What is friction?Akshat Mahajan



Friction exists because most surfaces really look like this under a microscope.

Note the hills, the crests, and the valleys. These are called asperities, or material deformations. They occur on rough surfaces, and even flat surfaces might have minor irregularities on them.

Now imagine trying to rub them against each other. Feel, for a moment, in your mind’s eye the opposition you are likely to encounter as they grind against each other.

That grinding is the most common origin for friction, both static (when your object is still and you’re trying to get it to move) and kinetic (when your object is already moving, and you need to keep it moving).

It is why the friction that wheels encounter while rolling (called rolling friction) is much lower than other types of friction, and why tires have deep grooves in them. It is also why friction tends to decrease the flatter and more uniform your surface gets.


But friction can still exist for perfectly flat surfaces, where asperities of the form above are no longer present.

Perfectly flat surfaces bond to each other—in other words, they try to stick to each other. This is called adhesion, and can be caused by any number of reasons:

  • Van der Waals forcesa class of forces where attraction between electric dipoles on the surface of the materials cause them to be attracted. In such cases, the materials are said have been dispersively adhered.
  • Chemical bonding, where the atoms of the two materials exchange electrons in some way and become chemically attached to each other. For instance, hydrogen in one material may form tenuous bonds with strongly electronegative elements in the other.

These forces are typically weak enough that they are easily broken once you lift the object—but not so weak that overcoming the attraction by dragging the object doesn’t pose a problem.


Friction, then, is not so much a force as it is the sum of very tiny forces and irregularities along the edge of surfaces.

It is possible to model it as a true force—and indeed, most high school textbooks do just that—but it is important to recognize that that is just a convenient abstraction. To put it another way: Friction is to forces what Santa Claus is to a jolly man in a fat suit—window dressing on top of a very complex reality.

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