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Basic Astronomy Concepts


fundamental forces of nature, universal force, general relativity, electromagnetism, force of attraction

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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. 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.


Prise, Richard H., Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Physics, University of Utah.

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fundamental forces of nature, universal force, general relativity, electromagnetism, force of attraction, electrical charges, forms of matter, solar system, moon, sun, planets, orbit, entire universe, weakening, contrast, cancellation, decrease, cars, earth, century, Scientists, strength, result, reasons, people, energy

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