Moment (physics)


In physics, a moment is a mathematical expression involving the product of a distance and physical quantity. Moments are usually defined with respect to a fixed reference point and refer to physical quantities located some distance from the reference point. In this way, the moment accounts for the quantity's location or arrangement. For example, the moment of force, often called torque, is the product of a force on an object and the distance from the reference point to the object. In principle, any physical quantity can be multiplied by a distance to produce a moment. Commonly used quantities include forces, masses, and electric charge distributions.


In its most basic form, a moment is the product of the distance to a point, raised to a power, and a physical quantity (such as force or electrical charge) at that point:


where   is the physical quantity such as a force applied at a point, or a point charge, or a point mass, etc. If the quantity is not concentrated solely at a single point, the moment is the integral of that quantity's density over space:


where   is the distribution of the density of charge, mass, or whatever quantity is being considered.

More complex forms take into account the angular relationships between the distance and the physical quantity, but the above equations capture the essential feature of a moment, namely the existence of an underlying   or equivalent term. This implies that there are multiple moments (one for each value of n) and that the moment generally depends on the reference point from which the distance   is measured, although for certain moments (technically, the lowest non-zero moment) this dependence vanishes and the moment becomes independent of the reference point.

Each value of n corresponds to a different moment: the 1st moment corresponds to n = 1; the 2nd moment to n = 2, etc. The 0th moment (n = 0) is sometimes called the monopole moment; the 1st moment (n = 1) is sometimes called the dipole moment, and the 2nd moment (n = 2) is sometimes called the quadrupole moment, especially in the context of electric charge distributions.


  • The moment of force, or torque, is a first moment:  , or, more generally,  .
  • Similarly, angular momentum is the 1st moment of momentum:  . Note that momentum itself is not a moment.
  • The electric dipole moment is also a 1st moment:   for two opposite point charges or   for a distributed charge with charge density  .

Moments of mass:

  • The total mass is the zeroth moment of mass.
  • The center of mass is the 1st moment of mass normalized by total mass:   for a collection of point masses, or   for an object with mass distribution  .
  • The moment of inertia is the 2nd moment of mass:   for a point mass,   for a collection of point masses, or   for an object with mass distribution  . Note that the center of mass is often (but not always) taken as the reference point.

Multipole momentsEdit

Assuming a density function that is finite and localized to a particular region, outside that region a 1/r potential may be expressed as a series of spherical harmonics:


The coefficients   are known as multipole moments, and take the form:


where   expressed in spherical coordinates   is a variable of integration. A more complete treatment may be found in pages describing multipole expansion or spherical multipole moments. (Note: the convention in the above equations was taken from Jackson[1] – the conventions used in the referenced pages may be slightly different.)

When   represents an electric charge density, the   are, in a sense, projections of the moments of electric charge:   is the monopole moment; the   are projections of the dipole moment, the   are projections of the quadrupole moment, etc.

Applications of multipole momentsEdit

The multipole expansion applies to 1/r scalar potentials, examples of which include the electric potential and the gravitational potential. For these potentials, the expression can be used to approximate the strength of a field produced by a localized distribution of charges (or mass) by calculating the first few moments. For sufficiently large r, a reasonable approximation can be obtained from just the monopole and dipole moments. Higher fidelity can be achieved by calculating higher order moments. Extensions of the technique can be used to calculate interaction energies and intermolecular forces.

The technique can also be used to determine the properties of an unknown distribution  . Measurements pertaining to multipole moments may be taken and used to infer properties of the underlying distribution. This technique applies to small objects such as molecules,[2][3] but has also been applied to the universe itself,[4] being for example the technique employed by the WMAP and Planck experiments to analyze the cosmic microwave background radiation.


A lever in balance

In works believed to stem from Ancient Greece, the concept of a moment is alluded to by the word ῥοπή (rhopḗ, lit. "inclination") and composites like ἰσόρροπα (isorropa, lit. "of equal inclinations").[5][6][7] The context of these works is mechanics and geometry involving the lever.[8] In particular, in extant works attributed to Archimedes, the moment is pointed out in phrasings like:

"Commensurable magnitudes (σύμμετρα μεγέθεα) [A and B] are equally balanced (ἰσορροπέοντι)[a] if their distances [to the center Γ, i.e., ΑΓ and ΓΒ] are inversely proportional (ἀντιπεπονθότως) to their weights (βάρεσιν)."[6][9]

Moreover, in extant texts such as The Method of Mechanical Theorems, moments are used to infer the center of gravity, area, and volume of geometric figures.

In 1269, William of Moerbeke translates various works of Archimedes and Eutocious into Latin. The term ῥοπή is transliterated into ropen.[6]

Around 1450, Jacobus Cremonensis translates ῥοπή in similar texts into the Latin term momentum (lit. "movement"[10]). The same term is kept in a 1501 translation by Giorgio Valla, and subsequently by Francesco Maurolico, Federico Commandino, Guidobaldo del Monte, Adriaan van Roomen, Florence Rivault, Francesco Buonamici, Marin Mersenne[5], and Galileo Galilei. That said, why was the word momentum chosen for the translation? One clue, according to Treccani, is that momento in Medieval Italy, the place the early translators lived, in a transferred sense meant both a "moment of time" and a "moment of weight" (a small amount of weight that turns the scale).[b]

In 1554, Francesco Maurolico clarifies the Latin term momentum in the work Prologi sive sermones. Here is a Latin to English translation as given by Marshall Clagett:[6]

"[...] equal weights at unequal distances do not weigh equally, but unequal weights [at these unequal distances may] weigh equally. For a weight suspended at a greater distance is heavier, as is obvious in a balance. Therefore, there exists a certain third kind of power or third difference of magnitude—one that differs from both body and weight—and this they call moment.[c] Therefore, a body acquires weight from both quantity [i.e., size] and quality [i.e., material], but a weight receives its moment from the distance at which it is suspended. Therefore, when distances are reciprocally proportional to weights, the moments [of the weights] are equal, as Archimedes demonstrated in The Book on Equal Moments.[d] Therefore, weights or [rather] moments like other continuous quantities, are joined at some common terminus, that is, at something common to both of them like the center of weight, or at a point of equilibrium. Now the center of gravity in any weight is that point which, no matter how often or whenever the body is suspended, always inclines perpendicularly toward the universal center.

In addition to body, weight, and moment, there is a certain fourth power, which can be called impetus or force.[e] Aristotle investigates it in On Mechanical Questions, and it is completely different from [the] three aforesaid [powers or magnitudes]. [...]"

in 1586, Simon Stevin uses the Dutch term staltwicht ("parked weight") for momentum in De Beghinselen Der Weeghconst.

In 1632, Galileo Galilei publishes Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and uses the Italian momento with many meanings, including the one of his predecessors.[11]

In 1643, Thomas Salusbury translates some of Galilei's works into English. Salusbury translates Latin momentum and Italian momento into the English term moment.[f]

In 1765, the Latin term momentum inertiae (English: moment of inertia) is used by Leonhard Euler to refer to one of Christiaan Huygens's quantities in Horologium Oscillatorium.[12] Huygens 1673 work involving finding the center of oscillation had been stimulated by Marin Mersenne, who suggested it to him in 1646.[13][14]

In 1811, the French term moment d'une force (English: moment of force) with respect to a point and plane is used by Siméon Denis Poisson in Traité de mécanique.[15] An English translation appears in 1842.

In 1884, the term torque is suggested by James Thomson in the context of measuring rotational forces of machines (with propellers and rotors).[16][17] Today, a dynamometer is used to measure the torque of machines.

In 1893, Karl Pearson uses the term n-th moment and   in the context of curve-fitting scientific measurements.[18] Pearson wrote in response to John Venn, who, some years earlier, observed a peculiar pattern involving meteorological data and asked for an explanation of its cause.[19] In Pearson's response, this analogy is used: the mechanical "center of gravity" is the mean and the "distance" is the deviation from the mean. This later evolved into moments in mathematics. The analogy between the mechanical concept of a moment and the statistical function involving the sum of the nth powers of deviations was noticed by several earlier, including Laplace, Kramp, Gauss, Encke, Czuber, Quetelet, and De Forest.[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ An alternative translation is "have equal moments" as used by Francesco Maurolico in the 1500s.[6] A literal translation is "have equal inclinations".
  2. ^ Treccani writes in its entry on moménto: "[...] alla tradizione medievale, nella quale momentum significava, per lo più, minima porzione di tempo, la più piccola parte dell’ora (precisamente, 1/40 di ora, un minuto e mezzo), ma anche minima quantità di peso, e quindi l’ago della bilancia (basta l’applicazione di un momento di peso perché si rompa l’equilibrio e la bilancia tracolli in un momento);"
  3. ^ In Latin: momentum.
  4. ^ The modern translation of this book is "on the equilibrium of planes". The translation "on equal moments (of planes)" as used by Maurolico is also echoed in his four-volume book called De momentis aequalibus ("about equal moments") where he applies Archimedes' ideas to solid bodies.
  5. ^ In Latin: impetus or vis. This fourth power was the intellectual precursor to the English Latinism momentum, also called quantity of motion.
  6. ^ This is very much in line with other Latin -entum words such as documentum, monumentum, or argumentum which turned into document, monument, and argument in French and English.


  1. ^ J. D. Jackson, Classical Electrodynamics, 2nd edition, Wiley, New York, (1975). p. 137
  2. ^ Spackman, M. A. (1992). "Molecular electric moments from x-ray diffraction data". Chemical Reviews. 92 (8): 1769–1797. doi:10.1021/cr00016a005.
  3. ^ Dittrich and Jayatilaka, Reliable Measurements of Dipole Moments from Single-Crystal Diffraction Data and Assessment of an In-Crystal Enhancement , Electron Density and Chemical Bonding II, Theoretical Charge Density Studies, Stalke, D. (Ed), 2012,
  4. ^ Baumann, Daniel (2009). "TASI Lectures on Inflation". arXiv:0907.5424 [hep-th].
  5. ^ a b Mersenne, Marin (1634). Les Méchaniques de Galilée. Paris. pp. 7–8.
  6. ^ a b c d e Clagett, Marshall (1964–84). Archimedes in the Middle Ages (5 vols in 10 tomes). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964; Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1967–1984.
  7. ^ ῥοπή. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  8. ^ Clagett, Marshall (1959). The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
  9. ^ Dijksterhuis, E. J. (1956). Archimedes. Copenhagen: E. Munksgaard. p. 288.
  10. ^ "moment". Oxford English Dictionary. 1933.
  11. ^ Galluzzi, Paolo (1979). Momento. Studi Galileiani. Rome: Edizioni dell' Ateneo & Bizarri.
  12. ^ Euler, Leonhard (1765). Theoria motus corporum solidorum seu rigidorum: Ex primis nostrae cognitionis principiis stabilita et ad omnes motus, qui in huiusmodi corpora cadere possunt, accommodata [The theory of motion of solid or rigid bodies: established from first principles of our knowledge and appropriate for all motions which can occur in such bodies.] (in Latin). Rostock and Greifswald (Germany): A. F. Röse. p. 166. ISBN 978-1-4297-4281-8. From page 166: "Definitio 7. 422. Momentum inertiae corporis respectu eujuspiam axis est summa omnium productorum, quae oriuntur, si singula corporis elementa per quadrata distantiarum suarum ab axe multiplicentur." (Definition 7. 422. A body's moment of inertia with respect to any axis is the sum of all of the products, which arise, if the individual elements of the body are multiplied by the square of their distances from the axis.)
  13. ^ Huygens, Christiaan (1673). Horologium oscillatorium, sive de Motu pendulorum ad horologia aptato demonstrationes geometricae (in Latin). p. 91.
  14. ^ Huygens, Christiaan (1977–1995). "Center of Oscillation (translation)". Translated by Mahoney, Michael S. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  15. ^ Poisson, Siméon-Denis (1811). Traité de mécanique, tome premier. p. 67.
  16. ^ Thompson, Silvanus Phillips (1893). Dynamo-electric machinery: A Manual For Students Of Electrotechnics (4th ed.). New York, Harvard publishing co. p. 108.
  17. ^ Thomson, James; Larmor, Joseph (1912). Collected Papers in Physics and Engineering. University Press. p. civ.
  18. ^ Pearson, Karl (October 1893). "Asymmetrical Frequency Curves". Nature. 48 (1252): 615–616. Bibcode:1893Natur..48..615P. doi:10.1038/048615a0. S2CID 4057772.
  19. ^ Venn, J. (September 1887). "The Law of Error". Nature. 36 (931): 411–412. Bibcode:1887Natur..36..411V. doi:10.1038/036411c0. S2CID 4098315.
  20. ^ Walker, Helen M. (1929). Studies in the history of statistical method, with special reference to certain educational problems. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins Co. p. 71.

External linksEdit

  • [1] A dictionary definition of moment.