Newton’s Laws of Motion
We’ve been going through the part of Physics called mechanics. It is based on three laws, formalized by Isaac Newton. Let’s work through them.
The first law is: A body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest. This is also referred to as the Law of Inertia. Inertia is defined as, “a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.” This doesn’t mean that you can’t change what the object is doing — you can alter its movement (direction or speed) by applying a force.
This leads us to Newton’s second law: The sum of all forces applied to an object is equal to its mass time its acceleration. Written as a formula, the law looks like this
Lastly, Newton’s third law is: Any action produces an equal and opposite reaction. For example, if a box is sitting on a table, then the box exerts a downward force on the table equal to its weight, and the table exerts an upward force on the box, also equal to its weight. This upward force (from a table, or platform, or the ground) is also called the normal force. Normal is a word that means “at right angles to a surface.” This is because the force is upwards, which is at right angles to the surface itself (table, ground, etc.).
The unit of force is, appropriately, called the newton. It is abbreviated “N” (upper-case letter, since it is named after a person).
To apply Newton’s Second Law, we must be able to calculate the force applied (). Since there are typically 2 or more forces on an object (gravity and something else), we need to sum all the forces. Here’s where a bit more math comes in. Force is a vector quantity. A vector is something that has a magnitude and a direction. So we need to be able to sum up the force vectors and get what’s called the resultant vector. If you need help learning about vectors, please see my Math Refresher on vectors.
Let’s start with an example. Say that we have a block that is sitting on the ground. We are trying to push it horizontally with a 12 N force, and gravity is pulling down on it with a 10 N force. Here is how to write these vectors:
Here we have used standard vector notation: An arrow above the variable letter indicates a vector quantity; the unit vector in the direction is written and in the direction as Now, the resultant (applied) force is written as:
The other standard way to indicate a vector is with a bold letter, like so:
In order to sum the applied forces, we first must make sure that we have all of them listed. The standard way to do this is to use a “free-body” diagram. Such a diagram helps to analyze all the forces, and to not miss any. Let’s work through several examples and learn about free-body diagrams.
1. Say we have a block of mass sitting on the ground, being pushed horizontally. This is the free-body diagram
Here, we’re calling the pushing force the force of gravity, and the normal force (from the ground) is So let’s sum these forces by direction
First, let’s apply Newton’s second law in the direction and we get
This tells us that the acceleration in the direction is
For the direction, the forces balance (i.e., sum to 0), so there is no motion in that direction. We write it like this:
which tells us that
So, let mass, kg and the pushing force, N. Calculate the normal force () and the acceleration in the direction,
From the free-body diagram, The force of gravity equals mass the acceleration of gravity, or so combining these we get Recall that the acceleration of gravity is so we have
Also from the free-body diagram, or (rearranging), giving
2. Say we have a block of mass sitting on the ground, being pushed horizontally by two opposing forces, and We are told This is the free-body diagram
Summing the forces by directions gives
Again here, the forces in the direction sum to 0 (no movement in the direction, so . Then in the direction, Newton’s second law gives us
And we can write
Here, say that N, N, and mass kg. Again, calculate the normal force () and the acceleration in the direction,
As before, giving
From the free-body diagram, which equals N, giving
3. We have a block sitting on an inclined plane. We’ve shown the same 4 vectors as before, but now they are rotated by an angle theta () to be along the plane or perpendicular to the plane. Since it’s all rotated, the easiest way to do the math is to rotate the coordinate system — define as along the plane and as perpendicular to the plane. Also, some of the forces have new names. As in example 1, is the pushing force and is the normal force. But now, the force of gravity is split into and
Intuitively, you know that on an incline, gravity will pull the block into the plane and down the plane. So we need to calculate how gravity splits into these two parts. How do we do this? You can probably guess this — we’ll use trig. In a right triangle, the two angles other than the right angle have to add up to (they’re complementary). So let’s call the upper angle alpha (); its formula is or Next, we’ll draw in the force due to gravity (called ). It acts straight down, so it’s parallel to the right-hand-side of the big triangle (labeled side ). This means that it makes an angle with the inclined plane (thick line, side ). We also re-draw the vectors and to show how they combine to get Since is perpendicular to the plane, that means that the angle between it and must be the complement of
Now, flip and rotate the small triangle of vectors to draw it so and are horizontal and vertical, and we have
Recalling that cos is adj/hyp and sin is opp/hyp, we get
This may seem “backwards” — usually cosine is associated with and sine with But because of how the coordinate system was defined and rotated on the inclined plane, this is correct for this situation. You have to be careful and look closely!
Say we have a 15 kg block sitting on an incline of (a) How much pushing force does it take to keep it from sliding down the plane, and (b) what is the normal force from the plane?
Start by looking at the diagram at the beginning of example 3. For part (a), we want to just hold the block in place. In terms of an equation, this is
for no acceleration. This tells us that We can solve for this using the above equation,
where the force of gravity is We are given that kg, and we know that the acceleration of gravity is Putting it all together,
For part (b), we use the forces in the direction, which give us
again, for no acceleration. This tells us that As before, this equals
which equals about 127 N of force.
4. Our final example is with two blocks, connected by a rope. We define a new force, the tension in the rope.
As before, we draw a free-body diagram, but now we need two diagrams — one for each block. These two diagrams are connected by the tension in the rope.
Notice that for is horizontal; for is vertical. Again, we can link the two free-body diagrams with the tension in the rope. Also, in the first diagram, the s point at each other. This is because the rope is pulling up the slope, and is preventing from falling.
As long as block stays in contact with the plane, there is no motion in the direction, and, as before, Next, also assume that there’s no motion in the direction, so No motion means that does not move either, and for that block. Let’s use what we derived in Example 3, and recall that So for mass
and for mass
then, setting the two equations equal, we get:
Dividing through by gives us
Remember that this is for no motion. So for a given mass, and incline angle, we can calculate mass needed for no motion ( just holds in place) — also called static equilibrium.
In this example, let the large mass be kg and the incline is at Calculate the normal force, and what must be the mass of for no motion?
From above, the normal force which gives us
And also from above, for no motion, giving
So, if the second mass () is this much, there is no motion. If it’s more massive, the first mass () will be pulled up the plane; if is less, then will slide down the plane.
Mass & Weight
What’s the difference between mass and weight? Mass is an intrinsic property of material; weight is the force due to gravity on a mass, and equals In the metric (MKS) system, mass is measured in kilograms and weight (force) is measured in newtons. In the Imperial system — here’s the problem — weight and mass are used somewhat interchangably. The Imperial unit of weight is the pound (lb) is also thought of as mass. Some engineers talk about “lbf” — pound of force and “lbm” — pound of mass. I’ve also heard of a unit for mass called the slug, which equals or pounds divided by gravity. Just remember that pounds is a force, and is weight () not mass. Confusing enough? This is one place where the metric (MKS) system really wins!
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