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homework and exercises - Why dont we consider force exerted by atmos...

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Why dont we consider force exerted by atmospheric pressure in mechanics?

My school has started teaching fluid mechanics, and it really bugs me why we don't consider force exerted by atmospheric pressure in
mechanics. I couldn't understand a word my teacher said.
There is another particular question that is based on this doubt. Why don't we consider the force exerted by air when we consider something
simple like a block lying on a plane surface? Generally we'd say that the forces acting on it are the normal reaction (by the plane surface) and
the weight of the block(by earth). Where is the atmospheric pressure?
In this question:
13. A piece of wood is floating in water kept in a bottle. The bottle is connected to an air pump. Neglect the compressibility of water. When
more air is pushed into the bottle from the pump, the piece of wood will float with
(a) larger part in the water
(b) lesser part in the water
(c) same part in the water
(d) it will sink
The answer provided is option (C). I thought it would be (A), because won't the increased pressure press the block more?




edited Jun 24 '15 at 16:56

asked Jun 24 '15 at 16:36

David Z





Pressure exerts a force from all directions. The net effect of the pressure is the buoyancy, i.e. the weight of the
displaced water. If you consider part of the water that is just at rest within the big volume of water then gravity is
pulling it down while the sum of all the pressure forces from all the directions exerted on it by the surrounding water
will precisely counteract gravity. If you then replace the water by some object then those same pressure forces that
acted on the water will now be acting on the object. Count Iblis Jun 24 '15 at 16:48
Related, and possibly a duplicate: A book sits on a table. What is the net force of air pressure? John Rennie Jun 24
'15 at 16:52
@sidgrand98 - Could you please edit your question with a rotated version of the image? I don't like having to rotate
my laptop. David Hammen Jun 24 '15 at 16:52
Actually the right way to handle this (cc @DavidHammen) is to transcribe the problem into text, not to post a
different image. Posts shouldn't contain images of text or math. I'll do it this time. David Z Jun 24 '15 at 16:55
@JohnRennie - I don't think that is a valid duplicate. The accepted answer there talks about the the surface
roughness and the presence of "air pressure" below the book. This is about buoyancy, compressibility and such.
Different. Floris Jun 24 '15 at 17:05

3 Answers

As you know, Archimedes' principle states that the buoyant force experienced is equal to the
weight of the displaced fluid.
In the case of your incompressible water, the buoyant force from the water experienced by the
block of wood is independent of the air pressure as long as the block is immersed to the same
extent: any excess pressure to the entire system would act equally on the top and bottom of the
block and cancel out.
But wait - there's more.
The question did NOT say to ignore the compressibility of the AIR. If you increase the density
of the air (by raising the pressure), the weight of the displaced air increases. This in turn
means that the block experiences a greater buoyant force due to the air, and that it will
therefore rise (a little bit) in the water in order to find a new "neutral buoyancy" position.
This is counterintuitive: you raise the pressure and the block rises up out of the water. But I'm
pretty sure that's correct. The answer should have been (B).
If we ignore the compressibility for a moment and look just at the pressure of the air, we find
that it is "all around us"; not only that, but (barring the effect of gravity) it is the same
everywhere. As David Hammen pointed out in his answer, sometimes, in the real world, you
have to know what to ignore. If you pick up a ball, you don't have to think of it as a bunch of
atoms with electrons forming bonds, obeying Schroedinger's equation, ... you can just think of
it as a "ball".

05/08/2016 12:07

homework and exercises - Why dont we consider force exerted by atmos...

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In the same way, for most practical purposes we can think of air as something that - fills every
space in our experiment (unless we stop it) - has very low density - has a pressure of about 1
kg/cm3 - will provide a small amount of drag to objects moving through it
Most of the time that is all you need to know about air. In the case of your block, if you have a
pressure of 1 bar (normal atmospheric pressure) above the block, that same pressure is exerted
on the surface of the water - and so at the very top of the water level, the pressure is also 1 bar.
As you go deeper in the water, the pressure is even greater, because of the weight of the water
"above" the point where you are measuring.
If you increase the atmospheric pressure, the pressure inside the water increases by the same
amount. This means that the difference in pressure between top and bottom of the object is
independent of the pressure of the air. And the difference is what gives rise to the buoyancy.
Let's look at this picture:

If the block has surface area (top and bottom)

force pushing down on the top is

The pressure at the bottom of the block

and the atmospheric pressure is

, then the

and the force on the bottom is

The difference between these forces is what is experiences as buoyancy, and has to equal the
weight of the block:

As you can see, the term

canceled out.

This is true regardless of the shape of the block: it is sufficient to think of the block as made up
of many smaller blocks, each of a regular shape, and add up all the forces due to each
"blocklet". For each, the term will cancel out.
Now with some practice you will "know" when you can ignore pressure - until you do, you can
(and should) do the more rigorous analysis to convince yourself that you can ignore it.
Knowing what not to do takes a lifetime of learning: but it can make life so much easier...
edited Jun 24 '15 at 17:57

answered Jun 24 '15 at 17:09




Thanks for your input @Floris but I must say this has confused me even more. Ignoring the question and coming to
the conceptual problem as to why don't we consider the air pressure acting on a simple block but it is taken into
account when we are dealing with a problem related to fluid mechanics? Could you please explain to me about that.
sidgrand98 Jun 24 '15 at 17:19
@sidgrand98 - sorry about that. Is the new expanded answer able to address your confusion better? Floris Jun 24 '15
at 17:58
Thanks dude! Sorry to take so much of your time. I'm a newbie.@Floris sidgrand98 Jun 24 '15 at 18:43
Don't apologize. The answer isn't clear until it's clear to you... and likely it's clearer to future visitors as well, now.
Floris Jun 24 '15 at 18:44

Let the block be in original position.Now when a pressure p is given extra it acts on top of block
and also at the base in upward direction,since water exerts pressure in all direction by pascals
law.The net is zero so option C may be correct.
answered Jun 24 '15 at 18:25

05/08/2016 12:07

homework and exercises - Why dont we consider force exerted by atmos...

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Physics is not just mathematics. An important part of physics is knowing what to ignore, what
not to ignore.
If you pumped so much air into the bottle that conditions became downright Venusian, then
yes, you would see a small change in the level at which the piece of wood floats. The block
would float a tiny bit higher. You'd see an even greater deviation if the wood was honeycombed
through and through, giving the small pressure gradient from the top of the block to the plane
of the waterline a better chance to take hold. However, the bottle is presumably made out of
somewhat cheap glass and it will not fare well when pressurized to that extent.
Presumably the block of wood isn't honeycombed through and through, the quantity of air
pumped in is small (compared to Venus surface levels), and you have a limited ability to
measure the level at which the block of wood floats. In this case, the answer that is closest to
being correct is C.
answered Jun 24 '15 at 17:18

David Hammen



05/08/2016 12:07