Newton’s 3rd Law

Newton's 3rd Law
Newton's 3rd Law

Newton’s 3rd Law of motion states that all forces between two objects exist in equal magnitude and opposite direction: if one object A exerts a force FA on a second object B, then B simultaneously exerts a force FB on A, and the two forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction: FA = −FB. The third law means that all forces are interactions between different bodies,  or different regions within one body, and thus that there is no such thing as a force that is not accompanied by an equal and opposite force.

In some situations, the magnitude and direction of the forces are determined entirely by one of the two bodies, say Body A; the force exerted by Body A on Body B is called the “action”, and the force exerted by Body B on Body A is called the “reaction”. This law is sometimes referred to as the action-reaction law, with FA called the “action” and FB the “reaction”.

In other situations, the magnitude and directions of the forces are determined jointly by both bodies and it isn’t necessary to identify one force as the “action” and the other as the “reaction”. The action and the reaction are simultaneous, and it does not matter which is called the action and which is called reaction; both forces are part of a single interaction, and neither force exists without the other.

The two forces in Newton‘s 3rd law are of the same type (e.g., if the road exerts a forward frictional force on an accelerating car’s tires, then it is also a frictional force that Newton’s third law predicts for the tires pushing backward on the road).

From a conceptual standpoint, Newton’s third law is seen when a person walks: they push against the floor, and the floor pushes against the person. Similarly, the tires of a car push against the road while the road pushes back on the tires—the tires and road simultaneously push against each other.

In swimming, a person interacts with the water, pushing the water backward, while the water simultaneously pushes the person forward—both the person and the water push against each other. The reaction forces account for the motion in these examples. These forces depend on friction; a person or car on ice, for example, maybe unable to exert the action force to produce the needed reaction force.

Newton used the third law to derive the law of conservation of momentum; from a deeper perspective, however, conservation of momentum is the more fundamental idea (derived via Noether’s theorem from Galilean invariance), and holds in cases where Newton’s third law appears to fail, for instance when force fields, as well as particles, carry momentum, and in quantum mechanics.


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