newton's law of gravitation
Most people know the story of how Newton, at the age of 23, came to think
about the motion of the Moon in a way that nobody had ever done before.
With extraordinary insight, he constructed an intellectual bridge
between the motion of the Moon and the behaviour of falling objects, such
as apples from trees.
Newton began to think of the Earth's gravity as extending out to the Moon's
orbit. Using his second law of motion, and the fact that the centripetal
acceleration, a, of a body moving at speed v in a circle
of radius r is given by v2/r, he
inferred that the force on a mass m in a circular orbit must be
F = ma = mv2/r.
If P is the orbital period of the body, then its speed is
2r / P
and Kepler's third law relates the period and the orbital radius by
P2 = kr3,
where k is the constant of proportionality. Substituting these last
two equations into his second law, Newton found
m / kr2,
that is, the force on the body is proportional to its mass and
inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the central
body. According to Newton's third law, the body at the centre of the
orbit feels an equal but opposite force, which must be
proportional to the mass of the central body (as well as being
proportional to the orbiting mass and inversely proportional to
the square of its distance).
Redefining the constant of proportionality in the above equation (which
effectively included the mass of the central body),
Newton hence obtained his universal law of gravitation
F = Gm1m2 /
where F is the force of attraction, m1
and m2 are the masses separated by a distance
r and G is the constant of proportionality.
G is referred to as the (universal) constant of gravitation
and has a value of
6.67 x 10-11 Nm2kg-2. Newton's
law of gravitation can be stated as follows
Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle
of matter with a force directly proportional to the product of the masses
and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
In other words, if the mass of the central body doubles, the force between
them doubles. If the mass of the central body and the orbiting mass both
double, the force between them quadruples. If the distance between the
two masses doubles, the force between them is quartered.
It is important to note that this law deals with point masses (i.e.
particles). It can be extended to deal with finite bodies by integration, or
by application of Gauss's law, from which it is possible to conclude that
the gravitational field established outside itself by a spherically
symmetric body is the same as it would be if the mass of the body were
concentrated at its centre.
Geometry of a small portion of the Moon's orbit around the Earth.
In order to test his law of gravitation, Newton applied it to
the motion of the Moon. He imagined that if gravity did not exist,
the Moon would move through space in a straight line BC, tangent
to the orbit at B in Figure 34.
But because of the mutual attraction of the Earth and the Moon, the Moon can
be thought of as continually falling towards the Earth. Its path,
BD, can therefore be thought of as being made up of the straight
line motion BC and a fall CD. If the time interval
between B and D is one second, then CD is the
distance fallen by the Moon in one second.
Now, CD = CE - DE = CE - BE, if we assume the Moon's orbit to be
circular. In the right-angled triangle CBE,
BE / CE = cos CEB = cos
CE = BE / cos
CD = BE [ (1/cos
) - 1 ].
is a very small angle - it is the angle swept out by the
Moon's radius vector in one second - so we may use the small
angle approximation to write
1 - (2/2),
where is in radians.
According to the binomial theorem,
-x3....., so the equation above can be rewritten
1 / cos =
1 + (2/2).
Substituting this into the expression for CD, we obtain
CD = BE x
2 / 2.
Now, taking the sidereal period of the moon to be 27.322 mean solar days and
the number of seconds in a day to be 86400, we have (in radians)
/ (27.322 x 86400).
The radius BE of the Moon's orbit is about 240 000 miles =
3.8 x 108 m. Hence it is found that
CD = 1.3 x 10-3 m.
In other words, in 1 second the Moon falls vertically towards the
Earth by 1.3 mm. On the other hand, an object which is projected
horizontally near the Earth's surface would fall a distance
½gt2 = 4.9 m. The ratio of these two
vertical distances is approximately 1/3770. Newton knew that the
radius of the Moon's orbit was about 60 times the radius of the
Earth. And given that he had just postulated an inverse square law for
gravitation, he would have predicted a ratio of 1/3600. In other
words, he knew he was right!
In his Principia, Newton went on to explain the polar flattening of the
Earth, the precession of the equinoxes due to the Sun and Moon's
affect on the Earth's equatorial bulge and the phenomenon of the tides,
to name but a few of his great achievements. Newton also combined his laws
of motion and gravitation to derive all three of Kepler's empirical laws
of planetary motion, placing them on a sound theoretical basis, as we shall
©Vik Dhillon, 30th September 2009