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Astronomy

3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis

Astronomy3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe Newton’s three laws of motion
  • Explain how Newton’s three laws of motion relate to momentum
  • Define mass, volume, and density and how they differ
  • Define angular momentum

It was the genius of Isaac Newton that found a conceptual framework that completely explained the observations and rules assembled by Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, and others. Newton was born in Lincolnshire, England, in the year after Galileo’s death (Figure 3.6). Against the advice of his mother, who wanted him to stay home and help with the family farm, he entered Trinity College at Cambridge in 1661 and eight years later was appointed professor of mathematics. Among Newton’s contemporaries in England were architect Christopher Wren, authors Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, and composer G. F. Handel.

Portrait of Isaac Newton.
Figure 3.6 Isaac Newton (1643–1727), 1689 Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Isaac Newton’s work on the laws of motion, gravity, optics, and mathematics laid the foundations for much of physical science.

Newton’s Laws of Motion

As a young man in college, Newton became interested in natural philosophy, as science was then called. He worked out some of his first ideas on machines and optics during the plague years of 1665 and 1666, when students were sent home from college. Newton, a moody and often difficult man, continued to work on his ideas in private, even inventing new mathematical tools to help him deal with the complexities involved. Eventually, his friend Edmund Halley (profiled in Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System) prevailed on him to collect and publish the results of his remarkable investigations on motion and gravity. The result was a volume that set out the underlying system of the physical world, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The Principia, as the book is generally known, was published at Halley’s expense in 1687.

At the very beginning of the Principia, Newton proposes three laws that would govern the motions of all objects:

  • Newton’s first law: Every object will continue to be in a state of rest or move at a constant speed in a straight line unless it is compelled to change by an outside force.
  • Newton’s second law: The change of motion of a body is proportional to and in the direction of the force acting on it.
  • Newton’s third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (or: the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and act in opposite directions).

In the original Latin, the three laws contain only 59 words, but those few words set the stage for modern science. Let us examine them more carefully.

Interpretation of Newton’s Laws

Newton’s first law is a restatement of one of Galileo’s discoveries, called the conservation of momentum. The law states that in the absence of any outside influence, there is a measure of a body’s motion, called its momentum, that remains unchanged. You may have heard the term momentum used in everyday expressions, such as “This bill in Congress has a lot of momentum; it’s going to be hard to stop.”

Newton’s first law is sometimes called the law of inertia, where inertia is the tendency of objects (and legislatures) to keep doing what they are already doing. In other words, a stationary object stays put, and a moving object keeps moving unless some force intervenes.

Let’s define the precise meaning of momentum—it depends on three factors: (1) speed—how fast a body moves (zero if it is stationary), (2) the direction of its motion, and (3) its mass—a measure of the amount of matter in a body, which we will discuss later. Scientists use the term velocity to describe the speed and direction of motion. For example, 20 kilometers per hour due south is velocity, whereas 20 kilometers per hour just by itself is speed. Momentum then can be defined as an object’s mass times its velocity.

It’s not so easy to see this rule in action in the everyday world because of the many forces acting on a body at any one time. One important force is friction, which generally slows things down. If you roll a ball along the sidewalk, it eventually comes to a stop because the sidewalk exerts a rubbing force on the ball. But in the space between the stars, where there is so little matter that friction is insignificant, objects can in fact continue to move (to coast) indefinitely.

The momentum of a body can change only under the action of an outside influence. Newton’s second law expresses force in terms of its ability to change momentum with time. A force (a push or a pull) has both size and direction. When a force is applied to a body, the momentum changes in the direction of the applied force. This means that a force is required to change either the speed or the direction of a body, or both—that is, to start it moving, to speed it up, to slow it down, to stop it, or to change its direction.

As you learned in Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy, the rate of change in an object’s velocity is called acceleration. Newton showed that the acceleration of a body was proportional to the force being applied to it. Suppose that after a long period of reading, you push an astronomy book away from you on a long, smooth table. (We use a smooth table so we can ignore friction.) If you push the book steadily, it will continue to speed up as long as you are pushing it. The harder you push the book, the larger its acceleration will be. How much a force will accelerate an object is also determined by the object’s mass. If you kept pushing a pen with the same force with which you pushed the textbook, the pen—having less mass—would be accelerated to a greater speed.

Newton’s third law is perhaps the most profound of the rules he discovered. Basically, it is a generalization of the first law, but it also gives us a way to define mass. If we consider a system of two or more objects isolated from outside influences, Newton’s first law says that the total momentum of the objects should remain constant. Therefore, any change of momentum within the system must be balanced by another change that is equal and opposite so that the momentum of the entire system is not changed.

This means that forces in nature do not occur alone: we find that in each situation there is always a pair of forces that are equal to and opposite each other. If a force is exerted on an object, it must be exerted by something else, and the object will exert an equal and opposite force back on that something. We can look at a simple example to demonstrate this.

Suppose that a daredevil astronomy student—and avid skateboarder—wants to jump from his second-story dorm window onto his board below (we don’t recommend trying this!). The force pulling him down after jumping (as we will see in the next section) is the force of gravity between him and Earth. Both he and Earth must experience the same total change of momentum because of the influence of these mutual forces. So, both the student and Earth are accelerated by each other’s pull. However, the student does much more of the moving. Because Earth has enormously greater mass, it can experience the same change of momentum by accelerating only a very small amount. Things fall toward Earth all the time, but the acceleration of our planet as a result is far too small to be measured.

A more obvious example of the mutual nature of forces between objects is familiar to all who have batted a baseball. The recoil you feel as you swing your bat shows that the ball exerts a force on it during the impact, just as the bat does on the ball. Similarly, when a rifle you are bracing on your shoulder is discharged, the force pushing the bullet out of the muzzle is equal to the force pushing backward upon the gun and your shoulder.

This is the principle behind jet engines and rockets: the force that discharges the exhaust gases from the rear of the rocket is accompanied by the force that pushes the rocket forward. The exhaust gases need not push against air or Earth; a rocket actually operates best in a vacuum (Figure 3.7).

Photograph of the Space Shuttle Discovery at liftoff.
Figure 3.7 Demonstrating Newton’s Third Law. The U.S. Space Shuttle (here launching Discovery), powered by three fuel engines burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, with two solid fuel boosters, demonstrates Newton’s third law. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

Mass, Volume, and Density

Before we go on to discuss Newton’s other work, we want to take a brief look at some terms that will be important to sort out clearly. We begin with mass, which is a measure of the amount of material within an object.

The volume of an object is the measure of the physical space it occupies. Volume is measured in cubic units, such as cubic centimeters or liters. The volume is the “size” of an object. A penny and an inflated balloon may both have the same mass, but they have very different volumes. The reason is that they also have very different densities, which is a measure of how much mass there is per unit volume. Specifically, density is the mass divided by the volume. Note that in everyday language we often use “heavy” and “light” as indications of density (rather than weight) as, for instance, when we say that iron is heavy or that whipped cream is light.

The units of density that will be used in this book are grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3).1 If a block of some material has a mass of 300 grams and a volume of 100 cm3, its density is 3 g/cm3. Familiar materials span a considerable range in density, from artificial materials such as plastic insulating foam (less than 0.1 g/cm3) to gold (19.3 g/cm3). Table 3.1 gives the densities of some familiar materials. In the astronomical universe, much more remarkable densities can be found, all the way from a comet’s tail (10–16 g/cm3) to a collapsed “star corpse” called a neutron star (1015 g/cm3).

Densities of Common Materials
Material Density (g/cm3)
Gold 19.3
Lead 11.3
Iron 7.9
Earth (bulk) 5.5
Rock (typical) 2.5
Water 1
Wood (typical) 0.8
Insulating foam 0.1
Silica gel 0.02
Table 3.1

To sum up, mass is how much, volume is how big, and density is how tightly packed.

Angular Momentum

A concept that is a bit more complex, but important for understanding many astronomical objects, is angular momentum, which is a measure of the rotation of a body as it revolves around some fixed point (an example is a planet orbiting the Sun). The angular momentum of an object is defined as the product of its mass, its velocity, and its distance from the fixed point around which it revolves.

If these three quantities remain constant—that is, if the motion of a particular object takes place at a constant velocity at a fixed distance from the spin center—then the angular momentum is also a constant. Kepler’s second law is a consequence of the conservation of angular momentum. As a planet approaches the Sun on its elliptical orbit and the distance to the spin center decreases, the planet speeds up to conserve the angular momentum. Similarly, when the planet is farther from the Sun, it moves more slowly.

The conservation of angular momentum is illustrated by figure skaters, who bring their arms and legs in to spin more rapidly, and extend their arms and legs to slow down (Figure 3.8). You can duplicate this yourself on a well-oiled swivel stool by starting yourself spinning slowly with your arms extended and then pulling your arms in. Another example of the conservation of angular momentum is a shrinking cloud of dust or a star collapsing on itself (both are situations that you will learn about as you read on). As material moves to a lesser distance from the spin center, the speed of the material increases to conserve angular momentum.

Illustration of Conservation of Angular Momentum. At left a skater is illustrated with her arms and right leg outstretched, with cartoon motion lines indicating slow rotation. At right the skater has her arms folded across her chest and right leg crossed over her left. The motion lines now indicate a faster rotation.
Figure 3.8 Conservation of Angular Momentum. When a spinning figure skater brings in her arms, their distance from her spin center is smaller, so her speed increases. When her arms are out, their distance from the spin center is greater, so she slows down.

Footnotes

  • 1 Generally we use standard metric (or SI) units in this book. The proper metric unit of density in that system is kg/m3. But to most people, g/cm3 provides a more meaningful unit because the density of water is exactly 1 g/cm3, and this is useful information for comparison. Density expressed in g/cm3 is sometimes called specific density or specific weight.
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