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The cavendish experiment: then and now

As previously noted, the universal gravitational constant G size 12{G} {} is determined experimentally. This definition was first done accurately by Henry Cavendish (1731–1810), an English scientist, in 1798, more than 100 years after Newton published his universal law of gravitation. The measurement of G size 12{G} {} is very basic and important because it determines the strength of one of the four forces in nature. Cavendish’s experiment was very difficult because he measured the tiny gravitational attraction between two ordinary-sized masses (tens of kilograms at most), using apparatus like that in [link] . Remarkably, his value for G size 12{G} {} differs by less than 1% from the best modern value.

One important consequence of knowing G size 12{G} {} was that an accurate value for Earth’s mass could finally be obtained. This was done by measuring the acceleration due to gravity as accurately as possible and then calculating the mass of Earth M size 12{M} {} from the relationship Newton’s universal law of gravitation gives

mg = G mM r 2 , size 12{ ital "mg"=G { { ital "mM"} over {r rSup { size 8{2} } } } } {}

where m size 12{m} {} is the mass of the object, M size 12{M} {} is the mass of Earth, and r size 12{r} {} is the distance to the center of Earth (the distance between the centers of mass of the object and Earth). See [link] . The mass m size 12{m} {} of the object cancels, leaving an equation for g size 12{g} {} :

g = G M r 2 . size 12{g=G { {M} over {r rSup { size 8{2} } } } } {}

Rearranging to solve for M size 12{M} {} yields

M = gr 2 G . size 12{M= { { ital "gr" rSup { size 8{2} } } over {G} } } {}

So M size 12{M} {} can be calculated because all quantities on the right, including the radius of Earth r size 12{r} {} , are known from direct measurements. We shall see in Satellites and Kepler's Laws: An Argument for Simplicity that knowing G size 12{G} {} also allows for the determination of astronomical masses. Interestingly, of all the fundamental constants in physics, G size 12{G} {} is by far the least well determined.

The Cavendish experiment is also used to explore other aspects of gravity. One of the most interesting questions is whether the gravitational force depends on substance as well as mass—for example, whether one kilogram of lead exerts the same gravitational pull as one kilogram of water. A Hungarian scientist named Roland von Eötvös pioneered this inquiry early in the 20th century. He found, with an accuracy of five parts per billion, that the gravitational force does not depend on the substance. Such experiments continue today, and have improved upon Eötvös’ measurements. Cavendish-type experiments such as those of Eric Adelberger and others at the University of Washington, have also put severe limits on the possibility of a fifth force and have verified a major prediction of general relativity—that gravitational energy contributes to rest mass. Ongoing measurements there use a torsion balance and a parallel plate (not spheres, as Cavendish used) to examine how Newton’s law of gravitation works over sub-millimeter distances. On this small-scale, do gravitational effects depart from the inverse square law? So far, no deviation has been observed.

In the figure, there is a circular stand at the floor holding two weight bars over it attached through an inverted cup shape object fitted over the stand. The first bar over this is a horizontal flat panel and contains two spheres of mass M at its end. Just over this bar is a stick shaped bar holding two spherical objects of mass m at its end. Over to this bar is mirror at the center of the device facing east. The rotation of this device over the axis of the stand is anti-clockwise. A light source on the right side of the device emits a ray of light toward the mirror which is then reflected toward a scale bar which is on the right to the device below the light source.
Cavendish used an apparatus like this to measure the gravitational attraction between the two suspended spheres ( m size 12{m} {} ) and the two on the stand ( M size 12{M} {} ) by observing the amount of torsion (twisting) created in the fiber. Distance between the masses can be varied to check the dependence of the force on distance. Modern experiments of this type continue to explore gravity.

Questions & Answers

Calculate the work done by an 85.0-kg man who pushes a crate 4.00 m up along a ramp that makes an angle of 20.0º20.0º with the horizontal. (See [link] .) He exerts a force of 500 N on the crate parallel to the ramp and moves at a constant speed. Be certain to include the work he does on the crate an
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Practice Key Terms 4

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