Regents Physics - Newton's 3rd Law of Motion

(The Law of Action / Reaction)

Newton's 3rd Law

Newton's 3rd Law of Motion, commonly referred to as the Law of Action / Reaction, describes the phenomena by which all forces come in pairs. If Object 1 exerts a force on Object 2, then Object 2 must exert a force back on Object 1. Moreover, the force of Object 1 on Object 2 is equal in magnitude, or size, but opposite in direction to the force of Object 2 on Object 1. Written mathematically:


This has many implications, many of which aren't immediately obvious. For example, if you punch the wall with your first with a force of 100N, the wall imparts a force back on your fist of 100N (which is why it hurts!). Or try this. Push on the corner of your desk with your palm for a few seconds. Now look at your palm… see the indentation? That's because the corner of the desk pushed back on your palm.


Although this law surrounds our actions everyday, often times we don't even realize its effects. To run forward, a cat pushes with its legs backward on the ground, and the ground pushes the cat forward. How do you swim? If you want to swim forwards, which way do you push on the water? Backwards, that's right. As you push backwards on the water, the reactionary force, the water pushing you, propels you forward. How do you jump up in the air? You push down on the ground, and it's the reactionary force of the ground pushing on you that accelerates you skyward!

Action-Reaction Pairs

As you can see, then, forces always come in pairs. These pairs are known as action-reaction pairs. What are the action-reaction force pairs for a girl kicking a soccer ball? The girl's foot applies a force on the ball, and the ball applies an equal and opposite force on the girl's foot.


How does a rocket ship maneuver in space? The rocket propels hot expanding gas particles outward, so the gas particles in return push the rocket forward. Newton's 3rd Law even applies to gravity. The Earth exerts a gravitational force on you (downward). You, therefore, must apply a gravitational force upward on the Earth!

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