Universal Gravitational Mass and Amount
Newton's cannonball illustrated the relationship between the Earth’s gravitational mass and its gravitational field; however, a number of other ambiguities still remained. Robert Hooke had asserted in 1674 that: "all Celestial Bodies whatsoever, have an attraction or gravitating power towards their own Centers", but Hooke had neither explained why this gravitating attraction was unique to celestial bodies, nor had he explained why the attraction was directed towards the center of a celestial body.
To answer these questions, Newton introduced the entirely new concept that gravitational mass is “universal”: meaning that every object has gravitational mass, and therefore, every object generates a gravitational field. Newton further assumed that the strength of each object’s gravitational field would decrease according to the square of the distance to that object. With these assumptions in mind, Newton calculated what the overall gravitational field would be if a large collection of small objects were formed into a giant spherical body. Newton found that a giant spherical body (like the Earth or Sun, with roughly uniform density at each given radius), would have a gravitational field which was proportional to the total mass of the body, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance to the body’s center.
Newton's concept of universal gravitational mass is illustrated in the image to the left. Every piece of the Earth has gravitational mass and every piece creates a gravitational field directed towards that piece. However, the overall effect of these many fields is equivalent to a single powerful field directed towards the center of the Earth. The apple behaves as if a single powerful gravitational field were accelerating it towards the Earth’s center.
Newton’s concept of universal gravitational mass puts gravitational mass on an equal footing with the traditional concepts of weight and amount. For example, the ancient Romans had used the carob seed as a weight standard. The Romans could place an object with an unknown weight on one side of a balance scale and place carob seeds on the other side of the scale, increasing the number of seeds until the scale was balanced. If an object’s weight was equivalent to 1728 carob seeds, then the object was said to weigh one Roman pound.
According to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation, each carob seed produces gravitational fields. Therefore, if one were to gather an immense number of carob seeds and form them into an enormous sphere, then the gravitational field of the sphere would be proportional to the number of carob seeds in the sphere. Hence, it should be theoretically possible to determine the exact number of carob seeds that would be required to produce a gravitational field similar to that of the Earth or Sun. And since the Roman weight units were all defined in terms of carob seeds, then knowing the Earth’s, or Sun's “carob seed mass” would allow one to calculate the mass in Roman pounds, or Roman ounces, or any other Roman unit.
This possibility extends beyond Roman units and the carob seed. The British avoirdupois pound, for example, was originally defined to be equal to 7,000 barley grains. Therefore, if one could determine the Earth’s “barley grain mass” (the number of barley grains required to produce a gravitational field similar to that of the Earth), then this would allow one to calculate the Earth’s mass in avoirdupois pounds. Also, the original kilogram was defined to be equal in mass to a liter of pure water (the modern kilogram is defined by the man-made international prototype kilogram). Thus, the mass of the Earth in kilograms could theoretically be determined by ascertaining how many liters of pure water (or international prototype kilograms) would be required to produce gravitational fields similar to those of the Earth. In fact, it is a simple matter of abstraction to realize that any traditional mass unit can theoretically be used to measure gravitational mass.
Measuring gravitational mass in terms of traditional mass units is simple in principle, but extremely difficult in practice. According to Newton’s theory all objects produce gravitational fields and it is theoretically possible to collect an immense number of small objects and form them into an enormous gravitating sphere. However, from a practical standpoint, the gravitational fields of small objects are extremely weak and difficult to measure. And if one were to collect an immense number of objects, the resulting sphere would probably be too large to construct on the surface of the Earth, and too expensive to construct in space. Newton’s books on universal gravitation were published in the 1680s, but the first successful measurement of the Earth’s mass in terms of traditional mass units, the Cavendish experiment, didn’t occur until 1797, over a hundred years later. Cavendish found that the Earth's density was 5.448 ± 0.033 times that of water. As of 2009, the Earth’s mass in kilograms is only known to around five digits of accuracy, whereas its gravitational mass is known to over nine significant figures.
Famous quotes containing the words amount, mass and/or universal:
“The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing ones clean linen in public.”
—Oscar Wilde (18541900)
“At first, he savored only the material quality of the sounds secreted by the instruments. And it had already been a great pleasure when, beneath the tiny line of the violin, slender, resistant, dense and driving, he noticed the mass of the pianos part seeking to arise in a liquid splashing, polymorphous, undivided, level and clashing like the purple commotion of wave charmed and flattened by the moonlight.”
—Marcel Proust (18711922)
“The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business.”
—William James (18421910)