Speed of sound using Phyphox

You can get encouragingly accurate values for the speed of sound in the school laboratory using a tape measure and two smartphones (or tablets) running the Phyphox app.

Phyphox (pronounced FEE-fox) is an award-winning free app that was developed by physicists at Aachen University who wanted to give users direct access to the many sensors (e.g. accelerometers and magnetometers) which are standard features on many smartphones. In effect, it turns even the humblest smartphone or tablet into a multifunctional measuring instrument comparable to one of Star Trek’s famous ‘tricorders’.

Star Trek Tricorder (not Phyphox)

To measure the speed of sound, we need two smartphones or tablets running Phyphox. We will be using the ‘Acoustic Stopwatch’ which measures the time between two acoustic events.

Phyphox main screen

Step 1: Place two devices a measured distance s apart. Typically about 2 or 3 m should be OK otherwise the sound made by A will not be loud enough to control stopwatch B — this can be established through trial and error and depends on many factors including the background noise level.

Step 2: Person A makes a loud sound (a clap or a single syllable shout like ‘Hey!’ is good).

Step 3: Person B and stopwatch B wait for sound created by A to reach them.
Step 4: The sound reaches stopwatch B and starts it running and B hears the sound.

Step 5: B makes a loud sound in response.

Step 6: The loud sound made by B reaches stopwatch B and makes it stop. Let’s call the time displayed tB. This measures the delay between the sound from A reaching stopwatch B and B reacting to the sound and stopping the clock. It includes the time taken for the initial sound travelling from the device to B, B’s reaction time, and the time taken for the sound made by B to travel to stopwatch B. B does not have to be particularly ‘quick off the mark’ to respond to A’s sound — although the shorter the time then the less likely it is then a background noise will interrupt the experiment.

Step 7: The sound made by B travels toward stopwatch A.

Step 8: The sound made by B reaches stopwatch A and makes it stop. Let’s call the time recorded on stopwatch A tA.

If we break down the events included in tA and tB, we find that tA is always larger than tB:

If we subtract tAtB we find that this is the time it takes sound to travel a distance of 2s.

Step 9: We can therefore use this formula to find the v the speed of sound.

We have found that this method works well giving mean values of about 350 m/s for the speed of sound (which will vary with air temperature). This video models the method.

And so we have a reasonably practicable method of measuring the speed of that doesn’t involve complex equipment that is unfamiliar to most students; or a method that involves finding a large and featureless wall that produces a detectable echo when a loud sound is made from a point several metres in front of it.

I don’t know about you, but as a physics teacher, I feel cheated. If it doesn’t involve a double beam oscilloscope, a signal generator, two microphones and two power amplifiers then I simply don’t want to know about it . . .

The Rite of AshkEnte, quite simply, summons and binds Death.  Students of the occult will be aware that it can be performed with a simple incantation, three small bits of wood and 4cc of mouse blood, but no wizard worth his pointy hat would dream of doing anything so unimpressive; they knew in their hearts that if a spell didn’t involve big yellow candles, lots of rare incense, circles drawn on the floor with eight different colours of chalk and a few cauldrons around the place then it simply wasn’t worth contemplating.

Terry Pratchett, ‘Mort’ (1987)

Deriving centripetal acceleration

When I was an A-level physics student (many, many years ago, when the world was young LOL) I found the derivation of the centripetal acceleration formula really hard to understand. What follows is a method that I have developed over the years that seems to work well. The PowerPoint is included at the end.

Step 1: consider an object moving on a circular path

Let’s consider an object moving in circular path of radius r at a constant angular speed of ω (omega) radians per second.

The object is moving anticlockwise on the diagram and we show it at two instants which are time t seconds apart. This means that the object has moved an angular distance of ωt radians.

Step 2: consider the linear velocities of the object at these times

The linear velocity is the speed in metres per second and acts at a tangent to the circle, making a right angle with the radius of the circle. We have called the first velocity v1 and the second velocity at the later time v2.

Since the object is moving at a constant angular speed ω and is a fixed radius r from the centre of the circle, the magnitudes of both velocities will be constant and will be given by v = ωr.

Although the magnitude of the linear velocity has not changed, its direction most certainly has. Since acceleration is defined as the change in velocity divided by time, this means that the object has undergone acceleration since velocity is a vector quantity and a change in direction counts as a change, even without a change in magnitude.

Step 3a: Draw a vector diagram of the velocities

We have simply extracted v1 and v2 from the original diagram and placed them nose-to-tail. We have kept their magnitude and direction unchanged during this process.

Step 3b: close the vector diagram to find the resultant

The dark blue arrow is the result of adding v1 and v2. It is not a useful operation in this case because we are interested in the change in velocity not the sum of the velocities, so we will stop there and go back to the drawing board.

Step 3c switch the direction of velocity v1

Since we are interested in the change in velocity, let’s flip the direction of v1 so that it going in the opposite direction. Since it is opposite to v1, we can now call this -v1.

It is preferable to flip v1 rather than v2 since for a change in velocity we typically subtract the initial velocity from the final velocity; that is to say, change in velocity = v2 – v1.

Step 3d: Put the vectors v2 and (-v1) nose-to-tail

Step 3e: close the vector diagram to find the result of adding v2 and (-v1)

The purple arrow shows the result of adding v2 + (-v1); in other words, the purple arrow shows the change in velocity between v1 and v2 due to the change in direction (notwithstanding the fact that the magnitude of both velocities is unchanged).

It is also worth mentioning that that the direction of the purple (v2v1) arrow is in the opposite direction to the radius of the circle: in other words, the change in velocity is directed towards the centre of the circle.

Step 4: Find the angle between v2 and (-v1)

The angle between v2 and (-v1) will be ωt radians.

Step 5: Use the small angle approximation to represent v2-v1 as the arc of a circle

If we assume that ωt is a small angle, then the line representing v2-v1 can be replaced by the arc c of a circle of radius v (where v is the magnitude of the vectors v1 and v2 and v=ωr).

We can then use the familiar relationship that the angle θ (in radians) subtended at the centre of a circle θ = arc length / radius. This lets express the arc length c in terms of ω, t and r.

And finally, we can use the acceleration = change in velocity / time relationship to derive the formula for centripetal acceleration we a = ω2r.

Well, that’s how I would do it. If you would like to use this method or adapt it for your students, then the PowerPoint is attached.

Please Like or leave a comment if you find this useful 🙂

We all adore Caloric

We all adore a Kia-Ora

Advertising slogan for ‘Kia-Ora’ orange drink (c. 1985)

Energy is harder to define than you would think. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman defined ‘energy’ as

a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same. […] It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is. […] It is an abstract thing in that it does not tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.

Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol 1, Lecture 4 Conservation of Energy (1963)

Current secondary school science teaching approaches to energy often picture energy as a ‘quasi-material substance’.

By ‘quasi-material substance’ we mean that ‘energy is like a material substance in how it behaves’ (Fairhurst 2021) and that some of its behaviours can be modelled as, say, an orange liquid (see IoP 2016).

The eight energy stores as suggested by the IoP

And yet, sometimes these well-meaning (and, in my opinion, effective) approaches can draw some dismissive comments from some physicists.

The Simpsons Comic Book Guy character saying "Picturing energy as a quasi-material substance? That teaching approach smacks of the oh-so-discredited 'Caloric' theory of energy to me . . ."
The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy weighs in the ‘Teaching Energy’ debate

What was the ‘Caloric Theory of Energy’?

To begin with, there was never a ‘Caloric Theory of Energy’ since the concept of energy had not been developed yet; but the Caloric Theory of Heat was an important step along the way.

Caloric was an invisible, weightless and self-repelling fluid that moved from hot objects to cold objects. Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) supposed that the total amount of caloric in the universe was constant: in other words, caloric was thought to be a conserved quantity.

Caloric was thought to be a form of ‘subtle matter’ that obeyed physical laws and yet was so attenuated that it was difficult to detect. This seems bizarre to our modern sensibilities and yet Caloric Theory did score some notable successes.

  • Caloric explained how the volume of air changed with temperature. Cold air would absorb caloric and thus expand.
  • The Carnot cycle which describes the maximum efficiency of a heat engine (i.e. a mechanical engine powered by heat) was developed by Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) on the basis of the Caloric Theory

Why Caloric Theory was replaced

It began with Count Rumford in 1798. He published some observations on the manufacturing process of cannons. Cannon barrels had to be drilled or bored out of solid cylinders of metal and this process generated huge quantities of heat. Rumford noted that cannons that had been previously bored produced as much heat as cannons that were being freshly bored for the first time. Caloric Theory suggested that this should not be the case as the older cannons would have lost a great deal of caloric from being previously drilled.

The fact that friction could seemingly generate limitless quantities of caloric strongly suggested that it was not a conserved quantity.

We now understand from the work James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) and Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) that Caloric Theory had only a part of the big picture: it is energy that is the conserved quantity, not caloric or heat.

As Feynman puts it:

At the time when Carnot lived, the first law of thermodynamics, the conservation of energy, was not known. Carnot’s arguments [using the Caloric Theory] were so carefully drawn, however, that they are valid even though the first law was not known in his time!

Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol 1, Lecture 44 The Laws of Thermodynamics

In other words, the Caloric Theory is not automatically wrong in all respects — provided, that is, it is combined with the principle of conservation of energy, so that energy in general is conserved, and not just the energy associated with heat.

We now know, of course, that heat is not a form of attenuated ‘subtle matter’ but rather the detectable, cumulative result of the motion of quadrillions of microscopic particles. However, this is a complex picture for novice learners to absorb.

Caloric Theory as a bridging analogy

David Hammer (2000) argues persuasively that certain common student cognitive resources can serve as anchoring conceptions because they align well with physicists’ understanding of a particular topic. An anchoring conception helps to activate useful cognitive resources and a bridging analogy serves as a conduit to help students apply these resources in what is, initially, an unfamiliar situation.

The anchoring conception in this case is students’ understanding of the behaviour of liquids. The useful cognitive resources that are activated when this is brought into play include:

  • the idea of spontaneous flow e.g. water flows downhill;
  • the idea of measurement e.g. we can measure the volume of liquid in a container; and
  • the idea of conservation of volume e.g. if we pour water from a jug into an empty cup then the total volume remains constant.

The bridging analogy which serves as a channel for students to apply these cognitive resources in the context of understanding energy transfers is the idea of ‘energy as a quasi-material substance’ (which can be considered as an iteration of the ‘adapted’ Caloric Theory which includes the conservation of energy).

The bridging analogy helps students understand that:

  • energy can flow spontaneously e.g. from hot to cold;
  • energy can be measured and quantified e.g. we can measure how much energy has been transferred into a thermal energy store; and
  • energy does not appear or disappear: the total amount of energy in a closed system is constant.

Of course, a bridging analogy is not the last word but only the first step along the journey to a more complete understanding of the physics involved in energy transfers. However, I believe the ‘energy as a quasi-material substance’ analogy is very helpful in giving students a ‘sense of mechanism’ in their first encounters with this topic.

Teachers are, of course, free not to use this or other bridging analogies, but I hope that this post has persuaded even my more reluctant colleagues that they need a more substantive argument than a knee jerk ‘energy-as-substance = Caloric Theory = BAD’.


Fairhurst P. (2021), Best Evidence in Science Teaching: Teaching Energy. https://www.stem.org.uk/sites/default/files/pages/downloads/BEST_Article_Teaching%20energy.pdfhttps://www.stem.org.uk/sites/default/files/pages/downloads/BEST_Article_Teaching%20energy.pdf [Accessed April 2022]

Hammer, D. (2000). Student resources for learning introductory physicsAmerican Journal of Physics68(S1), S52-S59.

Institute of Physics (2016), Physics Narrative: Shifting Energy Between Stores. Available from https://spark.iop.org/collections/shifting-energy-between-stores-physics-narrative [Accessed April 2022]

‘Killer-joules’ and other abominations

As noted earlier, some students struggle with unit conversions. To take a simple example: if we need to convert 3.7 kilojoules (or ‘killer-joules’ as some insist on calling them *shudders*) into joules, then whilst many students know that the conversion involves applying a factor of one thousand, they do not know whether to multiply 3.7 by a thousand or divide 3.7 by a thousand.

Michael Porter shared a brilliant suggestion for helping students over this hurdle. He suggests that we break down the operation into two parts:

  • Consider if we are making the unit larger or smaller.
  • If making the unit larger, we must make the number smaller to compensate; and vice versa.

Let’s look at using the Porter system for the example shown above.

(Note: I have used kilojoules for our first example since, at least for GCSE Science calculation contexts, students are unlikely to have to convert kilograms into grams. This is because, of course, the kilogram (not the gram) is the base unit of mass in the SI System.)

By changing from kilojoules to joules we are making the unit smaller, since one kilojoule is larger than one joule.

To keep the measured quantity of energy the same magnitude, we must therefore make the number part of the measurement bigger to compensate for the reduction in size of the unit.

This leads us to the final answer.

Now let’s look if we had to convert 830 microamps into amps:

The strange case of time

Obviously 1 minute is a very small quantity of time compared with a whole week. Indeed, our forefathers considered it small as compared with an hour, and called it “one minùte,” meaning a minute fraction — namely one sixtieth — of an hour. When they came to require still smaller subdivisions of time, they divided each minute into 60 still smaller parts, which, in Queen Elizabeth’s days, they called “second minùtes” (i.e., small quantities of the second order of minuteness).

Silvanus P. Thompson, “Calculus Made Easy” (1914)

It is probable that the division of units of time into sixtieths dates back many thousands of years to the ancient Babylonians(!) Is it any wonder that some students find it hard to convert units of time?

We can use the Porter system to help students with these conversions. For example, what is 7 hours in seconds?

This type of diagram is, I think, very useful for showing students explicitly what we are doing.

Units, you nit!

The S.I. System of Units is a thing of beauty: a lean, sinewy and utilitarian beauty that is the work of many committees, true; but in spite of that common saw about ‘a camel being a horse designed by a committee’, the S.I. System is truly a thing of rigorous beauty nonetheless.

Even the pedestrian Wikipedia entry on the 2019 Redefinition of the S.I. System reads like a lost episode from Homer’s Odyssey. As Odysseus tied himself to the mast of his ship to avoid the irresistible lure of the Sirens, so in 2019 the S.I, System tied itself to the values of a select number of universal physical constants to remove the last vestiges of merely human artifacts such as the now obsolete International Prototype Kilogram.

Meet the new (2019) SI, NOT the same as the old SI

However, the austere beauty of the S.I. System is not always recognised by our students at GCSE or A-level. ‘Units, you nit!!!’ is a comment that physics teachers have scrawled on student work from time immemorial with varying degrees of disbelief, rage or despair at errors of omission (e.g. not including the unit with a final answer); errors of imprecision (e.g. writing ‘j’ instead of ‘J’ for ‘joule — unforgivable!); or errors of commission (e.g. changing kilograms into grams when the kilogram is the base unit, not the gram — barbarous!).

The saddest occasion for writing ‘Units, you nit!’ at least in my opinion, is when a student has incorrectly converted a prefix: for example, changing millijoules into joules by multiplying by one thousand rather than dividing by one thousand so that a student writes that 5.6 mJ = 5600 J.

This odd little issue can affect students from across the attainment range, so I have developed a procedure to deal with it which is loosely based on the Singapore Bar Model.

A procedure for illustrating S.I. unit conversions

One millijoule is a teeny tiny amount of energy, so when we convert it joules it is only a small portion of one whole joule. So to convert mJ to J we divide by 1000.

One joule is a much larger quantity of energy than one millijoule, so when we convert joules to millijoules we multiply by one thousand because we need one thousand millijoules for each single joule.

In time, and if needed, you can move to a simplified version to remind students.

A simplified procedure for converting units

Strangely, one of the unit conversions that some students find most difficult in the context of calculations is time: for example, hours into seconds. A diagram similar to the one below can help students over this ‘hump’.

Helping students with time conversions

These diagrams may seem trivial, but we must beware of ‘the Curse of Knowledge’: just because we find these conversions easy (and, to be fair, so do many students) that does not mean that all students find them so.

The conversions that students may be asked to do from memory are listed below (in the context of amperes).

A table showing all the SI prefixes that GCSE students need to know

Dual Coding and Equations of Motion for GCSE

Necessity may well be the mother of invention, but teacher desperation is often the mother of new pedagogy.

For an unconscionably long time, I think that I failed to adequately help students understand the so called ‘equations of motion’ (the mathematical descriptions of uniformly accelerated motion using the standard v, u, a, s and t notation) because I suffered from the ‘curse of knowledge’: I did not find the topic hard, so I naturally assumed that students wouldn’t either. This, sadly, proved not to be the case, even when the equation was printed on the equation sheet!

What follows is a summary of a dual coding technique that I have found really helpful in helping students become confident with problems involving the ‘equations of motion’. This is especially true at GCSE, where students encounter formulas such as

Equation of motion (v^2 - u^2 = 2as)

for the first time.

A dual coding convention for representing motion

Table to show dual coding convention

Applying dual coding to an equation of motion problem

EXAMPLE: A car is travelling at 6.0 m/s. As the car passes a lamp-post it accelerates up to a velocity of 14.2 m/s over a distance of 250 m. Calculate a) the acceleration; and b) the time taken for this change.

The problem can be represented using the dual coding convention as shown below.

Diagram showing car accelerating past a lamp-post using the dual coding convention outlined in the blog

Note that the arrow for v is longer than the arrow for u since the car has a positive acceleration; that is to say, the car in this example is speeding up. Also, the convention has a different style of arrow for acceleration, emphasising that it is an entirely different type of quantity from velocity.

We can now answer part (a) using the FIFA calculation system.

Working showing solution for part (a)

Part (b) can be answered as shown below.

Working for part b of the problem

Visualising Stopping Distance Questions

These can be challenging for many students, as we often seem to grabbing numbers and manipulating them without rhyme or reason. Dual coding helps make our thinking explicit,

EXAMPLE: A driver has a reaction time of 0.7 seconds. The maximum deceleration of the car is 2.6 metres per second squared. Calculate the overall stopping distance when the car is travelling at 13 m/s.

We need to calculate both the thinking distance and the braking distance to solve this problem

The acceleration of the car is zero during the driver’s reaction time, since the brakes have not been applied yet.

We visualise the first part of the problem like this.

Using s=vt we find that the thinking distance is 9.1 m.

Now let’s look at the second part of the question.

There are three things to note:

  • Since the car comes to a complete stop, the final velocity v is zero.
  • The acceleration is negative (shown as a backward pointing arrow) since we are talking about a deceleration: in other words, the velocity gradually decreases in size from the initial velocity value of u as the car traverses the distance s.
  • Since the second part of the question does not involve any consideration of time we have omitted the ‘clock’ symbols for the second part of the journey.

We can now apply FIFA:

Working for braking distance part of problem

Since the acceleration arrow points in the opposite direction to the positive arrow, we enter it as a negative value. When we get to the third line of the Fine Tune stage, we see that a negative 169 divided by negative 4.4 gives positive 38.408 — in other words, the dual coding convention does the hard work of assigning positive and negative values!

And finally, we can see that the overall stopping distance is 9.1 + 38.4 = 47.5 metres,


I have found this form of dual coding extremely useful in helping students understand the easily-missed subtleties of motion problems, and hope other science teachers will give it a try.

If you have enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these also:

Signposting Fleming’s Left Hand and Right Hand Rules

Students undoubtedly find electromagnetism tricky, especially at GCSE.

I have found it helpful to start with the F = BIl formula.

Introducing the “magnetic Bill” formula

This means that we can use the streamlined F-B-I mnemonic — developed by no less a personage than Robert J. Van De Graaff (1901-1967) of Van De Graaff generator fame — instead of the cumbersome “First finger = Field, seCond finger = Current, thuMb = Motion” convention.

Students find the beginning steps of applying Fleming’s Left Hand Rule (FLHR) quite hard to apply, so I print out little 3D “signposts” to help them. You can download file by clicking the link below.

You can see how they are used in the photo below.

Photograph to show how to use the FLHR signpost

Important tip: it can be really helpful if students label the arrows on both sides, such as in the example shown below. (The required precision in double sided printing defeated me!)

Another example of the FLHR signpost in use

Signposts for Fleming’s Right Hand Rule are included on the template.

Other posts I have written on magnetism include:

Feel free to dip into these 🙂

Visualising How Transformers Work

‘Transformers’ is one of the trickier topics to teach for GCSE Physics and GCSE Combined Science.

I am not going to dive into the scientific principles underlying electromagnetic induction here (although you could read this post if you wanted to), but just give a brief overview suitable for a GCSE-level understanding of:

  • The basic principle of a transformer; and
  • How step down and step up transformers work.

One of the PowerPoints I have used for teaching transformers is here. This is best viewed in presenter mode to access the animations.

The basic principle of a transformer

A GIF showing the basic principle of a transformer.
(BTW This can be copied and pasted into a presentation if you wish,)

The primary and secondary coils of a transformer are electrically isolated from each other. There is no charge flow between them.

The coils are also electrically isolated from the core that links them. The material of the core — iron — is chosen not for its electrical properties but rather for its magnetic properties. Iron is roughly 100 times more permeable (or transparent) to magnetic fields than air.

The coils of a transformer are linked, but they are linked magnetically rather than electrically. This is most noticeable when alternating current is supplied to the primary coil (green on the diagram above).

The current flowing in the primary coil sets up a magnetic field as shown by the purple lines on the diagram. Since the current is an alternating current it periodically changes size and direction 50 times per second (in the UK at least; other countries may use different frequencies). This means that the magnetic field also changes size and direction at a frequency of 50 hertz.

The magnetic field lines from the primary coil periodically intersect the secondary coil (red on the diagram). This changes the magnetic flux through the secondary coil and produces an alternating potential difference across its ends. This effect is called electromagnetic induction and was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831.

Energy is transmitted — magnetically, not electrically — from the primary coil to the secondary coil.

As a matter of fact, a transformer core is carefully engineered so to limit the flow of electrical current. The changing magnetic field can induce circular patterns of current flow (called eddy currents) within the material of the core. These are usually bad news as they heat up the core and make the transformer less efficient. (Eddy currents are good news, however, when they are created in the base of a saucepan on an induction hob.)

Stepping Down

One of the great things about transformers is that they can transform any alternating potential difference. For example, a step down transformer will reduce the potential difference.

A GIF showing the basic principle of a step down transformer.
(BTW This can be copied and pasted into a presentation if you wish,)

The secondary coil (red) has half the number of turns of the primary coil (green). This halves the amount of electromagnetic induction happening which produces a reduced output voltage: you put in 10 V but get out 5 V.

And why would you want to do this? One reason might be to step down the potential difference to a safer level. The output potential difference can be adjusted by altering the ratio of secondary turns to primary turns.

One other reason might be to boost the current output: for a perfectly efficient transformer (a reasonable assumption as their efficiencies are typically 90% or better) the output power will equal the input power. We can calculate this using the familiar P=VI formula (you can call this the ‘pervy equation’ if you wish to make it more memorable for your students).

Thus: Vp Ip = Vs Is so if Vs is reduced then Is must be increased. This is a consequence of the Principle of Conservation of Energy.

Stepping up

A GIF showing the basic principle of a step up transformer.
(BTW This can be copied and pasted into a presentation if you wish,)

There are more turns on the secondary coil (red) than the primary (green) for a step up transformer. This means that there is an increased amount of electromagnetic induction at the secondary leading to an increased output potential difference.

Remember that the universe rarely gives us something for nothing as a result of that damned inconvenient Principle of Conservation of Energy. Since Vp Ip = Vs Is so if the output Vs is increased then Is must be reduced.

If the potential difference is stepped up then the current is stepped down, and vice versa.

Last nail in the coffin of the formula triangle…

Although many have tried, you cannot construct a formula triangle to help students with transformer calculations.

Now is your chance to introduce students to a far more sensible and versatile procedure like FIFA (more details on the PowerPoint linked to above)

A Gnome-inal Value for ‘g’

The Gnome Experiment Kit from precision scale manufacturers Kern and Sohn.

. . . setting storms and billows at defiance, and visiting the remotest parts of the terraqueous globe.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 17 April 1750

That an object in free fall will accelerate towards the centre of our terraqueous globe at a rate of 9.81 metres per second per second is, at best, only a partial and parochial truth. It is 9.81 metres per second per second in the United Kingdom, yes; but the value of both acceleration due to free fall and the gravitational field strength vary from place to place across the globe (and in the SI System of measurement, the two quantities are numerically equal and dimensionally equivalent).

For example, according to Hirt et al. (2013) the lowest value for g on the Earth’s surface is atop Mount Huascarán in Peru where g = 9.7639 m s-2 and the highest is at the surface of the Arctic Ocean where g = 9.8337 m s-2.

Why does g vary?

There are three factors which can affect the local value of g.

Firstly, the distribution of mass within the volume of the Earth. The Earth is not of uniform density and volumes of rock within the crust of especially high or low density could affect g at the surface. The density of the rocks comprising the Earth’s crust varies between 2.6 – 2.9 g/cm3 (according to Jones 2007). This is a variation of 10% but the crust only comprises about 1.6% of the Earth’s mass since the density of material in the mantle and core is far higher so the variation in g due this factor is probably of the order of 0.2%.

Secondly, the Earth is not a perfect sphere but rather an oblate spheroid that bulges at the equator so that the equatorial radius is 6378 km but the polar radius is 6357 km. This is a variation of 0.33% but since the gravitational force is proportional to 1/r2 let’s assume that this accounts for a possible variation of the order of 0.7% in the value of g.

Thirdly, the acceleration due to the rotation of the Earth. We will look in detail at the theory underlying this in a moment, but from our rough and ready calculations above, it would seem that this is the major factor accounting for any variation in g: that is to say, g is a minimum at the equator and a maximum at the poles because of the Earth’s rotation.

The Gnome Experiment

In 2012, precision scale manufacturers Kern and Sohn used this well-known variation in the value of g to embark on a highly successful advertising campaign they called the ‘Gnome Experiment’ (see link 1 and link 2).

Whatever units their lying LCD displays show, electronic scales don’t measure mass or even weight: they actually measure the reaction force the scales exert on the item in their top pan. The reading will be affected if the scales are accelerating.

In diagram A, the apple is not accelerating so the resultant upward force on the apple is exactly 0.981 N. The scales show a reading of 0.981/9.81 = 0.100 000 kg = 100.000 g (assuming, of course, that they are calibrated for use in the UK).

In diagram B, the apple and scales are in an elevator that is accelerating upward at 1.00 metres per second per second. The resultant upward force must therefore be larger than the downward weight as shown in the free body diagram. The scales show a reading of 1.081/9.81 – 0.110 194 kg = 110.194 g.

In diagram C, the the apple and scales are in an elevator that is accelerating downwards at 1.00 metres per second per second. The resultant upward force must therefore be smaller than the downward weight as shown in the free body diagram. The scales show a reading of 0.881/9.81 – 0.089 806 kg = 89.806 g.

Never mind the weight, feel the acceleration

Now let’s look at the situation the Kern gnome mentioned above. The gnome was measured to have a ‘mass’ (or ‘reaction force’ calibrated in grams, really) of 309.82 g at the South Pole.

Showing this situation on a diagram:

Looking at the free body diagram for Kern the Gnome at the equator, we see that his reaction force must be less than his weight in order to produce the required centripetal acceleration towards the centre of the Earth. Assuming the scales are calibrated for the UK this would predict a reading on the scales of 3.029/9.81= 0.30875 kg = 308.75 g.

The actual value recorded at the equator during the Gnome Experiment was 307.86 g, a discrepancy of 0.3% which would suggest a contribution from one or both of the first two factors affecting g as discussed at the beginning of this post.

Although the work of Hirt et al. (2013) may seem the definitive scientific word on the gravitational environment close to the Earth’s surface, there is great value in taking measurements that are perhaps more directly understandable to check our comprehension: and that I think explains the emotional resonance that many felt in response to the Kern Gnome Experiment. There is a role for the ‘artificer’ as well as the ‘philosopher’ in the scientific enterprise on which humanity has embarked, but perhaps Samuel Johnson put it more eloquently:

The philosopher may very justly be delighted with the extent of his views, the artificer with the readiness of his hands; but let the one remember, that, without mechanical performances, refined speculation is an empty dream, and the other, that, without theoretical reasoning, dexterity is little more than a brute instinct.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 17 April 1750


Hirt, C., Claessens, S., Fecher, T., Kuhn, M., Pail, R., & Rexer, M. (2013). New ultrahigh‐resolution picture of Earth’s gravity fieldGeophysical research letters40(16), 4279-4283.

Jones, F. (2007). Geophysics Foundations: Physical Properties: Density. University of British Columbia website, accessed on 2/5/21.


Nature Abhors A Change In Flux

Aristotle memorably said that Nature abhors a vacuum: in other words. he thought that a region of space entirely devoid of matter, including air, was logically impossible.

Aristotle turned out to be wrong in that regard, as he was in numerous others (but not quite as many as we – secure and perhaps a little complacent and arrogant as we look down our noses at him from our modern scientific perspective – often like to pretend).

An amusing version which is perhaps more consistent with our current scientific understanding was penned by D. J. Griffiths (2013) when he wrote: Nature abhors a change in flux.

Magnetic flux (represented by the Greek letter phi, Φ) is a useful quantity that takes account of both the strength of the magnetic field and its extent. It is the total ‘magnetic flow’ passing through a given area. You can also think of it as the number of magnetic field lines multiplied by the area they pass through so a strong magnetic field confined to a small area might have the same flux (or ‘effect’) as weaker field spread out over a large area.

Lenz’s Law

Emil Lenz formulated an earlier statement of the Nature abhors a change of flux principle when he stated what I think is the most consistently underrated laws of electromagnetism, at least in terms of developing students’ understanding:

The current induced in a circuit due to a change in a magnetic field is directed to oppose the change in flux and to exert a mechanical force which opposes the motion.

Lenz’s Law (1834)

This is a qualitative rather than a quantitive law since it is about the direction, not the magnitude, of an induced current. Let’s look at its application in the familiar A-level Physics context of dropping a bar magnet through a coil of wire.

Dropping a magnet through a coil in pictures

Picture 1

In picture 1 above, the magnet is approaching the coil with a small velocity v. The magnet is too far away from the coil to produce any magnetic flux in the centre of the coil. (For more on the handy convention I have used to draw the coils and show the current flow, please click on this link.) Since there is no magnetic flux, or more to the point, no change in magnetic flux, then by Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction there is no induced current in the coil.

Picture 2

in picture 2, the magnet has accelerated to a higher velocity v due to the effect of gravitational force. The magnet is now close enough so that it produces a magnetic flux inside the coil. More to the point, there is an increase in the magnetic flux as the magnet gets closer to the coil: by Faraday’s Law, this produces an induced current in the coil (shown using the dot and cross convention).

To ascertain the direction of the current flow in the coil we can use Lenz’s Law which states that the current will flow in such a way so as to oppose the change in flux producing it. The red circles show the magnetic field lines produced by the induced current. These are in the opposite direction to the purple field lines produced by the bar magnet (highlighted yellow on diagram 2): in effect, they are attempting to cancel out the magnetic flux which produce them!

The direction of current flow in the coil will produce a temporary north magnetic pole at the top of the coil which, of course, will attempt to repel the falling magnet; this is ‘mechanical force which opposes the motion’ mentioned in Lenz’s Law. The upward magnetic force on the falling magnet will make it accelerate downward at a rate less than g as it approaches the coil.

Picture 3

In picture 3, the purple magnetic field lines within the volume of the coil are approximately parallel so that there will be no change of flux while the magnet is in this approximate position. In other words, the number of field lines passing through the cross-sectional area of the coil will be approximately constant. Using Faraday’s Law, there will be no flow of induced current. Since there is no change in flux to oppose, Lenz’s Law does not apply. The magnet will be accelerating downwards at g.

Picture 4

As the magnet emerges from the bottom of the coil, the magnetic flux through the coil decreases. This results in a flow of induced current as per Faraday’s Law. The direction of induced current flow will be as shown so that the red field lines are in the same direction as the purple field lines; Lenz’s Law is now working to oppose the reduction of magnetic flux through the coil!

A temporary north magnetic pole is generated by the induced current at the lower end of the coil. This will produce an upward magnetic force on the falling magnet so that it accelerates downward at a rate less than g. This, again, is the ‘mechanical force which opposes the motion’ mentioned in Lenz’s Law.

Dropping a magnet through a coil in graphical form

This would be one of my desert island graphs since it is such a powerfully concise summary of some beautiful physics.

The graph shows the reversal in the direction of the current as discussed above. Also, the maximum induced emf in region 2 (blue line) is less than that in region 4 (red line) since the magnet is moving more slowly.

What is more, from Faraday’s Law (where ℇ is the induced emf and N is total number of turns of the coil), the blue area is equal to the red area since:

and N and ∆Φ are fixed values for a given coil and bar magnet.

As I said previously, there is so much fascinating physics in this graph that I think it worth exploring in depth with your A level Physics students 🙂

Other news

If you have enjoyed this post, then you may be interested to know that I’ve written a book! Cracking Key Concepts in Secondary Science (co-authored with Adam Boxer and Heena Dave) is due to be published by Corwin in July 2021.


Lenz, E. (1834), “Ueber die Bestimmung der Richtung der durch elektodynamische Vertheilung erregten galvanischen Ströme”, Annalen der Physik und Chemie107 (31), pp. 483–494

Griffiths, David (2013). Introduction to Electrodynamics. p. 315.