Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Attraction

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ATTRACTION. That the different parts of a material system influence each other's motions is a matter of daily observation. In some cases we cannot discover any material connection extending from the one body to the other. We call these cases of action at a distance, to distinguish them from those in which we can trace a continuous material bond of union between the bodies. The mutual action between two bodies is called stress. When the mutual action tends to bring the bodies nearer, or to prevent them from separating, it is called tension or attraction. When it tends to separate the bodies, or to prevent them from approaching, it is called pressure or repulsion. The names tension and pressure are used when the action is seen to take place through a medium. Attraction and repulsion are reserved for cases of action at a distance. The configuration of a material system can always be defined in terms of the mutual distances of the parts of the system. Any change of configuration must alter one or more of these distances. Hence the force which produces or resists such a change may be resolved into attractions or repulsions between those parts of the system whose distance is altered.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to the cause of such forces, one of them, namely, the pressure between bodies in contact, being supposed to be more easily conceived than any other kind of stress. Many attempts have therefore been made to resolve cases of apparent attraction and repulsion at a distance into cases of pressure. At one time the possibility of attraction at a distance was supposed to be refuted by asserting that a body cannot act where it is not, and that therefore all action between different portions of matter must be by direct contact. To this it was replied that we have no evidence that real contact ever takes place between two bodies, and that, in fact, when bodies are pressed against each other and in apparent contact, we may sometimes actually measure the distance between them, as when one piece of glass is laid on another, in which case a considerable pressure must be applied to bring the surfaces near enough to show the black spot of Newton's rings, which indicates a distance of about a ten thousandth of a millimetre. If, in order tc get rid of the idea of action at a distance, we imagine a material medium through which the action is transmitted, all that we have done is to substitute for a single action at a great distance a series of actions at smaller distances between the parts of the medium, so that we cannot even thus get rid of action at a distance.

The study of the mutual action between the parts of a material system has, in modern times, been greatly simplified by the introduction of the idea of the energy of the system. The energy of the system is measured by the amount of work which it can do in overcoming external resistances. It depends on the present configuration and motion of the system, and not on the manner in which the system has acquired that configuration and motion. A complete knowledge of the manner in which the energy of the system depends on its configuration and motion, is sufficient to determine all the forces acting between the parts of the system. For instance, if the system consists of two bodies, and if the energy depends on the distance between them, then if the energy increases when the distance increases, there must be attraction between the bodies, and if the energy diminishes when the distance increases, there must be repulsion between them. In the case of two gravitating masses m and m' at a distance r, the part of the energy which depends on r is -\frac{mm'}{r}. We may therefore express the fact that there is attraction between the two bodies by saying that the energy of the system consisting of the two bodies increases when their distance increases. The question, therefore, Why do the two bodies attract each other ? may be expressed in a different form. Why does the energy of the system increase when the distance increases ?

But we must bear in mind that the scientific or science- producing value of the efforts made to answer these old standing questions is not to be measured by the prospect they afford us of ultimately obtaining a solution, but by their effect in stimulating men to a thorough investigation of nature. To propose a scientific question presupposes scientific knowledge, and the questions which exercise men's minds in the present state of science may very likely be such that a little more knowledge would show us that no answer is possible. The scientific value of the question, How do bodies act on one another at a distance 1 is to be found in the stimulus it has given to investigations into the properties of the intervening medium.

Newton, in his Principia, deduces from the observed motions of the heavenly bodies the fact that they attract one another according to a definite law. This he gives as a result of strict dynamical reasoning, and by it he shows how not only the more conspicuous phenomena, but all the apparent irregularities of the celestial motions are the calculable results of a single principle. In his Principia he confines himself to the demonstration and development of this great step in the science of the mutual action of bodies. He says nothing there about the means by which bodies gravitate towards each other. But his mind did not rest at this point. We know that he did not believe in the direct action of bodies at a distance.

" It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact, as it must do if gravitation in the sense of Epicurus be essential and inherent in it. ... That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body can act upon another at a distance, through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe no man, who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it." Letter to Bentley.

And we also know that he sought for the mechanism of gravitation in the properties of an aethereal medium diffused over the universe.

" It appears, from his letters to Boyle, that this was his opinion early, and if he did not publish it sooner it proceeded from hence only, that he found he was not able, from experiment and observation, to give a satisfactory account of this medium and the manner of its operation in producing the chief phenomena of nature."[1]

In his Optical Queries, indeed, he shows that if the pressure of this medium is less in the neighbourhood of dense bodies than at great distances from them, dense bodies will be drawn towards each other, and that if the diminution of pressure is inversely as the distance from the dense body the law will be that of gravitation. The next step, as he points out, is to account for this inequality of pressure in the medium ; and as he was not able to do this, he left the explanation of the cause of gravity as a problem to succeeding ages. As regards gravitation the progress made towards the solution of the problem since the time of Newton has been almost imperceptible. Faraday showed that the transmission of electric and magnetic forces is accompanied by phenomena occurring in every part of the intervening medium. He traced the lines of force through the medium ; and he ascribed to them a tendency to shorten themselves and to separate from their neighbours, thus introducing the idea of stress in the medium in a different form from that suggested by Newton ; for, whereas Newton's stress was a hydrostatic pressure in every direction, Faraday's is a tension along the lines of force, combined with a pressure in all normal directions. By showing that the plane of polarisation of a ray of light passing through a transparent medium in the direction of the magnetic force is made to rotate, Faraday not only demonstrated the action of magnetism on light, but by using light to reveal the state of magnetisation of the medium, he " illuminated," to use his own phrase, " the lines of magnetic force."

From this phenomenon Thomson afterwards proved, by strict dynamical reasoning, that the transmission of magnetic force is associated with a rotatory motion of the small parts of the medium. He showed, at the same time, how the centrifugal force due to this motion would account for magnetic attraction.

A theory of this kind is worked out in greater detail in Clerk Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. It is there shown that, if we assume that the medium is in a state of stress, consisting of tension along the lines of force and pressure in all directions at right angles to the lines of force, the tension and the pressure being equal in numerical value and proportional to the square of the intensity of the field at the given point, the observed electrostatic and electromagnetic forces will be completely accounted for.

The next step is to account for this state of stress in the medium. In the case of electromagnetic force we avail ourselves of Thomson's deduction from Faraday's discovery stated above. We assume that the small parts of the medium are rotating about axes parallel to the lines of force. The centrifugal force due to this rotation produces the excess of pressure perpendicular to the lines of force. The explanation of electrostatic stress is less satisfactory, but there can be no doubt that a path is now open by which we may trace to the action of a medium all forces which, like the electric and magnetic forces, vary inversely as the square of the distance, and are attractive between bodies of different names, and repulsive between bodies of the same names.

The force of gravitation is also inversely as the square of the distance, but it differs from the electric and magnetic forces in this respect, that the bodies between which it acts cannot be divided into two opposite kinds, one positive and the other negative, but are in respect of gravitation all of the same kind, and that the force between them is in every case attractive. To account for such a force by means of stress in an intervening medium, on the plan adopted for electric and magnetic forces, we must assume a stress of an opposite kind from that already mentioned. We must suppose that there is a pressure in the direction of the lines of force, combined with a tension in all directions at right angles to the lines of force. Such a state of stress would, no doubt, account for the observed effects of gravitation. We have not, however, been able hitherto to imagine any physical cause for such a state of stress. It is easy to calculate the amount of this stress which would be required to account for the actual effects of gravity at the surface of the earth. It would require a pressure of 37,000 tons weight on the square inch in a vertical direction, combined with a tension of the same numerical value in all horizontal directions. The state of stress, therefore, which we must suppose to exist in the invisible medium, is 3000 times greater than that which the strongest steel could support.

Another theory of the mechanism of gravitation, that of Le Sage, who attributes it to the impact of "ultramundane corpuscules," has been already discussed in the article ATOM, supra, p. 46.

Sir William Thomson[2] has shown that if we suppose all space filled with a uniform incompressible fluid, and if we further suppose either that material bodies are always generating and emitting this fluid at a constant rate, the fluid flowing off to infinity, or that material bodies are always absorbing and annihilating the fluid, the deficiency flowing in from infinite space, then, in either of these cases, there would be an attraction between any two bodies inversely as the square of the distance. If, however, one of the bodies were a generator of the fluid and the other an absorber of it. the bodies would repel each other.

Here, then, we have a hydrodynamical illustration of action at a distance, which is so far promising that it shows how bodies of the same kind may attract each other. But the conception cf a fluid constantly flowing out of a body without any supply from without, or flowing into it without any way of escape, is so contradictory to all our experience, that an hypothesis, of which it is an essential part, cannot be called an explanation of the phenomenon of gravitation.

Dr Robert Hooke, a man of singular inventive power, in 1671 endeavoured to trace the cause of gravitation to waves propagated in a medium. He found that bodies floating on water agitated by waves were drawn towards the centre of agitation.[3] He does not appear, however, to have followed up this observation in such a way as to determine completely the action of waves on an immersed body.

Professor Challis has investigated the mathematical theory of the effect of waves of condensation and rarefaction in an elastic fluid on bodies immersed in the fluid. He found the difficulties of the investigation to be so great that he has not been able to arrive at numerical results. He concludes, however, that the effect of such waves would be to attract the body towards the centre of agitation, or to repel it from that centre, according as the wave's length is very large or very small compared with the dimensions of the body. Practical illustrations of the effect of such waves have been given by Guyot, Schellbach, Guthrie, and Thomson.[4]

A tuning-fork is set in vibration, and brought near a delicately suspended light body. The body is immediately attracted towards the tuning-fork. If the tuning-fork is itself suspended, it is seen to be attracted towards any body placed near it.

Sir W. Thomson has shown that this action can in all cases be explained by the general principle that in fluid motion the average pressure is least where the average energy of motion is greatest. Now, the wave motion is greatest nearest the tuning-fork, the pressure is therefore least there ; and the suspended body being pressed unequally on opposite sides, moves from the side of greater pressure to the side of less pressure, that is towards the tuning-fork. He has also succeeded in producing repulsion in the case of a small body lighter than the surrounding medium.

It is remarkable that of the three hypotheses, which go some way towards a physical explanation of gravitation, every one involves a constant expenditure of work. Le Sage's hypothesis of ultramundane corpuscules does so, as we have shown in the article Atom: That of the generation or absorption of fluid requires, not only constant expenditure of work in emitting fluid under pressure, but actual creation and destruction of matter. That of waves requires some agent in a remote part of the universe capable of generating the waves.

According to such hypotheses we must regard the processes of nature not as illustrations of the great principle of the conservation of energy, but as instances in which, by a nice adjustment of powerful agencies not subject to this principle, an apparent conservation of energy is maintained. Hence, we are forced to conclude that the explanation of the cause of gravitation is not to be found in any of these hypotheses.

For the mathematical theory of attraction and attraction of ellipsoids, see POTENTIAL; for attraction of gravitation, capillary attraction, and attraction of cohesion, see respectively GRAVITATION, CAPILLARY ATTRACTION, and CONSTITUTION OF BODIES.

  1. Maclaurin's account of Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries.
  2. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 7th Feb. 1870.
  3. Posthumous Works, edited by R. Waller, pp. xiv and 13-4.
  4. Philosophical Magazine, June 1871.