The Guinea and Feather is one of the most important experiments in classical physics and it is still performed today as a lecture demonstration for thousands of introductory physics students. It shows that the Earth's gravity accelerates all objects equally, regardless of mass i.e. that a heavy object (a British guinea) and a light object (a feather) will fall at exactly the same rate. This concept of uniform gravitational acceleration
was proposed by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and directly contradicted the previous claim by Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) that heavier objects fall faster. Of course if you drop a coin and a feather under normal (atmospheric) conditions, the coin will hit the ground first. But Galileo reasoned that there was another force at work slowing down the feather. That force was air resistance and Galileo claimed that under conditions without air resistance, all objects would accelerate equally. Unfortunately the techniques for creating a sufficient vacuum did not exist at the time to prove Galileo correct.
Isaac Newton (1643-1727) proved mathematically that Galileo was correct. Newton's law of universal gravitation states that the attraction between two objects M and m placed a distance r apart (from center to center) is given by F = GMm
, where G is the gravitational constant. But Newton's second law states that the force (F) on an object (m) is related to it's acceleration (a) by F = ma. Combining these two equations we get F = GMm
= ma, or a = GM
. Thus, the gravitational acceleration of an object is only dependent on the mass of the Earth (M), it's distance from the Earth's center (r), and the gravitational constant G. We call this acceleration due to gravity g
to distiguish it from acceleration due to some other force. The precise value of g
varies with location and the local Earth density, but standard gravity
is defined as g
= 9.80665 m/s2
Newtons third law states that forces exist in equal and opposite pairs. This means that for a given force F1
acting on a small mass m resulting in an acceleration a1
, the Earth also experiences a force F2
on its mass M resulting in an acceleration a2
. The total acceleration of the Earth and the small mass m is just the sum a1
= G(M + m)/r2
. However, the mass of the Earth (5.98 x 1024
kg) is many many orders of magnitude greater than the small mass m so M + m is essentially M and a2
is essentially 0. If the mathematics are hard to read here, check out the Wikipedia articles on Universal Gravitation
and Earth's gravity
This experiment has even been performed on the moon by Apollo 15 Commander David Scott using a 1.32 kg geological hammer and a 0.03 kg falcon feather (Falcon was the name of the lunar module). Because there's no atmosphere on the moon, the hammer and the feather landed on the lunar surface simultaneously. This was broadcast live in 1971 and a link to the video is below.
On a historical note, the guinea was the British gold coin first used in this experiment and in the US it's sometimes called the Penny and Feather. Many current versions use a piece of ordinary metal instead of a coin, and a piece of paper instead of a feather.
Please note that the title picture is from the PIRA 200 demonstration list
and is copyright 1993 by the University of Minnesota and the Physics Instructional Resource Association
. According to this webpage
, the title image is released for nonprofit educational use only. All pictures used for other nonprofit purposes, need to retain the signature of their creators...