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In science and engineering, the weight of an object is the force acting on the object due to gravity.
Some standard textbooks define weight as a vector quantity, the gravitational force acting on the object. Others define weight as a scalar quantity, the magnitude of the gravitational force. Yet others define it as the magnitude of the reaction force exerted on a body by mechanisms that counteract the effects of gravity: the weight is the quantity that is measured by, for example, a spring scale. Thus, in a state of free fall, the weight would be zero. In this sense of weight, terrestrial objects can be weightless: ignoring air resistance, the famous apple falling from the tree, on its way to meet the ground near Isaac Newton, would be weightless.
The unit of measurement for weight is that of force, which in the International System of Units (SI) is the newton. For example, an object with a mass of one kilogram has a weight of about 9.8 newtons on the surface of the Earth, and about one-sixth as much on the Moon. Although weight and mass are scientifically distinct quantities, the terms are often confused with each other in everyday use (i.e. comparing and converting force weight in pounds to mass in kilograms and vice versa).
Further complications in elucidating the various concepts of weight have to do with the theory of relativity according to which gravity is modeled as a consequence of the curvature of spacetime. In the teaching community, a considerable debate has existed for over half a century on how to define weight for their students. The current situation is that a multiple set of concepts co-exist and find use in their various contexts.
In the operational definition, the weight of an object is the force measured by the operation of weighing it, which is the force it exerts on its support. Since W is the downward force on the body by the centre of earth and there is no acceleration in the body, there exists an opposite and equal force by the support on the body. Also it is equal to the force exerted by the body on its support because action and reaction have same numerical value and opposite direction. This can make a considerable difference, depending on the details; for example, an object in free fall exerts little if any force on its support, a situation that is commonly referred to as weightlessness. However, being in free fall does not affect the weight according to the gravitational definition. Therefore, the operational definition is sometimes refined by requiring that the object be at rest. However, this raises the issue of defining "at rest" (usually being at rest with respect to the Earth is implied by using standard gravity). In the operational definition, the weight of an object at rest on the surface of the Earth is lessened by the effect of the centrifugal force from the Earth's rotation.
The operational definition, as usually given, does not explicitly exclude the effects of buoyancy, which reduces the measured weight of an object when it is immersed in a fluid such as air or water. As a result, a floating balloon or an object floating in water might be said to have zero weight.
A scale or balance is a device to measure weight or mass. These are also known as mass scales, weight scales, mass balances, weight balances.
The traditional scale consists of two plates or bowls suspended at equal distances from a fulcrum. One plate holds an object of unknown mass (or weight), while known masses are added to the other plate until static equilibrium is achieved and the plates level off, which happens when the masses on the two plates are equal. The perfect scale rests at neutral. A spring scale will make use of a spring of known stiffness to determine mass (or weight). Suspending a certain mass will extend the spring by a certain amount depending on the spring's stiffness (or spring constant). The heavier the object, the more the spring stretches, as described in Hooke's law. Other types of scales making use of different physical principles also exist.
Some scales can be calibrated to read in units of force (weight) such as newtons instead of units of mass such as kilograms. Scales and balances are widely used in commerce, as many products are sold and packaged by mass.
The balance (also balance scale, beam balance and laboratory balance) was the first mass measuring instrument invented. In its traditional form, it consists of a pivoted horizontal lever with arms of equal length – the beam – and a weighing pan suspended from each arm (hence the plural name "scales" for a weighing instrument). The unknown mass is placed in one pan and standard masses are added to the other pan until the beam is as close to equilibrium as possible. In precision balances, a more accurate determination of the mass is given by the position of a sliding mass moved along a graduated scale. Technically, a balance compares weight rather than mass, but, in a given gravitational field (such as Earth's gravity), the weight of an object is proportional to its mass, so the standard masses used with balances are usually labeled in units of mass (e.g. g or kg).
Unlike spring-based scales, balances are used for the precision measurement of mass as their accuracy is not affected by variations in the local gravitational field. (On Earth, for example, these can amount to ±0.5% between locations.) A change in the strength of the gravitational field caused by moving the balance does not change the measured mass, because the moments of force on either side of the beam are affected equally. A balance will render an accurate measurement of mass at any location experiencing a constant gravity or acceleration.
Very precise measurements are achieved by ensuring that the balance's fulcrum is essentially friction-free (a knife edge is the traditional solution), by attaching a pointer to the beam which amplifies any deviation from a balance position; and finally by using the lever principle, which allows fractional masses to be applied by movement of a small mass along the measuring arm of the beam, as described above. For greatest accuracy, there needs to be an allowance for the buoyancy in air, whose effect depends on the densities of the masses involved.
Aluminum, mass-produced balance scale (steelyard balance) sold and used throughout China: the scale can be inverted and held by the larger ring beneath the user's right hand to produce greater leverage for heavier loads (Hainan, China, 2011)
To reduce the need for large reference masses, an off-center beam can be used. A balance with an off-center beam can be almost as accurate as a scale with a center beam, but the off-center beam requires special reference masses and cannot be intrinsically checked for accuracy by simply swapping the contents of the pans as a center-beam balance can. To reduce the need for small graduated reference masses, a sliding weight called a poise can be installed so that it can be positioned along a calibrated scale. A poise adds further intricacies to the calibration procedure, since the exact mass of the poise must be adjusted to the exact lever ratio of the beam.
For greater convenience in placing large and awkward loads, a platform can be floated on a cantilever beam system which brings the proportional force to a noseiron bearing; this pulls on a stilyard rod to transmit the reduced force to a conveniently sized beam.
One still sees this design in portable beam balances of 500 kg capacity which are commonly used in harsh environments without electricity, as well as in the lighter duty mechanical bathroom scale (which actually uses a spring scale, internally). The additional pivots and bearings all reduce the accuracy and complicate calibration; the float system must be corrected for corner errors before the span is corrected by adjusting the balance beam and poise.
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