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In mechanics, the normal force is the component, perpendicular to the surface (surface being a plane) of contact, of the contact force exerted on an object by, for example, the surface of a floor or wall, preventing the object from falling. Here "normal" refers to the geometry terminology for being perpendicular, as opposed the common language use of "normal" meaning common or expected. For example, consider a person standing still on the ground, in which case the ground reaction force reduces to the normal force. In another common situation, if an object hits a surface with some speed, and the surface can withstand it, the normal force provides for a rapid deceleration, which will depend on the flexibility of the surface.
In a simple case such as an object resting upon a table, the normal force on the object is equal but in opposite direction to the gravitational force applied on the object (or the weight of the object), that is, , where m is mass, and g is the gravitational field strength (about 9.81 m/s2 on Earth). The normal force here represents the force applied by the table against the object that prevents it from sinking through the table, and requires that the table is sturdy enough to deliver this normal force without breaking. However, it is easy to assume that the normal force and weight are action-reaction force pairs (a common mistake). In this case, the normal force and weight need to be equal in magnitude to explain why there is no upward acceleration of the object. For example, a ball that bounces upwards accelerates upwards because the normal force acting on the ball is larger in magnitude than the weight of the ball.
Where an object rests on an incline, the normal force is perpendicular to the plane the object rests on. Still, the normal force will be as large as necessary to prevent sinking through the surface, presuming the surface is sturdy enough. The strength of the force can be calculated as:
where N is the normal force, m is the mass of the object, g is the gravitational field strength, and θ is the angle of the inclined surface measured from the horizontal.
In general, the magnitude of the normal force, N, is the projection of the net surface interaction force, T, in the normal direction, n, and so the normal force vector can be found by scaling the normal direction by the net surface interaction force. The surface interaction force, in turn, is equal to the dot product of the unit normal with the Cauchy stress tensor describing the stress state of the surface. That is,
Or, in indicial notation,
The parallel shear component of the contact force is known as the frictional force ().
for an object on the point of sliding where is the angle between the slope and the horizontal.
As explained before, the normal force is a contact force, that is, the resultant of the forces between the constituents of the actual constraint, and the constituents of the object. When the object and the constraint (a wall, a table, another object, or any surface) are pressed against each other, the van der Waals force, a force that grows very large very quickly, opposes this and for this reason the two objects cannot penetrate each other. If the two objects are then separated, even by a very small distance, the normal force disappears. This is because the intermolecular force quickly vanishes past the point of equilibrium.
For a person standing in an elevator either stationary or moving at constant velocity, the normal force on the person's feet balances the person's weight. In an elevator that is accelerating upward, the normal force is greater than the person's ground weight and so the person's perceived weight increases (making the person feel heavier). In an elevator that is accelerating downward, the normal force is less than the person's ground weight and so a passenger's perceived weight decreases. If a passenger were to stand on a "weighing scale", such as a conventional bathroom scale, while riding the elevator, the scale will be reading the normal force it delivers to the passenger's feet, and will be different than the person's ground weight if the elevator cab is accelerating up or down. The weighing scale measures normal force (which varies as the elevator cab accelerates), not gravitational force (which does not vary as the cab accelerates). It is impossible to measure true gravitational force without knowledge of the motion of one's immediate environment.
When we define upward to be the positive direction, constructing Newton's second law and solving for the normal force on a passenger yields the following equation: