Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.


Gravitation, the force of attraction between all objects that tends to pull them toward one another. It is a universal force, affecting the largest and smallest objects, all forms of matter, and energy. Gravitation governs the motion of astronomical bodies. It keeps the moon in orbit around the earth and keeps the earth and the other planets of the solar system in orbit around the sun. On a larger scale, it governs the motion of stars and slows the outward expansion of the entire universe because of the inward attraction of galaxies to other galaxies. Typically the term gravitation refers to the force in general, and the term gravity refers to the earth's gravitational pull.

Gravitation is one of the four fundamental forces of nature, along with electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces, which hold together the particles that make up atoms. Gravitation is by far the weakest of these forces and, as a result, is not important in the interactions of atoms and nuclear particles or even of moderate-sized objects, such as people or cars. Gravitation is important only when very large objects, such as planets, are involved. This is true for several reasons. First, the force of gravitation reaches great distances, while nuclear forces operate only over extremely short distances and decrease in strength very rapidly as distance increases. Second, gravitation is always attractive. In contrast, electromagnetic forces between particles can be repulsive or attractive depending on whether the particles both have a positive or negative electrical charge, or they have opposite electrical charges (see Electricity). These attractive and repulsive forces tend to cancel each other out, leaving only a weak net force. Gravitation has no repulsive force and, therefore, no such cancellation or weakening.

The gravitational attraction of objects for one another is the easiest fundamental force to observe and was the first fundamental force to be described with a complete mathematical theory by the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. A more accurate theory called general relativity was formulated early in the 20th century by the German-born American physicist Albert Einstein. Scientists recognize that even this theory is not correct for describing how gravitation works in certain circumstances, and they continue to search for an improved theory.


Gravitation plays a crucial role in most processes on the earth. The ocean tides are caused by the gravitational attraction of the moon and the sun on the earth and its oceans. Gravitation drives weather patterns by making cold air sink and displace less dense warm air, forcing the warm air to rise. The gravitational pull of the earth on all objects holds the objects to the surface of the earth. Without it, the spin of the earth would send them floating off into space.

The gravitational attraction of every bit of matter in the earth for every other bit of matter amounts to an inward pull that holds the earth together against the pressure forces tending to push it outward. Similarly, the inward pull of gravitation holds stars together. When a star's fuel nears depletion, the processes producing the outward pressure weaken and the inward pull of gravitation eventually compresses the star to a very compact size (see Star, Black Hole).


If an object held near the surface of the earth is released, it will fall and accelerate, or pick up speed, as it descends. This acceleration is caused by gravity, the force of attraction between the object and the earth. The force of gravity on an object is also called the object's weight. This force depends on the object's mass, or the amount of matter in the object. The weight of an object is equal to the mass of the object multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity.

A bowling ball that weighs 16 lb is actually being pulled toward the earth with a force of 16 lb. In the metric system, the bowling ball is pulled toward the earth with a force of 71 newtons (a metric unit of force abbreviated N). The bowling ball also pulls on the earth with a force of 16 lb (71 N), but the earth is so massive that it does not move appreciably. In order to hold the bowling ball up and keep it from falling, a person must exert an upward force of 16 lb (71 N) on the ball. This upward force acts to oppose the 16 lb (71 N) downward weight force, leaving a total force of zero. The total force on an object determines the object's acceleration.

If the pull of gravity is the only force acting on an object, then all objects, regardless of their weight, size, or shape, will accelerate in the same manner. At the same place on the earth, the 16 lb (71 N) bowling ball and a 500 lb (2200 N) boulder will fall with the same rate of acceleration. As each second passes, each object will increase its downward speed by about 9.8 m/sec (32 ft/sec), resulting in an acceleration of 9.8 m/sec/sec (32 ft/sec/sec). In principle, a rock and a feather both would fall with this acceleration if there were no other forces acting. In practice, however, air friction exerts a greater upward force on the falling feather than on the rock and makes the feather fall more slowly than the rock.

The mass of an object does not change as it is moved from place to place, but the acceleration due to gravity, and therefore the object's weight, will change because the strength of the earth's gravitational pull is not the same everywhere. The earth's pull and the acceleration due to gravity decrease as an object moves farther away from the center of the earth. At an altitude of 4000 miles (6400 km) above the earth's surface, for instance, the bowling ball that weighed 16 lb (71 N) at the surface would weigh only about 4 lb (18 N). Because of the reduced weight force, the rate of acceleration of the bowling ball at that altitude would be only one quarter of the acceleration rate at the surface of the earth. The pull of gravity on an object also changes slightly with latitude. Because the earth is not perfectly spherical, but bulges at the equator, the pull of gravity is about 0.5 percent stronger at the earth's poles than at the equator.