Bucket argument

Isaac Newton's rotating bucket argument (also known as "Newton's Bucket") attempts to demonstrate that true rotational motion cannot be defined as the relative rotation of the body with respect to the immediately surrounding bodies. It is one of five arguments from the "properties, causes, and effects" of true motion and rest that support his contention that, in general, true motion and rest cannot be defined as special instances of motion or rest relative to other bodies, but instead can be defined only by reference to absolute space. Alternatively, these experiments provide an operational definition of what is meant by "absolute rotation", and do not pretend to address the question of "rotation relative to what?".


These arguments, and a discussion of the distinctions between absolute and relative time, space, place and motion, appear in a Scholium at the very beginning of his great work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), which established the foundations of classical mechanics and introduced his law of universal gravitation, which yielded the first quantitatively adequate dynamical explanation of planetary motion. See the Principia on line at Andrew Motte Translation pp. 77-82.

Despite their embrace of the principle of rectilinear inertia and the recognition of the kinematical relativity of apparent motion (which underlies whether the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system is correct), natural philosophers of the seventeenth century continued to consider true motion and rest as physically separate descriptors of an individual body. The dominant view Newton opposed was devised by René Descartes, and was supported (in part) by Gottfried Leibniz. It held that empty space is a metaphysical impossibility because space is nothing other than the extension of matter, or, in other words, that when one speaks of the space between things one is actually making reference to the relationship that exists between those things and not to some entity that stands between them. Concordant with the above understanding, any assertion about the motion of a body boils down to a description over time in which the body under consideration is at t1 found in the vicinity of one group of "landmark" bodies and at some t2 is found in the vicinity of some other "landmark" body or bodies.

Descartes recognized that there would be a real difference, however, between a situation in which a body with movable parts and originally at rest with respect to a surrounding ring was itself accelerated to a certain angular velocity with respect to the ring, and another situation in which the surrounding ring was given a contrary acceleration with respect to the central object. With sole regard to the central object and the surrounding ring, the motions would be indistinguishable from each other assuming that both the central object and the surrounding ring were absolutely rigid objects. However, if neither the central object nor the surrounding ring were absolutely rigid then the parts of one or both of them would tend to fly out from the axis of rotation. People who have noticed a train originally at rest beside them in the railway station pulling away from them, and have soon thereafter noticed with surprise that it is not their train that remains parked at the station, have experienced the basic nature of the Descartes experiment. Frequently these observers first question their initial impressions when they sense g forces from the acceleration of their own train.

For contingent reasons having to do with the Inquisition, Decartes spoke of motion as both absolute and relative. However, his real position was that motion is absolute.

A contrasting position was taken by Mach, who contended that all motion was relative.

The argument

Newton discusses a bucket filled with water hung by a cord. If the cord is twisted up tightly on itself and then the bucket is released, it begins to spin rapidly, not only with respect to the experimenter, but also in relation to the water it contains. (This situation would correspond to diagram B above.)

Although the relative motion at this stage is the greatest, the surface of the water remains flat, indicating that the parts of the water have no tendency to recede from the axis of relative motion, despite proximity to the pail. Eventually, as the cord continues to unwind, the surface of the water assumes a concave shape as it acquires the motion of the bucket spinning relative to the experimenter. This concave shape shows that the water is rotating, that despite the fact that the water is at rest relative to the pail. In other words, it is not the relative motion of the pail and water that causes concavity of the water, contrary to the idea that motions can only be relative, and that there is no absolute motion. (This situation would correspond to diagram D.) Possibly the concavity of the water shows rotation relative to something else: say absolute space? The argument is incomplete, as it limits the participants relevant to the experiment to only the pail and the water, which has not been established. In fact, the concavity of the water clearly involves gravitational attraction, and by implication the Earth also is a participant. Here is a critique due to Mach:

In the 1846 Andrew Motte translation of Newton's words:

Rotating spheres

Newton remained concerned to address the problem of how it is that we can experimentally determine the true motions of bodies in light of the fact that absolute space is not something that can be perceived. Such determination, he says, can be accomplished by observing the causes of motion (that is, forces) and not simply the apparent motions of bodies relative to one another (as in the bucket experiment). As an example where causes can be observed, if two globes, floating in space, are connected by a cord, measuring the amount of tension in the cord, with no other clues to assess the situation, alone suffices to indicate how fast the two objects are revolving around the common center of mass. (This experiment involves observation of a force, the tension). Also, the sense of the rotation —whether it is in the clockwise or the counter-clockwise direction— can be discovered by applying forces to opposite faces of the globes and ascertaining whether this leads to an increase or a decrease in the tension of the cord (again involving a force). Alternatively, the sense of the rotation can be determined by measuring the apparent motion of the globes with respect to a system background bodies that, according to the preceding methods, have been established already not to be in a state of rotation, as an example from Newton's time, the fixed stars.

In the 1846 Andrew Motte translation of Newton's words:

To summarize this proposal, here is a quote from Born:

Mach took some issue with the argument, pointing out that the rotating sphere experiment could never be done in an empty universe, where possibly Newton's laws do not apply, so the experiment really only shows what happens when the spheres rotate in our universe, and therefore, for example, may indicate only rotation relative to the entire mass of the universe. An interpretation that avoids this conflict is to say that the rotating spheres experiment does not really define rotation relative to anything in particular (for example, absolute space or fixed stars); rather the experiment is an operational definition of what is meant by the motion called absolute rotation.


Brian Greene (2004). The Fabric of the Cosmos: space, time, and the texture of reality. A A Knopf.

See also


External links

  • Newton's Views on Space, Time, and Motion from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article by Robert Rynasiewicz. At the end of this article, loss of fine distinctions in the translations as compared to the original Latin text is discussed.
  • Life and Philosophy of Leibniz see section on Space, Time and Indiscernibles for Leibniz arguing against the idea of space acting as a causal agent.

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