of the more complicated questions regarding gravitational force are far from settled.


Aristotle's Model

Greek philosophers of the period from the sixth to the fourth century b.c. grappled with a variety of questions concerning the fundamental nature of physical reality, and the forces that bind that reality into a whole. Among the most advanced thinkers of that period was Democritus (c. 460-370 b.c.), who put forth a hypothesis many thousands of years ahead of its time: that all of matter interacts at the atomic level.

Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), however, rejected the explanation offered by Democritus, an unfortunate circumstance given the fact that the great philosopher exerted an incalculable influence on the development of scientific thought. Aristotle's contributions to the advancement of the sciences were many and varied, yet his influence in physics was at least as harmful as it was beneficial. Furthermore, the fact that intellectual progress began slowing after several fruitful centuries of development in Greece only compounded the error. By the time civilization had reached the Middle Ages (c. 500 a.d.) the Aristotelian model of physical reality had been firmly established, and an entire millennium passed before it was successfully challenged.

Wrong though it was in virtually all particulars, the Aristotelian system offered a comforting symmetry amid the troubled centuries of the early medieval period. It must have been reassuring indeed to believe that the physical universe was as simple as the world of human affairs was complex. According to this neat model, all materials on Earth consisted of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire.

Each element had its natural place. Hence, earth was always the lowest, and in some places, earth was covered by water. Water must then be higher, but clearly air was higher still, since it covered earth and water. Highest of all was fire, whose natural place was in the skies above the air. Reflecting these concentric circles were the orbits of the Sun, the Moon, and the five known planets. Their orbital paths, in the Aristotelian model of the universea model developed to a great degree by the astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100-170)were actually spheres that revolved around Earth with clockwork precision.

On Earth, according to the Aristotelian model, objects tended to fall toward the ground in accordance with the admixtures of differing elements they contained. A rock, for instance, was mostly earth, and hence it sought its own level, the lowest of all four elements. For the same reason, a burning fire rose, seeking the heights that were fire's natural domain. It followed from this that an object falls faster or slower, depending on the relative mixtures of elements in it: or, to use more modern terms, the heavier the object, the faster it falls.

Galileo Takes Up the Copernican Challenge

Over the centuries, a small but significant body of scientists and philosopherseach working independent from the other but building on the ideas of his predecessorsslowly began chipping away at the Aristotelian framework. The pivotal challenge came in the early part of the century, and the thinker who put it forward was not a physicist but an astronomer: Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543.)

Based on his study of the planets, Copernicus offered an entirely new model of the universe, one that placed the Sun and not Earth at its center. He was not the first to offer such an idea: half a century after Aristotle's death, Aristarchus (fl. 270 b.c.) had a similar idea, but Ptolemy rejected his heliocentric (Sun-centered) model in favor of the geocentric or Earth-centered one. In subsequent centuries, no less a political authority than the Catholic Church gave its approval to the Ptolemaic system. This system seemed to fit well with a literal interpretation of biblical passages concerning God's relationship with man, and man's relationship to the cosmos; hence, the heliocentric model of Copernicus constituted an offense to morality.

For this reason, Copernicus was hesitant to defend his ideas publicly, yet these concepts found their way into the consciousness of European thinkers, causing a paradigm shift so fundamental that it has been dubbed "the Copernican Revolution." Still, Copernicus offered no explanation as to why the planets behaved as they did: hence, the true leader of the Copernican Revolution was not Copernicus himself but Galileo Galilei (1564-1642.)

Initially, Galileo set out to study and defend the ideas of Copernicus through astronomy, but soon the Church forced him to recant. It is said that after issuing a statement in which he refuted the proposition that Earth movesa direct attack on the static harmony of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic modelhe protested in private:" E pur si muove!" (But it does move!) Placed under house arrest by authorities from Rome, he turned his attention to an effort that, ironically, struck the fatal blow against the old model of the cosmos: a proof of the Copernican system according to the laws of physics.


In the process of defending Copernicus, Galileo actually inaugurated the modern history of physics as a science (as opposed to what it had been during the Middle Ages: a nest of suppositions masquerading as knowledge). Specifically, Galileo set out to test the hypothesis that objects fall as they do, not because of their weight, but as a consequence of gravitational force. If this were so, the acceleration of falling bodies would have to be the same, regardless of weight. Of course, it was clear that a stone fell faster than a feather, but Galileo reasoned that this was a result of factors other than weight, and later investigations confirmed that air resistance and friction, not weight, are responsible for this difference.

On the other hand, if one drops two objects that have similar air resistance but differing weightsay, a large stone and a smaller onethey fall at almost exactly the same rate. To test this directly, however, would have been difficult for Galileo: stones fall so fast that, even if dropped from a great height, they would hit the ground too soon for their rate of fall to be tested with the instruments then available.

Instead, Galileo used the motion of a pendulum, and the behavior of objects rolling or sliding down inclined planes, as his models. On the basis of his observations, he concluded that all bodies are subject to a uniform rate of gravitational acceleration, later calibrated at 32 ft (9.8 m) per second. What this means is that for every 32 ft an object falls, it is accelerating at a rate of 32 ft per second as well; hence, after 2 seconds, it falls at the rate of 64 ft (19.6 m) per second; after 3 seconds, at 96 ft (29.4 m) per second, and so on.

Newton Discovers the Principle of Gravity

Building on the work of his distinguished fore-bear, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)who, incidentally, was born the same year Galileo dieddeveloped a paradigm for gravitation that, even today, explains the behavior of objects in virtually all situations throughout the universe. Indeed, the Newtonian model reigned until the early twentieth century, when Albert Einstein (1879-1955) challenged it on certain specifics.

Even so, Einstein's relativity did not disprove the Newtonian system as Copernicus and Galileo disproved Aristotle's and Ptolemy's theories; rather, it showed the limitations of Newtonian mechanics for describing the behavior of certain objects and phenomena. However, in the ordinary world of day-to-day experiencethe world in which stones drop and heavy objects are hard to liftthe Newtonian system still offers the key to how and why things work as they do. This is particularly the case with regard to gravity and gravitation.

Like Galileo, Newton began in part with the aim of testing hypotheses put forth by an astronomerin this case Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). In the early years of the seventeenth century, Kepler published his three laws of planetary motion, which together identified the elliptical (oval-shaped) path of the planets around the Sun. Kepler had discovered a mathematical relationship that connected the distances of the planets from the Sun to the period of their revolution around it. Like Galileo with Copernicus, Newton sought to generalize these principles to explain, not only how the planets moved, but also why they did.

Almost everyone has heard the story of Newton and the applespecifically, that while he was sitting under an apple tree, a falling apple struck him on the head, spurring in him a great intuitive leap that led him to form his theory of gravitation. One contemporary biographer, William Stukely, wrote that he and Newton were sitting in a garden under some apple trees when Newton told him that "he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, he thought to himself. Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth's centre?"

The tale of Newton and the apple has become a celebrated myth, rather like that of George Washington and the cherry tree. It is an embellishment of actual events: Newton never said that an apple hit him on the head, just that he was thinking about the way that apples fell. Yet the story has become symbolic of the creative intellectual process that occurs when a thinker makes a vast intuitive leap in a matter of moments. Of course, Newton had spent many years contemplating these ideas, and their development required great effort. What is important is that he brought together the best work of his predecessors, yet transcended all that had gone beforeand in the process, forged a model that explained a great deal about how the universe functions.

The result was his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy." Published in 1687, the bookusually referred to simply as the Principia was one of the most influential works ever written. In it, Newton presented his three laws of motion, as well as his law of universal gravitation.

The latter stated that every object in the universe attracts every other one with a force proportional to the masses of each, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This statement requires some clarification with regard to its particulars, after which it will be reintroduced as a mathematical formula.


The three laws of motion are a subject unto themselves, covered elsewhere in this volume. However, in order to understand gravitation, it is necessary to understand at least a few rudimentary concepts relating to them. The first law identifies inertia as the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, and of an object at rest to remain at rest. Inertia is measured by mass, whichas the second law statesis a component of force.

Specifically, the second law of motion states that force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. This means that there is an inverse relationship between mass and acceleration: if force remains constant and one of these factors increases, the other must decreasea situation that will be discussed in some depth below.

Also, as a result of Newton's second law, it is possible to define weight scientifically. People typically assume that mass and weight are the same, and indeed they are on Earthor at least, they are close enough to be treated as comparable factors. Thus, tables of weights and measures show that a kilogram, the metric unit of mass, is equal to 2.2 pounds, the latter being the principal unit of weight in the British system.

In fact, this isif not a case of comparing to apples to orangescertainly an instance of comparing apples to apple pies. In this instance, the kilogram is the "apple" (a fitting Newtonian metaphor!) and the pound the "apple pie." Just as an apple pie contains apples, but other things as well, the pound as a unit of force contains an additional factor, acceleration, not included in the kilo.


Physicists universally prefer the metric system, which is known in the scientific community as SI (an abbreviation of the French Système International d'Unités that is, "International System of Units"). Not only is SI much more convenient to use, due to the fact that it is based on units of 10; but in discussing gravitation, the unequal relationship between kilograms and pounds makes conversion to British units a tedious and ultimately useless task.

Though Americans prefer the British system to SI, and are much more familiar with pounds than with kilos, the British unit of masscalled the slugis hardly a household word. By contrast, scientists make regular use of the SI unit of forcenamed, appropriately enough, the newton. In the metric system, a newton (N) is the amount of force required to accelerate 1 kilogram of mass by 1 meter per second squared (m/s2) Due to the simplicity of using SI over the British system, certain aspects of the discussion below will be presented purely in terms of SI. Where appropriate, however, conversion to British units will be offered.


The law of universal gravitation can be stated as a formula for calculating the gravitational attraction between two objects of a certain mass, m 1 AND M 2: F grav = G · (m 1M 2)/R2. F grav is gravitational force, and r 2 the square of the distance between m 1 and m 2.

As for G, in Newton's time the value of this number was unknown. Newton was aware simply that it represented a very small quantity: without it, (m 1m 2)/r 2 could be quite sizeable for objects of relatively great mass separated by a relatively small distance. When multiplied by this very small number, however, the gravitational attraction would be revealed to be very small as well. Only in 1798, more than a century after Newton's writing, did English physicist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) calculate the value of G.

As to how Cavendish derived the figure, that is an exceedingly complex subject far beyond the scope of the present discussion. Even to identify G as a number is a challenging task. First of all, it is a unit of force multiplied by squared area, then divided by squared mass: in other words, it is expressed in terms of (N · m2)/kg2, where N stands for newtons, m for meters, and kg for kilograms. Nor is the coefficient, or numerical value, of G a whole number such as 1. A figure as large as 1, in fact, is astronomically huge compared to G, whose coefficient is 6.67 · 1011in other words, 0.0000000000667.


Weight vs. Mass

Before discussing the significance of the gravitational constant, however, at this point it is appropriate to address a few issues that were raised earlierissues involving mass and weight. In many ways, understanding these properties from the framework of physics requires setting aside everyday notions.

First of all, why the distinction between weight and mass? People are so accustomed to converting pounds to kilos on Earth that the difference is difficult to comprehend, but if one considers the relation of mass and weight in outer space, the distinction becomes much clearer. Mass is the same throughout the universe, making it a much more fundamental characteristicand hence, physicists typically speak in terms of mass rather than weight.

Weight, on the other hand, differs according to the gravitational pull of the nearest large body. On Earth, a person weighs a certain amount, but on the Moon, this weight is much less, because the Moon possesses less mass than Earth. Therefore, in accordance with Newton's formula for universal gravitation, it exerts less gravitational pull. By contrast, if one were on Jupiter, it would be almost impossible even to stand up, because the pull of gravity on that planetwith its greater masswould be vastly greater than on Earth.

It should be noted that mass is not at all a function of size: Jupiter does have a greater mass than Earth, but not because it is bigger. Mass, as noted earlier, is purely a measure of inertia: the more resistant an object is to a change in its velocity, the greater its mass. This in itself yields some results that seem difficult to understand as long as one remains wedded to the concepttrue enough on Earththat weight and mass are identical.

A person might weigh less on the Moon, but it would be just as difficult to move that person from a resting position as it would be to do so on Earth. This is because the person's mass, and hence his or her resistance to inertia, has not changed. Again, this is a mentally challenging concept: is not lifting a person, which implies upward acceleration, not an attempt to counteract their inertia when standing still? Does it not follow that their mass has changed? Understanding the distinction requires a greater clarification of the relationship between mass, gravity, and weight.

F = ma.

Newton's second law of motion, stated earlier, shows that force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration, or in shorthand form, F = ma. To reiterate a point already made, if one assumes that force is constant, then mass and acceleration must have an inverse relationship. This can be illustrated by performing a simple experiment.

Suppose one were to apply a certain amount of force to an empty shopping cart. Assuming the floor had just enough friction to allow movement, it would be easy for almost anyone to accelerate the shopping cart. Now assume that the shopping cart were filled with heavy lead balls, so that it weighed, say, 1,102 lb (500 kg). If one applied the same force, it would not move.

What has changed, clearly, is the mass of the shopping cart. Because force remained constant, the rate of acceleration would become very smallin this case, almost infinitesimal. In the first case, with an empty shopping cart, the mass was relatively small, so acceleration was relatively high.

Now to return to the subject of lifting someone on the Moon. It is true that in order to lift that person, one would have to overcome inertia, and, in that sense, it would be as difficult as it is on Earth. But the other component of force, acceleration, has diminished greatly.

Weight is, again, a unit of force, but in calculating weight it is useful to make a slight change to the formula F = ma. By definition, the acceleration factor in weight is the downward acceleration due to gravity, usually rendered as g. So one's weight is equal to mg but on the Moon, g is much smaller than it is on Earth, and hence, the same amount of force yields much greater results.

These facts shed new light on a question that bedeviled physicists at least from the time of Aristotle, until Galileo began clarifying the issue some 2,000 years later: why shouldn't an object of greater mass fall at a different rate than one of smaller mass? There are two answers to that question, one general and one specific. The general answerthat Earth exerts more gravitational pull on an object of greater massrequires a deeper examination of Newton's gravitational formula. But the more specific answer, relating purely to conditions on Earth, is easily addressed by considering the effect of air resistance.

Gravity and Air Resistance

One of Galileo's many achievements lay in using an idealized model of reality, one that does not take into account the many complex factors that affect the behavior of objects in the real world.

This permitted physicists to study processes that apparently defy common sense. For instance, in the real world, an apple does drop at a greater rate of speed than does a feather. However, in a vacuum, they will drop at the same rate. Since Galileo's time, it has become commonplace for physicists to discuss specific processes such as gravity with the assumption that all non-pertinent factors (in this case, air resistance or friction) are nonexistent or irrelevant. This greatly simplified the means of testing hypotheses.

Idealization of reality makes it possible to set aside the things people think they know about the real world, where events are complicated due to friction. The latter may be defined as a force that resists motion when the surface of one object comes into contact with the surface of another. If two balls are released in an environment free from frictionone of them simply dropped while the other is rolled down a curved surface or inclined planethey will reach the bottom at the same time. This seems to go against everything that is known, but that is only because what people "know" is complicated by variables that have nothing to do with gravity.

The same is true for the behavior of falling objects with regard to air resistance. If air resistance were not a factor, one could fire a cannonball over horizontal space and then, when the ball reached the highest point in its trajectory, release another ball from the same heightand again, they would hit the ground at the same time. This is the case, even though the cannonball that was fired from the cannon has to cover a great deal of horizontal space, whereas the dropped ball does not. The fact is that the rate of acceleration due to gravity will be identical for the two balls, and the fact that the ball fired from a cannon also covers a horizontal distance during that same period is irrelevant.


In the real world, air resistance creates a powerful drag force on falling objects. The faster the rate of fall, the greater the drag force, until the air resistance forces a leveling in the rate of fall. At this point, the object is said to have reached terminal velocity, meaning that its rate of fall will not increase thereafter. Galileo's idealized model, on the other hand, treated objects as though they were falling in a vacuumspace entirely devoid of matter, including air. In such a situation, the rate of acceleration would continue to grow indefinitely.

By means of a graph, one can compare the behavior of an object falling through air with that of an object falling in a vacuum. If the x axis measures time and the y axis downward speed, the rate of an object falling in a vacuum describes a 60°-angle. In other words, the speed of its descent is increasing at a much faster rate than is the rate of time of its descentas indeed should be the case, in accordance with gravitational acceleration. The behavior of an object falling through air, on the other hand, describes a curve. Up to a point, the object falls at the same rate as it would in a vacuum, but soon velocity begins to increase at a much slower rate than time. Eventually, the curve levels off at the point where the object experiences terminal velocity.

Air resistance and friction have been mentioned separately as though they were two different forces, but in fact air resistance is simply a prominent form of friction. Hence air resistance exerts an upward force to counter the downward force of mass multiplied by gravitythat is, weight. Since g is a constant (32 ft or 9.8 m/sec2), the greater the weight of the falling object, the longer it takes for air resistance to bring it to terminal velocity.

A feather quickly reaches terminal velocity, whereas it takes much longer for a cannonball to do the same. As a result, a heavier object does take less time to fall, even from a great height, than does a light onebut this is only because of friction, and not because of "elements" seeking their "natural level." Incidentally, if raindrops (which of course fall from a very great height) did not reach terminal velocity, they would cause serious injury by the time they hit the ground.

Applying the Gravitational Formula

Using Newton's gravitational formula, it is relatively easy to calculate the pull of gravity between two objects. It is also easy to see why the attraction is insignificant unless at least one of the objects has enormous mass. In addition, application of the formula makes it clear why G (the gravitational constant, as opposed to g, the rate of acceleration due to gravity) is such a tiny number.

If two people each have a mass of 45.5 kg (100 lb) and stand 1 m (3.28 ft) apart, m 1m 2 is equal to 2,070 kg (4,555 lb) and r 2 is equal to 1 m2 . Applied to the gravitational formula, this figure is rendered as 2,070 kg2/1 m2. This number is then multiplied by gravitational constant, which again is equal to 6.67 · 1011 (N · m2)/kg2. The result is a net gravitational force of 0.000000138 N (0.00000003 lb)about the weight of a single-cell organism!


Though it is certainly interesting to calculate the gravitational force between any two people, computations of gravity are only significant for objects of truly great mass. For instance, there is the Earth, which has a mass of 5.98 · 1024 kgthat is, 5.98 septillion (1 followed by 24 zeroes) kilograms. And, of course, Earth's mass is relatively minor compared to that of several planets, not to mention the Sun. Yet Earth exerts enough gravitational pull to keep everything on itliving creatures, manmade structures, mountains and other natural featuresstable and in place.

One can calculate Earth's gravitational force on any one personif one wants to take the time to do so using Newton's formula. In fact, it is much simpler than that: gravitational force is equal to weight, or m · g. Thus if a woman weighs 100 lb (445 N), this amount is also equal to the gravitational force exerted on her. By dividing 445 N by the acceleration of gravity9.8 m/sec2it is easy to obtain her mass: 45.4 kg.

The use of the mg formula for gravitation helps, once again, to explain why heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter ones. The figure for g is a constant, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that it actually becomes larger for objects with a greater mass. This in turn would mean that the gravitational force, or weight, would be bigger than it isthus creating an irreconcilable logic loop.

Furthermore, one can compare results of two gravitation equations, one measuring the gravitational force between Earth and a large stone, the other measuring the force between Earth and a small stone. (The distance between Earth and each stone is assumed to be the same.) The result will yield a higher quantity for the force exerted on the larger stonebut only because its mass is greater. Clearly, then, the increase of force results only from an increase in mass, not acceleration.

Gravity and Curved Space

As should be clear from Newton's gravitational formula, the force of gravity works both ways: not only does a stone fall toward Earth, but Earth actually falls toward it. The mass of Earth is so great compared to that of the stone that the movement of Earth is imperceptiblebut it does happen. Furthermore, because Earth is round, when one hurls a projectile at a great distance, Earth curves away from the projectile; but eventually gravity itself forces the projectile to the ground.

However, if one were to fire a rocket at 17,700 MPH (28,500 km/h), at every instant of time the projectile is falling toward Earth with the force of gravitybut the curved Earth would be falling away from it at the same moment as well. Hence, the projectile would remain in constant motion around the planetthat is, it would be in orbit.

The same is true of an artificial satellite's orbit around Earth: even as the satellite falls toward Earth, Earth falls away from it. This same relationship exists between Earth and its great natural satellite, the Moon. Likewise, with the Sun and its many satellites, including Earth: Earth plunges toward the Sun with every instant of its movement, but at every instant, the Sun falls away.


Note that in the above discussion, it was assumed that Earth and the Sun are round. Everyone knows that to be the case, but why? The answer is "Because they have to be"that is, gravity will not allow them to be otherwise. In fact, the larger the mass of an object, the greater its tendency toward roundness: specifically, the gravitational pull of its interior forces the surface to assume a relatively uniform shape. There is a relatively small vertical differential for Earth's surface: between the lowest point and the highest point is just 12.28 mi (19.6 km)not a great distance, considering that Earth's radius is about 4,000 mi (6,400 km).

It is true that Earth bulges near the equator, but this is only because it is spinning rapidly on its axis, and thus responding to the centripetal force of its motion, which produces a centrifugal component. If Earth were standing still, it would be much nearer to the shape of a sphere. On the other hand, an object of less mass is more likely to retain a shape that is far less than spherical. This can be shown by reference to the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, both of which are oblongand both of which are tiny, in terms of size and mass, compared to Earth's Moon.

Mars itself has a radius half that of Earth, yet its mass is only about 10% of Earth's. In light of what has been said about mass, shape, and gravity, it should not surprising to learn that Mars is also home to the tallest mountain in the solar system. Standing 15 mi (24 km) high, the volcano Olympus Mons is not only much taller than Earth's tallest peak, Mount Everest (29,028 ft [8,848 m]); it is 22% taller than the distance from the top of Mount Everest to the lowest spot on Earth, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean (35,797 ft [10,911 m])

A spherical object behaves with regard to gravitation as though its mass were concentrated near its center. And indeed, 33% of Earth's mass is at is core (as opposed to the crust or mantle), even though the core accounts for only about 20% of the planet's volume. Geologists believe that the composition of Earth's core must be molten iron, which creates the planet's vast electromagnetic field.


The subject of curvature with regard to gravity can be both a threshold oras it is herea point of closure. Investigating questions over perceived anomalies in Newton's description of the behavior of large objects in space led Einstein to his General Theory of Relativity, which posited a curved four-dimensional space-time. This led to entirely new notions concerning gravity, mass, and light. But relativity, as well as its relation to gravity, is another subject entirely. Einstein offered a new understanding of gravity, and indeed of physics itself, that has changed the way thinkers both inside and outside the sciences perceive the universe. Here on Earth, however, gravity behaves much as Newton described it more than three centuries ago.

Meanwhile, research in gravity continues to expand, as a visit to the Web site <> reveals. Spurred by studies in relativity, a branch of science called relativistic astrophysics has developed as a synthesis of astronomy and physics that incorporates ideas put forth by Einstein and others. The <> site presents studiesmost of them too abstruse for a reader who is not a professional scientistacross a broad spectrum of disciplines. Among these is bioscience, a realm in which researchers are investigating the biological effectssuch as mineral loss and motion sicknessof exposure to low gravity. The results of such studies will ultimately protect the health of the astronauts who participate in future missions to outer space.


Ardley, Neil. The Science Book of Gravity. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Beiser, Arthur. Physics, 5th ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Bendick, Jeanne. Motion and Gravity. New York: F. Watts, 1972.

Dalton, Cindy Devine. Gravity. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke, 2001.

David, Leonard. "Artificial Gravity and Space Travel." Bio-Science, March 1992, pp. 155-159.

Exploring GravityCurtin University, Australia (Web site). <> (March 18, 2001).

The Gravity Society (Web site). <>(March 18, 2001).

Nardo, Don. Gravity: The Universal Force. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1990.

Rutherford, F. James; Gerald Holton; and Fletcher G. Watson. Project Physics. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Stringer, John. The Science of Gravity. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2000.



The product of mass multiplied by acceleration.


The force that resists motion when the surface of one object comes into contact with the surface of another.


The tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, and of an object at rest to remain at rest.


A situation involving two variables, in which one of the two increases in direct proportion to the decrease in the other.


A principle, put forth by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), which states that every object in the universe attracts every other one with a force proportional to the masses of each, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.


A measure of inertia, indicating the resistance of an object to a change in itsmotion.


A term describing the rate of fall for an object experiencing the drag force of air resistance. In a vacuum, the object would continue to accelerate with the force of gravity, but in most real-world situations, air resistance creates a powerful drag force that causes a leveling in the object's rate off all.


Space entirely devoid of matter, including air.


A measure of the gravitational force on an object; the product of mass multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gravity and Gravitation." Science of Everyday Things. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gravity and Gravitation." Science of Everyday Things. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gravity and Gravitation." Science of Everyday Things. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Gravity and Gravitation

Gravity and gravitation

Gravity is the force of attraction between any two objects in the universe. That force depends on two factors: the mass of each object and the distance between them.

Historical background

The story behind English physicist Isaac Newton's (16421727) discovery of the gravitational force is one of the most fascinating in all of science. It begins in ancient Greece in the period from the sixth to the third century b.c. During that time, a number of Greek philosophers attempted to explain common observations from the natural worldsuch as the fact that most objects fall to the ground if they are not held up in some way.

Aristotle. Among the explanations developed for this tendency was one offered by Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.). Aristotle developed a grand scheme of natural philosophy stating that all objects "belonged" in one place or another. Heat belonged in the atmosphere because it originally came from the Sun (as Aristotle taught). For that reason, heat rises. Objects fall toward Earth's surface, Aristotle said, because that's where "earthy" objects belong. Aristotle's philosophy was an attempt to explain why objects fall.

Galileo and Newton. Aristotle's philosophy dominated the thinking of European scholars for nearly 2,000 years. Then, in the sixteenth century, Italian physicist Galileo Galilei (15641642) suggested another way of answering questions in science. Scientists should not trouble themselves trying to understand why things happen in the natural world, Galileo said. Instead, they should focus simply on describing how things occur. Galileo also taught that the way to find out about the natural world is not just to think logically about it but to perform experiments that produce measurable results.

One of the most famous experiments attributed to Galileo was the one he conducted at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He is said to have dropped two balls from the top of the tower and discovered that they both took the same time to reach the ground. Galileo's greatest achievements were not in defining the true nature of gravity, then, but in setting the stage for the work of Isaac Newton, who was born the year Galileo died.

Newton's accomplishments in the field of gravity also are associated with a famous story. Legend has it that Newton was hit on the head by an apple falling from a tree. That event got him wondering about the force between two objects on Earth (the apple and the ground) and the force between two objects in the universe (the force between a planet and the Sun).

Gravity on Earth and in the heavens. The connection between gravitational forces on Earth and in the heavens is a very important one. Measuring the force of gravity on Earth is very difficult for one simple reason. Suppose we want to measure what happens when an object falls on Earth. In terms of gravity, what actually happens is that the object and the planet Earth are attracted toward each other. The object moves downward toward Earth, and Earth moves upward toward the object. The problem is that Earth is so much larger than the object that it's impossible to see any movement on the part of the planet.

The situation is quite different in the heavens. The reason planets travel in an orbit around the Sun, Newton said, is that they are responding to two forces. One force is caused simply by their motion through the skies. Just imagine that at some time in the past, someone grabbed hold of Mars and threw it past the Sun. Mars would be traveling through space, then, because of the initial velocity that was given to it.

But Mars does not travel in a straight line. It moves in a circle (or nearly a circle) around the Sun. What changes Mars's motion from a straight line to a curve, Newton asked? The answer he proposed was gravity. The gravitational force between the Sun and Mars causes the planet to move out of a straight line and towards the Sun. The combination of the straight line motion and the gravitational force, then, accounts for the shape of Mars's orbit.

Words to Know

Mass: A measure of the amount of matter in a body.

Orbit: The path followed by a body (such as a planet) in its travel around another body (such as the Sun).

Proportionality constant: A number inserted into an equation to make both sides equal.

Weight: The gravitational attraction of Earth on an object.

But a huge point in Newton's favor was that he already knew all the main points about Mars and its orbit around the Sun. He had a good idea as to how fast the planet was traveling, its mass, the mass of the Sun, and the size of its orbit. Furthermore, the difference in size between Mars and the Sun was greatbut not nearly as great as the difference between an apple and Earth.

So Newton derived his idea of the gravitational force by studying the orbit of the planets. He applied that idea to what he knew about the planets and found that he was able to predict almost perfectly the orbits followed by the planets.

Cavendish's findings. Proving the gravitational law on Earth was somewhat more difficult. Probably the most important experiment conducted for this purpose was one carried out by English chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish (17311810) in 1798. Cavendish suspended a light rod horizontally from a silk thread. At each end of the rod he hung a lead ball. Then he brought a third lead ball close to one of the two lead balls suspended from the rod. He was able to notice that the two lead balls attracted each other. As they did so, they caused the metal rod to pivot slightly on its silk thread. The amount by which the rod pivoted, Cavendish found out, depended on how closely the lead balls were brought next to each other and how much the two balls weighed (what their masses were). Cavendish's results turned out to confirm Newton's predictions exactly.

Einsteinian gravity. Newton's description of gravitational forces proved to be satisfactory for almost two and a half centuries. Then, observations began to appear in which his gravitational law turned out to be not exactly correct. The differences between predictions based on Newton's law and actual observations were smalltoo small to have been noticed for many years. But scientists eventually realized that Newton's law was not entirely and always correct.

In the early 1900s, German-born American physicist Albert Einstein (18791955) proposed a solution for problems with Newton's law. Interestingly enough, Einstein did not suggest modifications in Newton's law to make it more accurate. Instead, he proposed an entirely new way to think about gravity.

The way to think about gravitational forces, Einstein said, is to imagine that space has shape. Imagine, for example, a thin sheet of rubber stretched very tightly in all directions. Then imagine that the rubber sheet has indentations in it, similar to the depressions caused by pushing in on the sheet with your thumb. Finally, imagine that this dented rubber sheet represents space.

Using this model, Einstein suggested that gravity is nothing other than the effect produced when an object moving through space approaches one of these indentations. If a planet were moving through space and came close to an indentation, for example, it would tend to roll inward toward the dent. The effect to an outside observer would be exactly the same as if the planet were experiencing a gravitational force of attraction to the center of the dent.

Finally, Einstein said, these dents in space are caused by the presence of objects, such as stars and planets. The larger the object, the deeper the dent. Again, the effect observed is the same as it would be with Newtonian gravity. An object traveling through space will be pulled out of its orbit more by a deep dent (a heavy object) than it will be by a shallow dent (a lighter object).

So what's the point of thinking about gravity in Einstein's terms rather than Newton's? The answer is that the mathematics used by Einstein does everything that Newton's law of gravitation does plus it solves all of the problems that Newtonian gravity cannot explain.

Fundamental forces

Physicists now believe that all forces in the universe can be reduced to one of four fundamental forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak force. The strong and weak force are forces discovered in the twentieth century; they are responsible for the way atoms and particles smaller than the atom interact with each other. Electromagnetic forces affect charged or magnetic particles. And the gravitational force affects all bodies of any size whatsoever. Of the four forces, the gravitational force is by far the weakest and probably least understood.

One of the great efforts among physicists during the twentieth century was the attempt to show how all four fundamental forces are really different symptoms of a single force. They have been successful in doing so for the electromagnetic and weak forces, which are now recognized as two forms of a single force. The attempts to unify the remaining forces, including gravitation, however, have been unsuccessful so far.

[See also Celestial mechanics ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gravity and Gravitation." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gravity and Gravitation." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gravity and Gravitation." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



Gravitation is a universal attractive force exerted by any two physical bodies on each other, even though they may be separated by a large distance. Gravitation is responsible for making objects fall to the surface of the Earth (gravitational attraction of the object by the Earth), for the nearly circular motions of the planets around the sun (gravitational attraction of the planets by the sun), for the structure of stars and planets (gravitational attraction balanced by pressure forces of constituent particles towards each other), and for the structure of star clusters and galaxies (hundreds of millions of stars would fly apart from each other if not held together by gravity). Gravitation also controls the rate at which the universe expands, and is responsible for the growth of small inhomogeneities in the expanding universe into galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

Gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces known to physics, but it dominates on large scales because it is a long-distance force that is locally always attractive (in contrast to the far stronger electromagnetic force, which can both attract and repel, and cancels itself out on large scales). Thus gravitation is a dominant force in every day life, as well as in the motions of stars and planets and in the evolution of the cosmos. Indeed, it is one of the forces that makes our existence possible by enabling the formation and stability of plants like Earth that are hospitable to life. Without gravity (at approximately the strength it has on Earth) evolution of life would be difficult if not impossible. This fact can naturally lead to speculation that the existence and specific nature of gravitation could be part of a grand design allowing self-assembling structures to come into existence and lead to intelligent life. In this way, gravity can have theological significance.

Classical physics

Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (15641642) first recognized in the early seventeenth century that when air resistance can be neglected, objects accelerate at the same rate towards the surface of the earth, irrespective of their physical composition. Thus a feather and a cannon ball will arrive at the same time at the earth's surface if simultaneously released from rest at the same height in a vacuum chamber. This means there is a universal rate of acceleration downwards caused by the earth's gravitational fieldapproximately 32 feet per second squaredirrespective of the nature of the object considered. Gravitational potential energy can be converted to kinetic energy, with total energy conserved, as for example in a roller coaster or a pole vaulter. This enables gravity to do useful work, as in a clock driven by weights or a water mill, but it also means people must work to go uphill. Gravity can also be a danger to people, who can fall or be hurt by falling objects. Despite this danger, gravity is an essential part of the stability of every day lifeit is the reason that objects stay firmly rooted on the ground rather than floating into the air.

In the late seventeenth century, Isaac Newton (16421727) showed that the gravitational attraction of objects towards the earth and the motion of the planets around the sun could be described accurately by assuming a universal attractive force between any two bodies, proportional to each of their masses and to the inverse of the square of the distance between them. The attractive nature of gravity results because masses are always positive. On this basis he was able to explain both the universal acceleration towards the surface of the earth observed by Galileo and the laws of motion of planets around the sun that had been observationally established earlier in the century by Johannes Kepler (15711630). This was the first major unification of explanation attained in theoretical physics, showing that two phenomena that initially appeared completely unrelated had a unified origin. Newton's account of gravitation also explained why the direction of gravity varies at different places on the surface of the earth (always being directed towards its center), allowing "up" to be different directions at different places on the earth's surface (Australia and England, for example).

In conformity with the rest of theoretical physics, Newton's theory of gravity can be reformulated as a variational principle (Hamilton's principle or Lagrange's equations) based on minimisation of particular combinations of kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy along the trajectory followed by a particle. Gravity by itself is a conservative theory (energy is conserved), so there is no friction associated with the motion of stars and planets in the sky, and their motion is fully reversible; the past and future directions of time are indistinguishable, as far as gravity is concerned. Newton was puzzled as to how the force of gravity, as described by his equations, could succeed in acting at a distance when there was no apparent contact between the bodied concerned. Pierre Laplace (1749-1827), a French physicist and mathematician, essentially resolved this puzzle by introducing the idea of a gravitational force field that fills the empty space between massive bodies and mediates the gravitational force between them. The concept of such fields became one of the major features of classical physics, particularly in the case of electromagnetism. In quantum theory the idea gravitational fields is revised and understood as a force mediated by the interchange of force-carrying particles.

Einstein and after

In the early twentieth century, Albert Einstein (18791955) radically reshaped the understanding of gravity through his proposal of the general theory of relativity, based on the idea that space-time is curved, with the space-time curvature determined by the matter in it. This theory predicts the motion of planets round the sun more accurately than Newtonian theory can, and also predicts radically new phenomena, in particular, black holes and gravitational radiation. Insofar as science has been able to test these predictions, they are correct. A problem with the theory is that it predicts that under many conditions (for example, at the start of the universe and at the end of gravitational collapse to form a black hole), space-time singularities will occur. Scientists still do not properly understand this phenomenon, but presumably it means that they will have to take the effect of quantum theory on gravity into account. General Relativity does not do so; it is a purely classical theory.

Quantum gravity theories try to develop a theory of gravity that generalizes Einstein's theory and is also compatible with quantum theory. Even the way to start such a project is unclear. Approaches include twistor theory, lattice theories, noncommutative geometries, loop variable theories, and superstring theories. None has reached a satisfactorily developed state, however, much less been tested and shown to be correct. Indeed, in many ways such theories are likely to be untestable. The most ambitious are the superstring theories, now extended into a metatheory of uncertain nature known as M-theory, which promises to provide a unified theory of all fundamental forces and particles. M-theory still has far to go before making good on that promise.

Despite the lack of a definite quantum theory of gravity, various attempts have been made to develop quantum theories of cosmology. These theories also face considerable conceptual and calculational problems. The satisfactory unification of quantum theory and general relativity theory, perhaps in some unified theory of all the fundamental forces, remains one of the most significant outstanding problems of theoretical physics.

The desire to develop a practical antigravity machine remains one of humanity's outstanding wishes. No present theory offers a way to such a machine, but the negative gravitational effect of the vacuum energy will continue to inspire some to hope that one day such a machine might exist.

See also Black Holes; Cosmology, Physical Aspects; Forces of Nature; Galileo Galilei; Newton, Isaac; Physics, Quantum; Quantum Theory; Relativity, General Theory of; Singularity; String Theory; Superstrings


begelman, mitchell, and rees, martin. gravity's fatal attraction: black holes in the universe. new york: w. h. freeman, 1996.

d'inverno, ray. introducing einstein's relativity. oxford: oxford university press, 1996.

ellis, george f. r., and williams, ruth m. flat and curved spacetimes. oxford: oxford university press, 2000.

hawking, stephen w., ellis, george f. r. the large-scale structure of spacetime. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1973.

misner, charles w.; thorne, kip s.; and wheeler, john a. gravitation. san francisco: w. h. freeman, 1973.

thorne, kip s. black holes and time warps. new york: norton, 1994.

george f. r. ellis

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gravitation." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gravitation." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gravitation." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



The term "gravity" implies to many the notion of weight. Since antiquity, objects have been observed to "fall down" to the ground, and it therefore seemed obvious to associate gravity with Earth itself. Earth pulls all material bodies downward, but some appear to fall faster. For example, a rock and a feather fall to the ground at appreciably differing rates, and the logical conclusion of such great intellects as Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. In fact, many erroneously believe this today, but it is found not to be true when tested in a controlled experimental manner. Air resistance is the confusing culprit and, when removed or minimized, all bodies are observed to hit the ground in the same amount of time when dropped from the same height.

Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation

In 1687, English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton examined the laws of motion and universal gravitation in a classic text, The Principia, making it possible to explain and predict the motions of the planets and their newly discovered moons. Gravity is not just a property of Earth but of any matter in the universe. The essence of Newton's law of universal gravitation is demonstrated by imagining a "point mass," which is a certain amount of matter concentrated into a space of virtually zero volume. Now, suppose there is another point mass located some distance away from the first mass. According to Newton, these two masses mutually attract one another along the straight line drawn directly between them. In other words, the first mass feels a "pull" towards the second mass and the second mass feels an equal amount of "pull" towards the first. Of course, the universe contains far more than just these two isolated masses. The gravitational interaction is between any given mass and any other mass. A particular mass has a total gravitational force acting upon it that is the vector sum of all the attractions from every other mass paired with it. Every other mass will attract the mass in question independently, as if the others are not present. Intervening matter does not block gravity.

The more massive and closer neighbors to our imaginary test mass will exert a larger gravitational force on it than less massive, more distant objects. The force between the test mass and any other point mass is directly proportional to the product of these masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Expressing the statement in the form of an algebraic equation yields: Fgrav is the gravitational force existing between point masses m1 and m2, and d is the distance between the two masses. G is a constant making the units consistent. Its value was unknown to Newton and was later experimentally determined.

Real objects are not point masses but occupy a volume of space and have an infinite variety of shapes. Newton's law applies here by assuming that any object is composed of many particles, each of which is a close approximation to the ideal point mass previously described. Since gravitation is a very weak force compared to electrical or nuclear interactions, small objects that are normally encountered are not held together by self-gravitation. Instead, the electrically based chemical and molecular bonds are responsible. Nonetheless, the object behaves gravitationally like a collection of point particles each pulling independently on any other separate object's collection of point particles.

Fortunately, most large celestial bodies, such as planets and stars, are nearly spherical in shape, have mass that is symmetrically distributed, and are fairly distant from each other compared to their diameters. Under these assumptions, we can treat each object as a point particle and use Newton's formulation. Near Earth, an object's weight is the combined attraction of every particle in it with every particle that makes up the planet. Since Earth is a rather symmetrically distributed sphere, the net attraction of all its mass points on the object is directed (more or less) toward its center, and the object accelerates or "falls" straight down when released. The attraction is mutual, as Earth accelerates "upward" towards the falling object. But Earth is very massive compared to the object, so its inertia or resistance to acceleration is much greater. Its acceleration is immeasurable and we simply observe objects falling "down" to the ground. Heavier objects accelerate downward at the same rate as lighter ones (neglecting air resistance) because of their correspondingly greater inertia.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity

Throughout the 1800s, Newton's law of gravitation was applied with increasing precision to the observed orbits of planets and double stars. The planet Neptune was discovered in 1846 from the gravitational disturbance it created on the orbit of Uranus. Even modern space science relies on Newton's law of gravitation to determine how to send spacecraft to any place in the solar system with pinpoint accuracy. To better understand gravity's fundamental nature and account for observable departures from Newton's law, however, an entirely new approach was needed. German-born American physicist Albert Einstein provided this in 1915 with the general theory of relativity.

Rather than the "action-at-a-distance" concept inherent to Newton's formulation, Einstein reasoned that a mass literally distorts the shape of the "space" surrounding it. If a beam of light is sent through empty space, it will define a "straight-line" path and hence the shortest distance between two points. The presence of mass, however, will cause the beam to bend its direction of propagation from a straight line and therefore define a curvature to space itself.

To visualize this, imagine a stretched rubber sheet onto which a large mass is placed. This mass creates a depression in the area surrounding it while the membrane is essentially "flat" farther out. The larger the mass, the larger and deeper the depression. If another smaller mass is placed on the sheet, it will "fall" into the dimple well created by the heavier object and appear to be "attracted" to it. Likewise, if friction could be eliminated, it is possible to project the lighter mass into the edge of the well at just the right speed and angle to cause it to circle the massive object indefinitely just as the planets orbit the Sun. The Sun is massive enough, Einstein calculated, to cause a measurable deviation in the direction of distant starlight passing near it. The accurate positional measurement of stars appearing near the Sun's edge was successfully made in 1919 during a total solar eclipse, and Einstein's predictions were verified.

see also Einstein, Albert (volume 2); Microgravity (volume 2); Newton, Isaac (volume 2); Zero Gravity (volume 3).

Arthur H. Litka


Baum, Richard, and William Sheehan. In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in Newton's Clockwork Universe. New York: Plenum Press, 1997.

Galileo, Galilei. Stillman Drake, trans. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.

Newton, Isaac. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World, trans. Andrew Motte. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934.

Thorne, Kip S. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. New York:W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gravity." Space Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gravity." Space Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gravity." Space Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Gravitational Constant

Gravitational constant

The gravitational constant is fundamental quantity of the universe. The gravitational constant, G, was the first great universal constant of physics (the others subsequently being the speed of light and Planck's constant) and modern physicists still argue its importance and relationships to cosmology . Regardless, almost all the major theoretical frameworks dictate that the value for the gravitational constant (G) is in some regard related to the large-scale structure of the cosmos. Ironically, despite centuries of research, the gravitational constant, G, isby a substantial marginthe least understood, most difficult to determine, and least precisely known fundamental constant value. The quest for "G" provides a continuing challenge to the experimental ingenuity of physicists, and often spurs new generations of physicists to recapture the inventiveness and delicacy of measurement first embodied in the elegant experiments conducted by English physicist Henry Cavendish (17311810).

The Cavendish constant "G" must not be confused with the "g" (designated in lowercase) that geophysicists use to designate gravitational acceleration (i.e., a change in the velocity of an object due to the gravitational field (commonly referred to as the gravitational force) of the earth that is due to the mass of the earth. Although the gravitational field of the earth fluctuates with the mass underneath the area in question, the overall average "g" is 9.80665 m/s2.

In 1798, Cavendish performed an ingenious experiment that led to the determination of the gravitational constant (G). Cavendish used a carefully constructed experiment that utilized a torsion balance to measure the very small gravitational attraction between two masses suspended by a thin fiber support. (Cavendish actually measured the restoring torque of the fiber support). Cavendish's experimental methodology and device design was not novel. Similar equipment had been designed by English physicist John Mitchell (17241793), and a similar apparatus had been designed by French physicist Charles Coulomb and others for electrical measurements and calibrations. Cavendish's use, however, of the torsional balance to measure the gravitational constant of Earth, was a triumph of empirical skill.

Cavendish balanced his apparatus by placing balls of identical mass at both ends of a crossbar suspended by a thin wire. By lead balls of known mass, Cavendish was able to account for both the masses in the Newtonian calculation and thereby allowing a determination of the gravitational constant (G). The Cavendish experiment worked because not much force was required to twist the wire suspending the balance. In addition, Cavendish brought relatively large masses close to the smaller weightsactually on symmetrically opposite sides of the weightsso as to double the actual force and make the small effects more readily observable. Over time, due to the mutual gravitational attraction of the weights the smaller balls moved toward the larger masses. The smaller balls moved because of their smaller mass and inertia (resistance to movement). Cavendish was able to measure the force of the gravitational attraction as a function of the time it took to produce any given amount of twist in the suspending wire. The value of the gravitational constant determined by this method was not precise by modern standards (only a 7% precision but with 1% accuracy) but was an exceptional value for the eighteenth century given the small forces being measured. Because all objects exert a gravitational "pull," precision in Cavendish type experiments is often hampered by a number of factors, including underlying geology or factors as subtle as movements of furniture or objects near the experiment.

The Cavendish experiment was, therefore, a milestone in the advancement of scientific empiricism. In fact, accuracy of the Cavendish determination remained unimproved for almost another century until Charles Vernon Boys (18551944) used the Cavendish Balance to make a more accurate determination of the gravitational constant. More importantly, the Cavendish experiment proved that scientists could construct experiments that were able to measure very small forces. Cavendish's work spurred analysis of the fundamental force of electromagnetism (a fundamental force far stronger than gravity) and gave confidence to the scientific community that Newton's laws were not only valid, they were also testable on exceedingly small scales.

In modern physics, the speed of light, Planck's constant, and the gravitational constant are among the most important of fundamental constants. According to relativity theory , G is related to the amount of space-time curvature caused by a given mass. Modern concepts of gravity and of the ramifications of the value of the gravitational constant are subject to seemingly constant revision as scientists aim to extend the linkage between the gravitational constant (G) and other fundamental constants. Although profoundly influential and powerful on the cosmic scale, the force of gravity is weak in terms of human dimensions. Accordingly, the masses must be very large before gravitational effects can be easily measured. Even using modern methods, different laboratories often report significantly different values for G.

See also Gravity and the gravitational field

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gravitational Constant." World of Earth Science. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gravitational Constant." World of Earth Science. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gravitational Constant." World of Earth Science. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gravitation, the attractive force existing between any two particles of matter.

The Law of Universal Gravitation

Since the gravitational force is experienced by all matter in the universe, from the largest galaxies down to the smallest particles, it is often called universal gravitation. (Based upon observations of distant supernovas around the turn of the 21st cent., a repulsive force, termed dark energy, that opposes the self-attraction of matter has been proposed to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe.) Sir Isaac Newton was the first to fully recognize that the force holding any object to the earth is the same as the force holding the moon, the planets, and other heavenly bodies in their orbits. According to Newton's law of universal gravitation, the force between any two bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses (see mass) and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The constant of proportionality in this law is known as the gravitational constant; it is usually represented by the symbol G and has the value 6.670 × 10-11 N-m2/kg2 in the meter-kilogram-second (mks) system of units. Very accurate early measurements of the value of G were made by Henry Cavendish.

The Relativistic Explanation of Gravitation

Newton's theory of gravitation was long able to explain all observable gravitational phenomena, from the falling of objects on the earth to the motions of the planets. However, as centuries passed, very slight discrepancies were observed between the predictions of Newtonian theory and actual events, most notably in the motions of the planet Mercury. The general theory of relativity proposed in 1916 by Albert Einstein explained these differences and provided a geometric explanation for gravitational phenomena, holding that matter causes a curvature of the space-time framework in its immediate neighborhood.

The Search for Gravity Waves

Tantalizing evidence for the existence of gravity waves, which are predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity and would be analogous to electromagnetic waves, comes from astronomical observations of a binary pulsar designated 1913 + 16. The rate at which the two neutron stars in the binary rotate around each other is changing in a manner that is consistent with the emission of gravity waves. A hypothetical particle, given the name graviton, has been suggested as the mediator of the gravitational force; it is analogous to the photon, the particle embodying the quantum properties of electromagnetic waves (see quantum theory). The search for gravity waves continues with the building of large interferometers that would be sensitive enough to detect the faint waves directly (see interference). Millions of dollars have already been spent on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), supported by the National Science Foundation, and work is beginning on the even more ambitious Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA).

The Force of Gravity

The term gravity is commonly used synonymously with gravitation, but in correct usage a definite distinction is made. Whereas gravitation is the attractive force acting to draw any bodies together, gravity indicates that force in operation between the earth and other bodies, i.e., the force acting to draw bodies toward the earth. The force tending to hold objects to the earth's surface depends not only on the earth's gravitational field but also on other factors, such as the earth's rotation. The measure of the force of gravity on a given body is the weight of that body; although the mass of a body does not vary with location, its weight does vary. It is found that at any given location, all objects are accelerated equally by the force of gravity, observed differences being due to differences in air resistance, etc. Thus, the acceleration due to gravity, symbolized as g, provides a convenient measure of the strength of the earth's gravitational field at different locations. The value of g varies from about 9.832 meters per second per second (m/sec2) at the poles to about 9.780 m/sec2 at the equator. Its value generally decreases with increasing altitude. Because variations in the value of g are not large, for ordinary calculations a value of 9.8 m/sec2, or 32 ft/sec2, is commonly used.


See A. S. Eddington, Space, Time and Gravitation (1920); J. A. Wheeler, A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime (1990); M. Bartusiak, Einstein's Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time (2000).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravitation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravitation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravitation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


189. Gravity

See also 316. PHYSICS .

Medicine. the absence of the power to recognize weight through the senses; the absence of barognosis.
Medicine. the conscious perception of weight, especially through cutaneous and muscular nerves.
Archaic. a branch of physics that studied weight and its relationship to gravity.
an abnormal fear of gravity.
the movement of an organism in response to the force of gravity.
Botany. the response of a plant to the force of gravity. geotropic, adj.
the theories of the 18th-century Yorkshireman John Hutchinson, which included a rejection of Newtons theory of gravitation. See also 43. BIBLE ; 392. THEOLOGY . Hutchinsonian, adj.
a hypothetical force, opposed to gravity, once believed to be a property inherent in certain bodies or materials.
the production of motion in a body, apparently without the use of material force, a power long claimed by mediums and magicians. Also called teleportation. telekinetic, adj.
the science or theory of tides.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gravity." -Ologies and -Isms. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gravity." -Ologies and -Isms. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gravity." -Ologies and -Isms. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gravitation Force of attraction that is exercised by every particle of matter as a result of its mass. Gravitation is the weakest of the four fundamental forces, but it is apparent because of the great mass of the Earth. The Moon has only 1/6 of the Earth's gravitational force. Gravitation was first described (1687) by Sir Isaac Newton, whose law of gravitation stated that gravitational force is directly proportional to the masses of the interacting bodies and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Thus, the gravitational force will decrease by 1/4 if the distance between two objects is doubled. Albert Einstein developed a more complete treatment of gravitation, showing in his general theory of relativity that gravitation is a manifestation of space-time.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravitation." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravitation." World Encyclopedia. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravitation." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


grav·i·ta·tion / ˌgraviˈtāshən/ • n. movement, or a tendency to move, toward a center of attractive force, as in the falling of bodies to the earth. ∎ Physics a force of attraction exerted by each particle of matter in the universe on every other particle: the law of universal gravitation. Compare with gravity. ∎ fig. movement toward or attraction to something: a tentative gravitation toward the prices that we saw before the announcement. DERIVATIVES: grav·i·ta·tion·al / -shənl/ adj. grav·i·ta·tion·al·ly / -shənl-ē/ adv.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravitation." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravitation." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravitation." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


grav·i·ty / ˈgravitē/ • n. 1. Physics the force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth, or toward any other physical body having mass. For most purposes Newton's laws of gravity apply, with minor modifications to take the general theory of relativity into account. ∎  the degree of intensity of this, measured by acceleration. 2. extreme or alarming importance; seriousness: crimes of the utmost gravity. ∎  seriousness or solemnity of manner: has the poet ever spoken with greater eloquence or gravity?

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravity." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravity." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravity." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

gravitational acceleration

gravitational acceleration (g) Following Newton's law, the force F between two masses m1 and m2, separated by a distance r, is given by F = Gm1m2/r2, where G is the gravitational constant. The gravitational acceleration, g, is then given by g = F/m1 = Gm2/r2 and is measured in gravity units.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravitational acceleration." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravitational acceleration." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravitational acceleration." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

gravitational constant

gravitational constant (G) The constant of proportionality relating the gravitational force (F) between two masses (m1 and m2) separated by a distance r. F = Gm1m2/r2. The value of G is 6.672 × 10−11 Nm2/kg2.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravitational constant." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravitational constant." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravitational constant." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gravity †influence, authority; seriousness; weighty dignity XVI; physical weight, later only spec. XVII. — (O)F. gravité or L. gravitās, f. gravis heavy; see GRAVE3, -ITY.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravity." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravity." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravity." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

acceleration, gravitational

acceleration, gravitational See GRAVITATIONAL ACCELERATION.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"acceleration, gravitational." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"acceleration, gravitational." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"acceleration, gravitational." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gravitybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gravity." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gravity." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 15, 2017).

"gravity." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from