Teaching Newton’s Third Law

Newton’s First and Second Laws of Motion are universal: they tell us how any set of forces will affect any object.

If the forces are ‘balanced’ (dread word! — saying ‘total force is zero’ is better, I think) then the object will not accelerate: that is the essence of the First Law. If the sum of the forces is anything other than zero, then the object will accelerate; and what is more, it will accelerate at a rate that is directly proportional to the total force and inversely proportional to the mass of the object; and let’s not forget that it will also accelerate in the direction in which the total force acts. Acceleration is, after all, a vector quantity.

So far, so good. But what about the Third Law? It goes without saying, I hope, that Newton’s Third Law is also universal, but it tells us something different from the first two.

The first two tell us how forces affect objects; the third tells us how objects affect objects: in other words, how objects interact with each other.

The word ‘interact’ can be defined as ‘to act in such a way so as to affect each other’; in other words, how an action produces a reaction. However, the word ‘reaction’ has some unhelpful baggage. For example, you tap my knee (lightly!) with a hammer and my leg jerks. This is a reaction in the biological sense but not in the Newtonian sense; this type of reaction (although involuntary) requires the involvement of an active nervous system and an active muscle system. Because of this, there is a short but unavoidable time delay between the stimulus and the response.

The same is not true of a Newton Third Law reaction: the action and reaction happen simultaneously with zero time delay. The reaction is also entirely passive as the force is generated by the mere fact of the interaction and requires no active ‘participation’ from the ‘acted upon’ object.

I try to avoid the words ‘action’ and ‘reaction’ in statements of Newton’s Third Law for this reason.

If body A exerts a force on body B, then body B exerts an equal and opposite force on body A.

The best version of Newton’s Third Law (imho)

In our universe, body B simply cannot help but affect body A when body A acts on it. Newton’s Third Law is the first step towards understanding that of necessity we exist in an interconnected universe.

Getting the Third Law wrong…

Let’s consider a stationary teapot. (Why not?)

We can reject this as an appropriate example of Newton’s Third Law for two reasons:

• Reason 1: Force X and Force Y are acting on a single object. Newton’s Third Law is about the forces produced by an interaction between objects and so cannot be illustrated by a single object.
• Reason 2: Force X and Force Y are ‘equal’ only in the parochial and limited sense of being merely ‘equal in magnitude’ (8.2 N). They are very different types of force: X is an action-at-distance gravitational force and Y is an electromagnetic contact force. (‘Electromagnetic’ because contact forces are produced by electrons in atoms repelling the electrons in other atoms.) The word ‘equal’ in Newton’s Third Law does some seriously heavy lifting…

Getting the Third Law right…

The Third Law deals with the forces produced by interactions and so cannot be shown using a single diagram. Free body diagrams are the answer here (as they are in a vast range of mechanics problems).

The Earth (body A) pulls the teapot (body B) downwards with the force X so the teapot (body B) pulls the Earth (body A) upwards with the equal but opposite force W. They are both gravitational forces and so are both colour-coded black on the diagram because they are a ‘Newton 3 pair’.

It is worth noting that, applying Newton’s Second Law (F=ma), the downward 8.2 N would produce an acceleration of 9.8 metres per second per second on the teapot if it was allowed to fall. However, the upward 8.2 N would produce an acceleration of only 0.0000000000000000000000014 metres per second per second on the rather more massive planet Earth. Remember that the acceleration produced by the resultant force is inversely proportional to the mass of the object being accelerated.

Similarly, the Earth’s surface pushes upward on the teapot with the force Y and the teapot pushes downward on the Earth’s surface with the force Z. These two forces form a Newton 3 pair and so are colour-coded red on the diagram.

We can summarise this in the form of a table:

Testing understanding

One the best exam questions to test students’ understanding of Newton’s Third Law (at least in my opinion) can be found here. It is a really clever question from the legacy Edexcel specificiation which changed the way I thought about Newton’s Third Law because I was suddenly struck by the thought that the only force that we, as humans, have direct control over is force D on the diagram below. Yes, if D increases then B increases in tandem, but without the weighty presence of the Earth we wouldn’t be able to leap upwards…

4 thoughts on “Teaching Newton’s Third Law”

1. paulmartin42 March 8, 2021 / 7:32 am

A man with middle initials MC,
using a Creazilla cartoon of a blue pot of tea
Turned the world on its side
Years after Isaac died
But he’d be happy as a Cartesian was he

• e=mc2andallthat March 8, 2021 / 3:33 pm

But surely if I was a Cartesian dualist I would only *appear* happy…?

• paulmartin42 March 9, 2021 / 6:20 am

I offer jscoq a computer-gem based on the French enterprise Coq which was central to the 4-colour-problem software solution. If you are a github fan you will find an example dual coding of a prime number logic problem, to tease (or not). Far from an easy path to proof of your theorem