Gravitational potential: the ‘bottom of a hole’ perspective

The surface of Mars imaged by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2013

April 20, 2112: The sky is flat, the land is flat, and they meet in a circle at infinity. No star shows but the big one, a little bigger than it shows through most of the [asteroid] Belt, but dimmed to red, like the sky. It’s the bottom of a hole, and I must have been crazy to risk it. […] The stars are gone, and the land around me makes no sense. Now I know why they call planet dwellers ‘flatlanders’. I feel like a gnat on a table. I’m sitting here shaking, afraid to step outside. […] I’M AT THE BOTTOM OF A LOUSY HOLE!

Larry Niven, ‘At The Bottom of a Hole’ (1966)

Redish and Kuo (2015: 586) suggest that tapping into our students’ innate physical intuitions can be a very productive teaching strategy. For example, Redish observed some physics instructors teaching non-physics majors how to interpret a potential energy U against the separation r between particles graph (diagram 8(a) below).

From Redish and Kuo (2015)

The students were finding it difficult to answer the question of whether the particles would attract or repel each other when they had energy E and were at a separation of C. Redish noted that the instructors advised the students to consider the derivative of the curve at C (diagram 8(b) above) and, since it had a positive gradient, to surmise that the force between the particles would therefore be attractive since F=-dU/dr. Redish suggested:

A more effective approach for this population might be to begin with an embodied analogy and implicitly supporting epistemologies valuing physical intuition. Start with treating a potential energy curve as a track or hill and, using the analogy of gravitational potential energy, then place a ball on the hill as shown in Fig. 8c.

Redish and Kuo (2015)

Which way would the ball roll in 8(c) roll? Redish said that the students had no problem deducing that the particles would exert an attractive force on each other at C (and a repulsive force when their energy is E at the smaller value of r) after using this analogy.

Using students’ physical intuitions to help understand gravitational potential

The episode outlined above reminded me of a science fiction story by Larry Niven that I had read many years ago. In ‘At the Bottom of a Hole’, Niven imagined what landing on a planet would feel like to a ‘Belter’; that is to say, to a human being who had spent their entire life navigating between the small worlds of the asteroid Belt: small planetoid-sized worlds whose shallow gravitational fields required only a low-intensity burn for a spaceship to slip free of their influence forever. An extract from the story is quoted as an introduction to this post: in essence, the ‘Belter’ who has lived his life voyaging between the low mass and low gravity worldlets of the asteroid belt finds it emotionally and psychologically disturbing to find himself at the bottom of a deep gravitational hole.

Gravitational Fields are always ‘holes’

Gravitational fields are always holes (unlike electric fields, of course, which can be either ‘holes’ or ‘mountains’; this may well form the basis of a later post).

The mass of the Earth produces a much deeper gravitational hole than the much smaller mass of an asteroid.

As a consequence, a spaceship near the Earth’s surface (A) needs to burn a lot more fuel (i.e. do a lot more work) to completely escape the gravitational influence of the Earth (B) then a spaceship near to the surface of an asteroid. The spaceship closer to the asteroid (C) needs a much smaller burn to completely escape its gravitational influence (D).

To a mature space-faring civilisation, living on the surface of a planet could well be likened (and seem as eccentric) as living at the bottom of a spectacularly deep hole.

Gravitational potential

The gravitational potential of an object of mass M is given by:

where G is the Gravitational Constant and r is the displacement from the centre of mass of the object. The units of V would be joules per kilogram J/kg.

Note that the magnitude of V gets larger as r decreases. This allows us to represent a gravitational field in terms of equipotential lines (dotted on the diagram below) as well as field lines (solid).

Modelling gravitational potential as a three dimensional hole

We can engage our own and our students’ physical intuitions by picturing the equipotential lines as being contour lines indicating the depth of a three dimensional hole.

An object represented as a ball at position A will not tend to roll down into the hole since there is no discernible downhill ‘slope’ at A; in effect, as r tends towards infinity then the object is beyond the effects of M’s gravity. A position outside the gravitational field of a massive object has a gravitational potential of zero.

Let’s think about what happens as r decreases until the object is at B. Here we can intuitively surmise that it will experience a small force tending to make it fall deeper into the hole. How much work will the gravitational field have done moving an object from infinity to this position? The answer is, of course, 0.5 MJ for each kilogram of mass.

How much work will be done by the gravitational field moving the object from B to C? The answer is again an extra 0.5 MJ/kg but note that this happens over a much smaller change in r than before because the gravitational field is becoming more intense. Again, we can intuit that the object will experience a stronger gravitational force at C than at B.

We can go on to argue that a similar pattern of behaviour will also occur at D and E.

But the real value of this representation is, in my opinion, helping students understand how much energy a body needs to escape the influence of a gravitational field.

If we start at B, we would have to do 0.5 MJ/kg of work on it to make it escape. In other words, it needs 0.5 MJ/kg to climb out of the hole.

If we started at C, then we would need 1.0 MJ/kg; and D, 1.5 MJ/kg and so on.

If we were considering a spacecraft operating in the vacuum of space, then transferring 2.0 MJ/kg of kinetic energy would allow ot to completely escape the gravitational influence of M; or, in other words, to reach a value of r such that its gravitational potential is zero.

Near the Earth’s surface where r = 6.38 x 106 m, the gravitational potential can be calculated as follows:

That is to say, a body would need to gain 64.4 MJ of kinetic energy for each kilogram of its mass to completely escape from the influence of the Earth’s gravity.

We can therefore calculate the escape velocity for a body near the Earth surface as follows:

As I mentioned above, I think the real power of this way of tapping into physical intuition for understanding fields comes when we use it to represent electric fields. I will cover that in a later post.


Redish, E. F., & Kuo, E. (2015). Language of physics, language of math: Disciplinary culture and dynamic epistemologyScience & Education24, 561-590.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s