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Weight and mass

A force diagram showing the forces acting on an object at rest on a surface. Notice that the amount of force that the table is pushing upward on the object (the N vector) is equal to the downward force of the object's weight (shown here as mg, as weight is equal to the object's mass multiplied with the acceleration due to gravity): because these forces are equal, the object is in a state of equilibrium (all the forces acting on it balance to zero).

{{#invoke:main|main}} In modern scientific usage, weight and mass are fundamentally different quantities: mass is an "extrinsic" (extensive) property of matter, whereas weight is a force that results from the action of gravity on matter: it measures how strongly the force of gravity pulls on that matter. However, in most practical everyday situations the word "weight" is used when, strictly, "mass" is meant.<ref name="Canada"/><ref name="NIST811wt">{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> For example, most people would say that an object "weighs one kilogram", even though the kilogram is a unit of mass.

The distinction between mass and weight is unimportant for many practical purposes because the strength of gravity does not vary too much on the surface of the Earth. In a uniform gravitational field, the gravitational force exerted on an object (its weight) is directly proportional to its mass. For example, object A weighs 10 times as much as object B, so therefore the mass of object A is 10 times greater than that of object B. This means that an object's mass can be measured indirectly by its weight, and so, for everyday purposes, weighing (using a weighing scale) is an entirely acceptable way of measuring mass. Similarly, a balance measures mass indirectly by comparing the weight of the measured item to that of an object(s) of known mass. Since the measured item and the comparison mass are in virtually the same location, so experiencing the same gravitational field, the effect of varying gravity does not affect the comparison or the resulting measurement.

The Earth's gravitational field is not uniform but can vary by as much as 0.5%<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=book }}</ref> at different locations on Earth (see Earth's gravity). These variations alter the relationship between weight and mass, and must be taken into account in high precision weight measurements that are intended to indirectly measure mass. Spring scales, which measure local weight, must be calibrated at the location at which the objects will be used to show this standard weight, to be legal for commerce.{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||date=__DATE__ |$B= {{#invoke:Category handler|main}}{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}[citation needed] }}

This table shows the variation of acceleration due to gravity (and hence the variation of weight) at various locations on the Earth's surface.<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=book }}</ref>

Location Latitude m/s2
Equator 9.7803
Sydney 33°52′ S 9.7968
Aberdeen 57°9′ N 9.8168
North Pole 90° N 9.8322

The historic use of "weight" for "mass" also persists in some scientific terminology – for example, the chemical terms "atomic weight", "molecular weight", and "formula weight", can still be found rather than the preferred "atomic mass" etc.

In a different gravitational field, for example, on the surface of the Moon, an object can have a significantly different weight than on Earth. The gravity on the surface of the Moon is only about one-sixth as strong as on the surface of the Earth. A one-kilogram mass is still a one-kilogram mass (as mass is an extrinsic property of the object) but the downward force due to gravity, and therefore its weight, is only one-sixth of what the object would have on Earth. So a man of mass 180 pounds weighs only about 30 pounds-force when visiting the Moon.

SI units

In most modern scientific work, physical quantities are measured in SI units. The SI unit of weight is the same as that of force: the newton (N) – a derived unit which can also be expressed in SI base units as kg·m/s2 (kilograms times meters per second squared).<ref name=NIST811wt/>

In commercial and everyday use, the term "weight" is usually used to mean mass, and the verb "to weigh" means "to determine the mass of" or "to have a mass of". Used in this sense, the proper SI unit is the kilogram (kg).<ref name=NIST811wt/>

Pound and other non-SI units

In United States customary units, the pound can be either a unit of force or a unit of mass.<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> Related units used in some distinct, separate subsystems of units include the poundal and the slug. The poundal is defined as the force necessary to accelerate an object of one-pound mass at 1 ft/s2, and is equivalent to about 1/32.2 of a pound-force. The slug is defined as the amount of mass that accelerates at 1 ft/s2 when one pound-force is exerted on it, and is equivalent to about 32.2 pounds (mass).

The kilogram-force is a non-SI unit of force, defined as the force exerted by a one kilogram mass in standard Earth gravity (equal to 9.80665 newtons exactly). The dyne is the cgs unit of force and is not a part of SI, while weights measured in the cgs unit of mass, the gram, remain a part of SI.


Weight sections
Intro  History  Definitions  Weight and mass  Sensation of weight  Measuring weight  Relative weights on the Earth and other celestial bodies  See also  Notes  References  

Weight and mass
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