There is a passage in the musical *Man of la Mancha* that relates to Newton’s third law of motion. Sancho, in describing a fight with his wife to Don Quixote, says, “Of course I hit her back, Your Grace, but she’s a lot harder than me and you know what they say, ‘Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.’” This is exactly what happens whenever one body exerts a force on another—the first also experiences a force (equal in magnitude and opposite in direction). Numerous common experiences, such as stubbing a toe or throwing a ball, confirm this. It is precisely stated in Newton’s third law of motion.

This law represents a certain *symmetry in nature*: Forces always occur in pairs, and one body cannot exert a force on another without experiencing a force itself. We sometimes refer to this law loosely as “action-reaction,” where the force exerted is the action and the force experienced as a consequence is the reaction. Newton’s third law has practical uses in analyzing the origin of forces and understanding which forces are external to a system.

We can readily see Newton’s third law at work by taking a look at how people move about. Consider a swimmer pushing off from the side of a pool, as illustrated in [link]. She pushes against the pool wall with her feet and accelerates in the direction *opposite* to that of her push. The wall has exerted an equal and opposite force back on the swimmer. You might think that two equal and opposite forces would cancel, but they do not *because they act on different systems*. In this case, there are two systems that we could investigate: the swimmer or the wall. If we select the swimmer to be the system of interest, as in the figure, then ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{wall on feet}}$ is an external force on this system and affects its motion. The swimmer moves in the direction of ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{wall on feet}}$. In contrast, the force ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{feet on wall}}$ acts on the wall and not on our system of interest. Thus ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{feet on wall}}$ does not directly affect the motion of the system and does not cancel ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{wall on feet}}$. Note that the swimmer pushes in the direction opposite to that in which she wishes to move. The reaction to her push is thus in the desired direction.

Other examples of Newton’s third law are easy to find. As a professor paces in front of a whiteboard, she exerts a force backward on the floor. The floor exerts a reaction force forward on the professor that causes her to accelerate forward. Similarly, a car accelerates because the ground pushes forward on the drive wheels in reaction to the drive wheels pushing backward on the ground. You can see evidence of the wheels pushing backward when tires spin on a gravel road and throw rocks backward. In another example, rockets move forward by expelling gas backward at high velocity. This means the rocket exerts a large backward force on the gas in the rocket combustion chamber, and the gas therefore exerts a large reaction force forward on the rocket. This reaction force is called thrust. It is a common misconception that rockets propel themselves by pushing on the ground or on the air behind them. They actually work better in a vacuum, where they can more readily expel the exhaust gases. Helicopters similarly create lift by pushing air down, thereby experiencing an upward reaction force. Birds and airplanes also fly by exerting force on air in a direction opposite to that of whatever force they need. For example, the wings of a bird force air downward and backward in order to get lift and move forward. An octopus propels itself in the water by ejecting water through a funnel from its body, similar to a jet ski. In a situation similar to Sancho’s, professional cage fighters experience reaction forces when they punch, sometimes breaking their hand by hitting an opponent’s body.

A physics professor pushes a cart of demonstration equipment to a lecture hall, as seen in [link]. Her mass is 65.0 kg, the cart’s is 12.0 kg, and the equipment’s is 7.0 kg. Calculate the acceleration produced when the professor exerts a backward force of 150 N on the floor. All forces opposing the motion, such as friction on the cart’s wheels and air resistance, total 24.0 N.

**Strategy**

Since they accelerate as a unit, we define the system to be the professor, cart, and equipment. This is System 1 in [link]. The professor pushes backward with a force ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{foot}}$ of 150 N. According to Newton’s third law, the floor exerts a forward reaction force ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{floor}}$ of 150 N on System 1. Because all motion is horizontal, we can assume there is no net force in the vertical direction. The problem is therefore one-dimensional along the horizontal direction. As noted, $\mathbf{\text{f}}$ opposes the motion and is thus in the opposite direction of ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{floor}}$. Note that we do not include the forces ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{prof}}$ or ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{cart}}$ because these are internal forces, and we do not include ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{foot}}$ because it acts on the floor, not on the system. There are no other significant forces acting on System 1. If the net external force can be found from all this information, we can use Newton’s second law to find the acceleration as requested. See the free-body diagram in the figure.

**Solution**

Newton’s second law is given by

The net external force on System 1 is deduced from [link] and the discussion above to be

The mass of System 1 is

These values of ${F}_{\text{net}}$ and $m$ produce an acceleration of

**Discussion**

None of the forces between components of System 1, such as between the professor’s hands and the cart, contribute to the net external force because they are internal to System 1. Another way to look at this is to note that forces between components of a system cancel because they are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. For example, the force exerted by the professor on the cart results in an equal and opposite force back on her. In this case both forces act on the same system and, therefore, cancel. Thus internal forces (between components of a system) cancel. Choosing System 1 was crucial to solving this problem.

Calculate the force the professor exerts on the cart in [link] using data from the previous example if needed.

**Strategy**

If we now define the system of interest to be the cart plus equipment (System 2 in [link]), then the net external force on System 2 is the force the professor exerts on the cart minus friction. The force she exerts on the cart, ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{prof}}$, is an external force acting on System 2. ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{prof}}$ was internal to System 1, but it is external to System 2 and will enter Newton’s second law for System 2.

**Solution**

Newton’s second law can be used to find ${\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{prof}}$. Starting with

and noting that the magnitude of the net external force on System 2 is

we solve for ${F}_{\text{prof}}$, the desired quantity:

The value of $f$ is given, so we must calculate net ${F}_{\text{net}}$. That can be done since both the acceleration and mass of System 2 are known. Using Newton’s second law we see that

where the mass of System 2 is 19.0 kg ($m$= 12.0 kg + 7.0 kg) and its acceleration was found to be $a=1.5\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}{\text{m/s}}^{2}$ in the previous example. Thus,

Now we can find the desired force:

**Discussion**

It is interesting that this force is significantly less than the 150-N force the professor exerted backward on the floor. Not all of that 150-N force is transmitted to the cart; some of it accelerates the professor.

The choice of a system is an important analytical step both in solving problems and in thoroughly understanding the physics of the situation (which is not necessarily the same thing).

# Section Summary

- Newton’s third law of motion represents a basic symmetry in nature. It states: Whenever one body exerts a force on a second body, the first body experiences a force that is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the force that the first body exerts.
- A thrust is a reaction force that pushes a body forward in response to a backward force. Rockets, airplanes, and cars are pushed forward by a thrust reaction force.

# Conceptual Questions

When you take off in a jet aircraft, there is a sensation of being pushed back into the seat. Explain why you move backward in the seat—is there really a force backward on you? (The same reasoning explains whiplash injuries, in which the head is apparently thrown backward.)

A device used since the 1940s to measure the kick or recoil of the body due to heart beats is the “ballistocardiograph.” What physics principle(s) are involved here to measure the force of cardiac contraction? How might we construct such a device?

Describe a situation in which one system exerts a force on another and, as a consequence, experiences a force that is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. Which of Newton’s laws of motion apply?

Why does an ordinary rifle recoil (kick backward) when fired? The barrel of a recoilless rifle is open at both ends. Describe how Newton’s third law applies when one is fired. Can you safely stand close behind one when it is fired?

An American football lineman reasons that it is senseless to try to out-push the opposing player, since no matter how hard he pushes he will experience an equal and opposite force from the other player. Use Newton’s laws and draw a free-body diagram of an appropriate system to explain how he can still out-push the opposition if he is strong enough.

Newton’s third law of motion tells us that forces always occur in pairs of equal and opposite magnitude. Explain how the choice of the “system of interest” affects whether one such pair of forces cancels.

# Problem Exercises

What net external force is exerted on a 1100-kg artillery shell fired from a battleship if the shell is accelerated at $2\text{.}\text{40}\times {\text{10}}^{4}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}{\text{m/s}}^{2}$? What force is exerted on the ship by the artillery shell?

Force on shell: $2\text{.}\text{64}\times {\text{10}}^{7}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{N}$

Force exerted on ship = $-2\text{.}\text{64}\times {\text{10}}^{7}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{N}$, by Newton’s third law

A brave but inadequate rugby player is being pushed backward by an opposing player who is exerting a force of 800 N on him. The mass of the losing player plus equipment is 90.0 kg, and he is accelerating at $1\text{.}\text{20}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}{\text{m/s}}^{2}$ backward. (a) What is the force of friction between the losing player’s feet and the grass? (b) What force does the winning player exert on the ground to move forward if his mass plus equipment is 110 kg? (c) Draw a sketch of the situation showing the system of interest used to solve each part. For this situation, draw a free-body diagram and write the net force equation.

- College Physics
- Preface
- Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
- Kinematics
- Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Displacement
- Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
- Time, Velocity, and Speed
- Acceleration
- Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
- Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Falling Objects
- Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion

- Two-Dimensional Kinematics
- Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
- Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Development of Force Concept
- Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
- Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
- Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
- Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
- Problem-Solving Strategies
- Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction

- Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
- Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
- Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
- Introduction to Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
- Work: The Scientific Definition
- Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem
- Gravitational Potential Energy
- Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
- Nonconservative Forces
- Conservation of Energy
- Power
- Work, Energy, and Power in Humans
- World Energy Use

- Linear Momentum and Collisions
- Statics and Torque
- Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Angular Acceleration
- Kinematics of Rotational Motion
- Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
- Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
- Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
- Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
- Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum

- Fluid Statics
- Introduction to Fluid Statics
- What Is a Fluid?
- Density
- Pressure
- Variation of Pressure with Depth in a Fluid
- Pascal’s Principle
- Gauge Pressure, Absolute Pressure, and Pressure Measurement
- Archimedes’ Principle
- Cohesion and Adhesion in Liquids: Surface Tension and Capillary Action
- Pressures in the Body

- Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
- Bernoulli’s Equation
- The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
- Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
- The Onset of Turbulence
- Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
- Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes

- Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
- Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
- Thermodynamics
- Introduction to Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
- Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
- Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
- Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
- Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
- Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation

- Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
- Period and Frequency in Oscillations
- Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
- The Simple Pendulum
- Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
- Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
- Damped Harmonic Motion
- Forced Oscillations and Resonance
- Waves
- Superposition and Interference
- Energy in Waves: Intensity

- Physics of Hearing
- Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
- Conductors and Insulators
- Coulomb’s Law
- Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
- Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
- Electric Forces in Biology
- Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
- Applications of Electrostatics

- Electric Potential and Electric Field
- Introduction to Electric Potential and Electric Energy
- Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
- Electric Potential in a Uniform Electric Field
- Electrical Potential Due to a Point Charge
- Equipotential Lines
- Capacitors and Dielectrics
- Capacitors in Series and Parallel
- Energy Stored in Capacitors

- Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
- Circuits, Bioelectricity, and DC Instruments
- Magnetism
- Introduction to Magnetism
- Magnets
- Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
- Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
- Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
- Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
- The Hall Effect
- Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
- Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
- Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
- Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
- More Applications of Magnetism

- Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
- Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
- Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
- Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
- Motional Emf
- Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
- Electric Generators
- Back Emf
- Transformers
- Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
- Inductance
- RL Circuits
- Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
- RLC Series AC Circuits

- Electromagnetic Waves
- Geometric Optics
- Vision and Optical Instruments
- Wave Optics
- Introduction to Wave Optics
- The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
- Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
- Young’s Double Slit Experiment
- Multiple Slit Diffraction
- Single Slit Diffraction
- Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
- Thin Film Interference
- Polarization
- *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light

- Special Relativity
- Introduction to Quantum Physics
- Atomic Physics
- Introduction to Atomic Physics
- Discovery of the Atom
- Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
- Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
- X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
- Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
- The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
- Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
- Quantum Numbers and Rules
- The Pauli Exclusion Principle

- Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
- Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
- Particle Physics
- Frontiers of Physics
- Atomic Masses
- Selected Radioactive Isotopes
- Useful Information
- Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation