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Scientists consider both forces and velocities as vectors. Vectors are shown by
arrows: they represent quantities that have both a specific magnitude--size or
strength--and direction. Velocity, for example, has both magnitude and direction.
Although the words speed and velocity are used interchangeably, speed is properly
only the magnitude of the velocity vector. A complete description of an object's
velocity requires both knowledge of the object's speed and the direction in which it
is traveling. For example, a stone whirled in a circle at the end of a string has a
changing velocity even if it moves at a fixed number of revolutions per minute. The
stone's speed is constant, but its direction of travel, and therefore its velocity,
changes continuously. The force on the stone that causes the change in velocity is
another vector, called a centripetal force. Its magnitude is the tension in the string,
and its direction is radially inward toward the center of the circle described by the
spinning stone.
Two forces applied simultaneously to the same point have the same effect as a
single equivalent force. The magnitude and direction of this resultant force can be
found by drawing the two original force vectors head to tail and then drawing a new
vector--the resultant force vector--from the tail of the first vector to the head of the
second. Similarly, vectors can also be added by the use of parallelograms (see
The same forces can have different effects depending on how they are applied
and on the specific body to which they are applied. For example, if applied in a
certain way, a force may cause a body to spin, or rotate. The tendency of a force to
rotate the body to which it is applied is called torque, or moment of the force.
Torque is also a vector. The magnitude of the torque can be calculated by
multiplying the perpendicular distance between the line of the force and the axis of
The force that resists the motion of a body along a path or the torque that
opposes rotation is called friction. Both frictional forces and frictional torques are
passive and do not exist alone. They appear only when other forces are applied or if
a body is already in motion. Friction may be undesirable, as in the case of air
resistance that slows down an airplane, or it may be useful, as it is in the case of car
brakes, which slow down a car by means of friction

Center of Gravity and Equilibrium

In order to apply the laws of mechanics to a particular body, scientists generally try
to consider it as a free body--they isolate the body from its larger environment and
consider only the forces acting on that body. This simplifies the situation by
excluding extraneous forces and influences that are not relevant to the problem.
Scientists may further simplify a problem by studying the behavior of an object's
center of gravity rather than the behavior of the entire object. In many mechanical
situations, the weight of a solid object can be considered to be concentrated at one
point, called the center of gravity. All forces appear to act upon this center. Thus
once this center is known, the support given to it will determine how the object will
respond to various forces. For example, the center of gravity will remain at rest if
the downward pull of gravity upon it is matched by an equal and opposite
supporting, or upward, force. A force exerted along a line that does not pass
through a body's center of gravity creates a torque. A simple method for
determining the center of gravity of a flat surface is shown in the diagram.
A body cannot be completely at rest unless all forces that tend to move the center
of gravity in some direction and all torques are balanced. Once a complete balance
exists, the body is said to be in equilibrium. In this case, the sum of all forces and
torques acting on the body must equal zero. Using this rule, scientists can establish
equations for any number of forces acting on a body in equilibrium. They may then
choose to study the relationship between the components of the balancing forces.
An example of a body in equilibrium is an object at rest, suspended freely from
two strings, with each string attached to opposite walls. The weight of the object,
which naturally tends vertically downward, must be counteracted by the upward
components of tension in the two strings. Furthermore, the sideways components of
tension in the strings must be equal. Thus, given the weight of the object, it is
possible to determine the vertical and horizontal components of tension in the two
A body in equilibrium may be in any one of three states--stable, unstable, or
neutral equilibrium. It is in stable equilibrium if, when a torque is applied, the body
tends to return to its original position. It is in unstable equilibrium if it continues to
turn to a new position after the torque ceases to act. The body is in neutral
equilibrium if it comes to rest wherever it may be when the torque is removed.