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Explanation of Mysterious Force at a Distance by Ron Kurtus - Succeed in Understanding Physics. Key words: physical science, push, pull, direct contact, magnetism, gravity, static electricity, acceleration, pressure, movement, Ron Kurtus, School for Champions. Copyright © Restrictions

Mysterious Force at a Distance

by Ron Kurtus (revised 26 March 2004)

Forces can be divided into those that act by direct contact—such as when you push on a door to open it—and those that that act at a distance, where there is no apparent physical contact between the objects. Gravity and magnetism are examples of forces that act at a distance. It is difficult to explain how such a force is possible.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion

Different forces at a distance

A force is defined as a push or pull. Typically, forces involve physical contact, such as pushing on a door. When you pull a wagon, you are actually pushing on the handle. The only time true pulling works is when the force acts at a distance, such as when gravity pulls you toward the Earth.

There is actually a question whether there is such a thing as direct physical contact. Do the atoms or molecules of one material actually touch the atoms of another, or is there a microscopic separation? To avoid this question, let's define a force at a distance as one that acts at distances greater than at the atomic level.

Forces that act at a distance include some common physical science forces. There may be such forces that we don't know about, including psychic forces.

Physics forces

Common forces in physical science that act at a distance include gravity, static electricity and magnetism.

There are also forces that we don't normally observe, since they are so small. These are molecular attraction and the nuclear forces that hold the atom together. We won't consider those forces here.

Unknown forces

There probably are other such forces that we don't even know about. In the Star Trek television and movie series, they often used a "tractor beam" to pull other space vehicles to the Starship Enterprise. We don't know if such a beam really exists.

There is a theory of the existance of an anti-gravity force that actually pushes matter apart. It is used to explain the rate of expansion of the Universe.

Mental forces

Some people believe there are psychic or mental forces that can act at a distance to move objects or cause other people to do things. It has never been proven that such forces exist, although it would be fun to have such power if it did exist.

Push or pull

Most of the forces that act at a distance are pulling forces, such as the pull of gravity or the attraction of molecules to each other. Static electrical and magnetic forces have both push and pull capabilities. For example, similar magnetic poles push away from each other.

How does it work?

Now, it only seems natural that if a moving object smashes into another object, it will cause the second object to move in the same direction.  How can something push or pull another object, causing it to move, when they are a distance apart?

The big mystery is how do these forces work? What causes them to push or pull?

If you study magnets, you can demonstrate the magnetic field or lines of force. But what do these lines of force do? Are there tiny little particles flying from one end of a magnet to another, such that it pushes against a similar or pole sucks in an opposite magnetic pole?

There has never been a truly satisfactory explanation of how forces at a distance work. Maybe this could be a project for you to try to make a discovery or establish a theory to explain it.


There are forces what act at a distance, pushing objects away or drawing them towards each other. There really isn't a good explanation of how and why these forces work.

Setting a good example is being a force at a distance

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Physics Resources


Forces In Nature by Liz Sonneborn Rosen; Publishing Group (2004) $25.25 - Understanding gravitational, electrical and magnetic force

The Science of Forces by Steve Parker; Heinemann (2005) $29.29 - Projects with experiments with forces and machines

Glencoe Science: Motion, Forces, and Energy, by McGraw-Hill; Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (2001) $19.32 - Student edition (Hardcover)

Top-rated books on Physics of Force

Questions and comments

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