Force and Pressure

Did you know that deep-sea divers can become seriously ill if they come back up to the surface too quickly? The sickness is known as decompression sickness or 'the bends' and can cause anything from minor joint pain to paralysis and even death. It is caused by the formation of nitrogen gas bubbles in a diver's bloodstream due to the rapid change in the water pressure around them as they ascend. As such, divers need to have good knowledge of the physics of water pressure and how it can affect the body to prevent themselves from getting the bends.  Read on to find out more about how pressure and forces are defined in physics, its relation to force, and some ingenious uses of pressure in engineering.

Force and Pressure Force and Pressure

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Table of contents

    Force and Pressure: Definitions

    Let's take a deeper look at exactly how force and pressure are defined in physics.


    A force is any influence that can change the motion of a body. In particular, forces cause masses to accelerate, changing their velocity. Forces can be caused by a wide variety of phenomena, from the gravitational forces keeping planets in their orbits to the contact forces exerted on a door as we push or pull it. The force experienced by an object is defined as the rate of change of momentum of the object and is measured in units of Newton's \(\mathrm{N}\) which corresponds to \(\mathrm{kg}\,\mathrm{m}\,\mathrm{s}^{-2}\).

    Forces are vector quantities, as they have both a magnitude and a direction corresponding to the strength of the force and the direction in which it acts. When multiple forces act on an object, we can find the resultant force acting on an object by summing the individual force vectors using vector addition. It's this resultant force that ultimately determines how the body's motion changes. Being vectors, we can represent forces in diagrams using labelled arrows showing the direction and magnitude of the force, these diagrams are often used when considering how multiple forces interact on one body.

    Pressure and Forces Free-body diagram showing the forces acting on a falling box StudySmarterFig . 1 - Free-body diagram demonstrating the forces, weight and air resistance, acting on a falling box.

    Consider two objects \(A\) and \(B\) interacting with each other, these interactions produce forces between the two bodies known as action and reaction forces. These action and reaction forces always have equal magnitudes and opposite directions. For example, when you push a door the force you exert on the door is equal to the force the door exerts on your hand, just acting in the opposite direction. This fundamental principle is known as Newton's third law.

    Newton's Third Law states that for every force, there is an equal and oppositely directed reaction force.

    We use these action-reaction forces all the time, for example when rowing a boat we exert a backward force on the water with the oars and the reaction force of the water propels the boat forwards. Similarly, jet engines fling high-velocity oxygen backward in order to propel a plane through the air.

    It's important to remember, that just because two objects exert the same force on each other, it doesn't mean they experience the same acceleration. Objects with larger masses experience less acceleration, which is why the earth doesn't move downwards every time we take a jump!


    Pressure is a physical quantity closely related to force. Consider a force distributed over the surface area of an object, the magnitude of force applied perpendicularly to a unit surface area of the object defines the pressure exerted on the object. The smaller the surface area that a force acts upon, the greater the pressure will be. This is why a sharp knife, with a small blade surface area, can cut through something which a blunt knife could not even if the same force was applied to both knife.

    Although force is a vector, pressure is a scalar expressing the magnitude of the perpendicular force on the unit surface area. Pressure is measured in units of Pascals \(\mathrm{Pa}\), equivalent to Newton's per square meter \(\mathrm{N}\,\mathrm{m}^{-2}\).

    Pressure often arises in the context of fluids such as a gas within a container. Here, pressure is exerted upon the walls of the container by colliding gas molecules. Given Newton's Third Law, when a gas molecule collides with a container wall the wall exerts a reaction force onto the molecule causing it to accelerate back in the direction it came from. As such, the pressure exerted by a gas can be defined as the average rate of change of the gas particle's momentum as they collide with the walls of the container.

    For example, the internal pressure exerted on a balloon by the gas molecules inside is what keeps it inflated. This pressure must be equal to the atmospheric pressure acting on the outside of the balloon for the balloon to remain stable. Any less than atmospheric pressure the balloon would implode, any more and the balloon would pop.

    It's important to note that pressure exists within the entire gas system, not just at the walls of the container. For any static enclosed fluid, pressure is transmitted undiminished, meaning that changes in pressure in one region of the fluid cause equal changes in pressure everywhere in the fluid. This is known as Pascal's principle.

    Pascal's Principle — Pressure is transmitted undiminished in a static enclosed fluid.

    With these definitions of force and pressure in mind, let's look at how we can calculate force and pressure in different systems.

    Force and Pressure: Formula

    As we saw in the previous section, force is defined as the rate of change of momentum experienced by an object.

    So if the momentum of an object changes by \(\Delta p\) in a time of \(\Delta t\) then the force on the object will be

    \[F=\frac{\Delta p}{\Delta t}.\]

    In the case where the mass of the object remains constant, as is usually the case, this simplifies to the famous expression associated with Newton's Second Law


    where \(m\) is the mass of the object and \(a\) is its acceleration. So, the acceleration experienced by an object under a force is dependent on the mass of the object.

    Calculate the force need to accelerate a \(m=0.5\,\mathrm{kg}\) ball to \(20\,\mathrm{m}\,\mathrm{s}^{-2}\).

    Using the equation given above


    From the definition of pressure, we see that the pressure and the force acting on a surface area are related by the following formula\[P=\frac{F}{A}.\]

    This equation shows that at a fixed area, pressure and force are directly proportional, whereas the pressure associated with a fixed force is inversely proportional to the surface area the force is applied to.

    Consider a \(0.1\,\mathrm{m}^2\) pressure plate which sets off an alarm when it feels a pressure greater than \(5\times10^3\,\mathrm{Pa}\). Would a \(60\,\mathrm{kg}\) person set off the alarm?

    First, we need to calculate the weight of the person using the acceleration due to gravity



    Calculating the pressure exerted by the person on the plate using the pressure equation gives\[P=\frac{588\,\mathrm{N}}{0.1\,\mathrm{m}^2}=5.88\times10^{3}\,\mathrm{Pa}.\]

    The alarm would be set off!

    We can use this definition of pressure to calculate pressures in a variety of contexts. For example, when you go swimming and dive deeper into the water, the water above you exerts a pressure on your body. By using the definition for pressure, we can calculate how water pressure changes with depth.

    Consider a column of water stretching from the surface down to some depth \(h\), with a volume (V\). If the density of the liquid is \(\rho\), then the mass of the water within the column is\[m=\rho V.\]

    The weight of this water is then

    \[\text{Weight}=\rho g V.\]

    with \(g=9.81\,\mathrm{m}\,\mathrm{s}^{-2}\) the acceleration due to gravity.

    If the surface area at the bottom of the column is \(A\), then multiplying this area by the height of the column gives the volume\[V=Ah.\]

    We know that the weight of the water in the column causes a pressure on the bottom of the column given by

    \[P=\frac{\text{Weight}}{\text{Surface Area}}=\frac{\rho g V}{A}.\]

    Cancelling the area term in the definition of the volume then gives

    \[P=\frac{\rho g \cancel{A}h}{\cancel{A}}=\rho g h.\]

    As we can see, water pressure increases linearly with depth, and this holds for any liquid.

    A deep-sea diver dives to a depth of \(25\,\mathrm{m}\), if the density of saltwater is \(1020\,\mathrm{kg}\,\mathrm{m}^{-3}\) what pressure will the diver experience?\[\begin{align}P&=1020\,\mathrm{kg}\,\mathrm{m}^{-3}\cdot9.81\,\mathrm{m}\,\mathrm{s}^{-2}\cdot25\,\mathrm{m}\\&=250\times10^3\,\mathrm{Pa}\end{align}\]

    Force and Pressure: Examples

    Let's take a look at some of the interesting phenomena that can be explained with the concept of pressure.

    Imploding Coke Cans

    Whilst we never really notice the effects of standard atmospheric pressure, we can see its power with a simple experiment that you can do in a school lab. You'll need an empty fizzy drink can, a heat source like a Bunsen burner, some heat-proof tongs and a tub of ice-cold water. Pour a bit of tap water into the empty can and hold the can above the Bunsen burner. As the can heats up, the water will begin to boil and evaporate. After letting the water boil for a few seconds, using the heatproof tongs, take the can off the heat and quickly dunk it upside down in the ice-cold water. Incredibly, the coke can will crumple almost instantly!

    To understand why this occurs, we need to consider the pressures acting on the can throughout the experiment. Initially, the pressure of the air outside the can is equal to the air pressure within the can, keeping it stable. As the water in the can boiled, it turned into vapor, pushing the air out of the can as it filled the can. Still, the pressure of the water vapor is equal to the air pressure outside the can. However, when the can is dunked in the cold water, the water quickly condenses back into a liquid, leaving a small vacuum inside the rest of the can with no gas inside. This low-pressure vacuum within the can means the air pressure outside the can is much greater than the pressure inside the can, causing the can to crumple under the air pressure.


    Hydraulic systems are systems that use liquids to produce mechanical power to do work. For example, construction machinery, such as diggers, use hydraulic motors and cylinders to move the digging arm.

    Pressure and Forces Image of a digger as an example of the use of pressure in hydraulics StudySmarterFig.4-Diggers use hydraulic motors and cylinders to produce forces capable of moving and lifting their crane arms.

    Hydraulic systems use pascals principle of pressure transmission in liquids to amplify forces. To understand how this works, consider a simple hydraulic system composed of two plates with surface areas \(A_1\) and \(A_2\) connected by an enclosed tube of water, with \(A_1<A_2.\) If a force \(F_1\) is applied to the surface \(A_1\), the water pressure will increase by \[P=\frac{F_1}{A_1}.\] Pascals principle states that the water pressure will increase by \(P\) everywhere in the tube. This means that the pressure at the other plate \(A_2\) is also \(P\), and so the force pushing it up will be

    \[F_2=PA_2.\] As \(A_2>A_1\) then the force \(F_2\) will also be larger, amplifying the initial force \(F_1\). This principle is used in hydraulic levers such as carjacks, where a small force applied to the lever manually is amplified so that it can lift a car up!

    Consider a hydraulic jack being used to lift a car by its wheel. The jack contains two surfaces, one with a surface area \(A_1=0.01\,\mathrm{m}^2\) and one with a surface area \(A_2=0.5\,\mathrm{m}^2\), with the car wheel resting on \(A_2\). If the car has a mass of \(500\,\mathrm{kg}\), how much force must be applied to the first surface to lift the car?


    We know that to lift the car, a force \(F_2\) equal to the car's weight must be applied to \(A_2\).

    \[F_2=500\,\mathrm{kg}\cdot 9.81\,\mathrm{m}\,\mathrm{s}^{-2}=4.9\times10^3\,\mathrm{N}\]

    This means the water pressure inside the hydraulic lever must be


    This means the force acting on \(A_1\) must be


    Through the principle of hydraulics, a force similar to that required to lift a bag of sugar, can be used to lift an entire car!

    Similarities between Force and Pressure

    Clearly, force and pressure are closely related concepts, so let's recap some key similarities between force and pressure.

    • The force acting on a surface area and the pressure experienced by the object are directly proportional for a fixed surface area.

    • If a system is at equilibrium, the forces acting on it must balance. Similarly, if an object such as a closed container remains stable, it means that the pressure inside the container is equal to the pressure outside the container.

    • Force is equal to the rate of change of momentum experienced by a body. Similarly, the pressure exerted by a gas on the walls of a container is a measure of the average rate of change of the gas particles' momentum.

    • Pressure can be calculated from the amount of force acting over a surface area \(A\) using the equation


    Differences between Force and Pressure

    However, it's important to remember that force and pressure are not equivalent quantities, as this can cause confusion when analyzing situations involving equivalent forces or pressures across different surface areas. Let's look at some key differences to keep in mind.


    A vector quantity describing the magnitude of a force and the direction it acts in.

    A scalar quantity which solely describes the magnitude of the force vector acting perpendicularly to a surface.

    Forces are defined independently of the properties of the body they act on.

    The pressure acting on the surface of a body is dependent on the surface area of that body. The same force acting on different surface areas produces different pressures.

    Force is measured in units of Newtons \(\mathrm{N}\)

    Pressure is measured in units of Pascals \(\mathrm{Pa}\)

    Pressure and Forces - Key takeaways

    • A force is a vector quantity that defines the rate of change of momentum of a body, measured in Newtons \(\mathrm{N}\)
    • When a force is applied to a bodies surface area, we define the pressure on that body as equal to the amount of force acting perpendicularly to a unit surface area on the body.
    • Pressure \(P\) and force \(F\) are related mathematically by the formula\[P=\frac{F}{A}.\]
    • The smaller the surface area that a force acts perpendicularly to, the larger the pressure.
    • Pascal's principle states that changes in pressure within an enclosed fluid at equilibrium are transmitted undiminished throughout the fluid.
    • Hydraulic systems use Pascal's principle to amplify forces acting on small surface areas to much larger forces acting on much larger surface areas. This can be used to manually lever heavy objects such as cars.


    1. Fig.1- Weight and Air Resistance, StudySmarter Originals
    2. Fig.2-Inflated Balloon, StudySmarter Originals
    3. Fig.3--liquid column, StudySmarter Originals
    4. Fig.4-Poclain excavator in Syria ( _in_Syria.JPG) by High Contrast ( licenced by CC BY-3.0 DE (

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Newton's Third Law states that for every force, there is a reaction force with the same magnitude acting perpendicularly to the first force. True or False?

    What is Pascal's principle of liquid pressure?

    What is the relation between pressure , (\P\), force \(F\) and surface area \(A\)?

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