# What’s that funnel about, really?

If you’ve ever watched or read a space opera (oh yes, you have), you know about the gravity well that a spacecraft has to climb out of when leaving a planet.  Every time I see the Museum’s gravity well model (photo below), I’m reminded of all the answers the guy gave to, “Johnny, what can you make of this?

The model’s a great visitor-attracter with those “planets” whizzing around the “Sun,” but this one exhibit really represents several distinct concepts.   For some of them it’s not quite the right shape. The simplest concept is geometrical.  “Down” is the direction you move when gravity’s pulling on you.

A gravity well model for that concept would be just a straight line between you and the neighborhood’s most intense gravity source.

You learned the second concept in high school physics class.  Any object has gravitational potential energy that measures the amount of energy it would give up on falling.  Your teacher probably showed you the equation GPE = m·g·h, where m is the mass of the object, h is its height above ground level, and g is a constant you may have determined in a lab experiment.

If the width of the gravity well model at a given height represents GPE at that level, the model is a simple straight-sided cone. Gravitational potential energy changefor large height differencesThe h indicatesan approximately linear rangewhere the HS equation could apply.

But of course it’s not that simple.  Newton’s Law of Gravity says that the potential energy at any height r away from the planet’s center is proportional to 1/r.

Hmm… that looks different from the “proportional to h” equation.  Which is right?

Both equations are valid, but over different distance scales.  The HS teachers didn’t quite lie to you, but they didn’t give you the complete picture either.  Your classroom was about 4000 miles (21,120,000 feet) from Earth’s center, whereas the usual experiments involve height differences of at most a dozen feet.  Even the 20-foot drop from a second-story window is less than a millionth of the way down to Earth’s center.

Check my numbers:

Height h 1/(r+h)
× 108
Difference in 1/(r+h)
× 1014
0 4.734,848,484 0
20 4.734,844,001 4.48
40 4.734,839,517 8.97
60 4.734,835,033 13.45
80 4.734,830,549 17.93
100 4.734,826,066 22.42 Sure enough, that’s a straight line (see the chart).  Reminds me of how Newton’s Law of Gravity is valid except at very short distances.  The HS Law of Gravity works fine for small spans but when the distances get big we have to use Newton’s equation.

We’re not done yet. That curvy funnel-shaped gravity well model could represent the force of gravity rather than its potential energy.  Newton told us that the force goes as 1/r2 so it decreases much more rapidly than the potential energy does as you get further away.  The gravity force well has a correspondingly sharper curve to it than the gravity energy well.