Newton's third law of motion

(See Figure 2.2.) One corollary of Newton's third law is that an object cannot exert a force on itself. Another corollary is that all forces in the universe have corresponding reactions. The only exceptions to this rule are the fictitious forces that arise in non-inertial reference frames (e.g., the centrifugal and Coriolis forces that appear in rotating reference frames--see Chapter 6). Fictitious forces do not generally possess reactions.

Newton's third law implies *action at a
distance*. In other words, if the force that object
exerts on object
suddenly changes then Newton's third law
demands that there must be an immediate
change in the force that object
exerts on object
. Moreover, this must be true irrespective of the
distance between the two objects. However, we now know that
Einstein's special theory of relativity forbids information from traveling through the
universe faster than the velocity of light in vacuum (Rindler 1977). Hence, action at a distance is also forbidden. In other words, if the force that object
exerts on object
suddenly changes then there must be a
time delay, which is at least as long as it takes a light ray to propagate
between the two objects, before the force that object
exerts on object
can respond. Of course, this means that
Newton's third law is not, strictly speaking, correct. However, as
long as we restrict our investigations to the motions of dynamical
systems over timescales that are long compared to the time
required for light rays to traverse these systems, Newton's third
law can be regarded as being approximately correct.

In an inertial frame, Newton's second law of motion applied to the th object yields

Note that the summation on the right-hand side of this equation excludes the case , because the th object cannot exert a force on itself. Let us now take this equation and sum it over all objects. We obtain

Consider the sum over forces on the right-hand side of the preceding equation. Each element of this sum-- , say--can be paired with another element-- , in this case--which is equal and opposite, according to Newton's third law. In other words, the elements of the sum all cancel out in pairs. Thus, the net value of the sum is zero. It follows that Equation (2.25) can be written

where is the total mass. The quantity is the vector displacement of the

According to Equation (2.26), the center of mass of the system moves uniformly in a straight line, in accordance with Newton's first law of motion, irrespective of the nature of the forces acting between the various components of the system.

Now, if the center of mass moves uniformly in a straight line then the center of mass velocity,

is a constant of the motion. However, the momentum of the th object takes the form . Hence, the total momentum of the system is written

A comparison of Equations (2.28) and (2.29) suggests that is also a constant of the motion. In other words, the total momentum of the system is a conserved quantity, irrespective of the nature of the forces acting between the various components of the system. This result (which only holds if there is zero net external force acting on the system) is a direct consequence of Newton's third law of motion.

Taking the vector product of Equation (2.24) with the position vector , we obtain

The right-hand side of this equation is the net

(2.31) |

where

(2.32) |

is the

(2.33) |

Hence, summing Equation (2.30) over all particles, we obtain

Consider the sum on the right-hand side of Equation (2.34). A general term, , in this sum can always be paired with a matching term, , in which the indices have been swapped. Making use of Equation (2.23), we can write the sum of a general matched pair as

(2.35) |

Let us assume that the forces acting between the various components of the system are

(2.36) |

for all values of and . Thus, the sum on the right-hand side of Equation (2.34) is zero for any kind of central force. We are left with

In other words, the total angular momentum of the system is a conserved quantity, provided that the different components of the system interact via central forces (and there is zero net external torque acting on the system).