Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion states, “A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force.” What, then, happens to a body when an external force is applied to it? That situation is described by Newton’s Second Law of Motion. It states, “The force acting on an object is equal to the mass of that object times its acceleration.” This is written in mathematical form as:
F = ma
F is force, m is mass and a is acceleration. The math behind this is quite simple. If you double the force, you double the acceleration, but if you double the mass, you cut the acceleration in half.
When a constant force acts on a massive body, it causes it to accelerate, i.e., to change its velocity, at a constant rate. In the simplest case, a force applied to an object at rest causes it to accelerate in the direction of the force. However, if the object is already in motion, or if this situation is viewed from a moving inertial reference frame, that body might appear to speed up, slow down, or change direction depending on the direction of the force and the directions that the object and reference frame are moving relative to each other.
The bold letters F and a in the equation indicate that force and acceleration are vector quantities, which means they have both magnitude and direction. The force can be a single force or it can be the combination of more than one force. In this case, we would write the equation as:
∑F = ma
The large Σ represents the vector sum of all the forces, or the net force, acting on a body.
It is rather difficult to imagine applying a constant force to a body for an indefinite length of time. In most cases, forces can only be applied for a limited time, producing what is called impulse. For a massive body moving in an inertial reference frame without any other forces such as friction acting on it, a certain impulse will cause a certain change in its velocity. The body might speed up, slow down or change direction, after which, the body will continue moving at a new constant velocity (unless, of course, the impulse causes the body to stop).
There is one situation, however, in which we do encounter a constant force — the force due to gravitational acceleration, which causes massive bodies to exert a downward force on the Earth. In this case, the constant acceleration due to gravity is written as g, and Newton’s Second Law becomes F = mg. Notice that in this case, F and g are not conventionally written as vectors, because they are always pointing in the same direction, down.
The product of mass times gravitational acceleration, mg, is known as weight, which is just another kind of force. Without gravity, a massive body has no weight, and without a massive body, gravity cannot produce a force. In order to overcome gravity and lift a massive body, you must produce an upward force ma that is greater than the downward gravitational force mg.
Now that we know how a massive body in an inertial reference frame behaves when it subjected to an outside force, what happens to the body that is exerting that force? That situation is described by Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
Jim Lucas is a freelance writer and editor specializing in physics, astronomy and engineering. He is general manager of Lucas Technologies.