Measuring The Earth With A Wire

Henry Cavendish was an odd man. He never addressed strangers directly and was petrified of women. He had a staircase built into the back of his house to avoid any encounter with the ladies he employed. When it came time for his final oral exams to complete his natural philosophy degree at Cambridge University – that’s what they called a science degree before the advent of modern science and specialized degrees – he dropped out of school all together rather than talk in public. But, beneath these eccentricities, Henry Cavendish was among the most brilliant minds of the 18th century. He was an accomplished chemist and physicist and made major contributions to electrical research. But his crowning achievement, and for what he is perhaps best known, was his design of the first experiment to measure the tiny force of gravity between masses in a laboratory.

Gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces in the universe. In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton came up with his universal law of gravitation, which posits that all objects that have mass pull each other by an amount that depends on their mass and distance from one another. This pull is pretty evident when we consider the moon’s tendency to stay in orbit around Earth or Earth’s convenient attraction to the sun. But Newton is also saying that smaller objects, like a chair or a pencil, have a gravitational pull. I have a gravitational pull. You have a gravitational pull. Your computer screen has a gravitational pull. Your significant other has a gravitational pull (maybe that’s why you’re so attracted to him or her).

Cavendish demonstrated this using a torsion balance, a horizontally suspended wooden rod with a small lead sphere at each end. Two large lead spheres were fixed in place, 9 inches from each of the smaller spheres. When the torsion balance was released and allowed to move freely, the lead balls would be attracted by the gravitational force. Via Measuring The Earth With A Wire

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