Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Transmission of Forces by Low-Mass Objects

You're walking your dog. The dog wants to go faster than you do, and the leash is taut. Does Newton's third law guarantee that your force on your end of the leash is equal and opposite to the dog's force on its end? If they're not exactly equal, is there any reason why they should be approximately equal?

If there was no leash between you, and you were in direct contact with the dog, then Newton's third law would apply, but Newton's third law cannot relate your force on the leash to the dog's force on the leash, because that would involve three separate objects. Newton's third law only says that your force on the leash is equal and opposite to the leash's force on you,

FyL = -FLy,

and that the dog's force on the leash is equal and opposite to its force on the dog

FdL = -FLd.

Still, we have a strong intuitive expectation that whatever force we make on our end of the leash is transmitted to the dog, and viceversa. We can analyze the situation by concentrating on the forces that act on the leash, FdL and FyL. According to Newton's second law, these relate to the leash's mass and acceleration:

FdL + FyL = mLaL.

The leash is far less massive then any of the other objects involved, and if mL is very small, then apparently the total force on the leash is also very small, FdL + FyL ≈ 0, and therefore

FdL ≈ -FyL .

Thus even though Newton's third law does not apply directly to these two forces, we can approximate the low-mass leash as if it was not intervening between you and the dog. It's at least approximately as if you and the dog were acting directly on each other, in which case Newton's third law would have applied.

In general, low-mass objects can be treated approximately as if they simply transmitted forces from one object to another. This can be true for strings, ropes, and cords, and also for rigid objects such as rods and sticks.

If you look at a piece of string under a magnifying glass as you pull on the ends more and more strongly, you will see the fibers straightening and becoming taut. Different parts of the string are apparently exerting forces on each other. For instance, if we think of the two halves of the string as two objects, then each half is exerting a force on the other half. If we imagine the string as consisting of many small parts, then each segment is transmitting a force to the next segment, and if the string has very little mass, then all the forces are equal in magnitude. We refer to the magnitude of the forces as the tension in the string, T. Although the tension is measured in units of Newtons, it is not itself a force. There are many forces within the string, some in one direction and some in the other direction, and their magnitudes are only approximately equal. The concept of tension only makes sense as a general, approximate statement of how big all the forces are.

l / If we imagine dividing a taut rope up into small segments, then any segment has forces pulling outward on it at each end. If the rope is of negligible mass, then all the forces equal +T or -T, where T, the tension, is a single number.

If a rope goes over a pulley or around some other object, then the tension throughout the rope is approximately equal so long as there is not too much friction. A rod or stick can be treated in much the same way as a string, but it is possible to have either compression or tension.

Since tension is not a type of force, the force exerted by a rope on some other object must be of some definite type such as static friction, kinetic friction, or a normal force. If you hold your dog's leash with your hand through the loop, then the force exerted by the leash on your hand is a normal force: it is the force that keeps the leash from occupying the same space as your hand. If you grasp a plain end of a rope, then the force between the rope and your hand is a frictional force.

A more complex example of transmission of forces is the way a car accelerates. Many people would describe the car's engine as making the force that accelerates the car, but the engine is part of the car, so that's impossible: objects can't make forces on themselves. What really happens is that the engine's force is transmitted through the transmission to the axles, then through the tires to the road. By Newton's third law, there will thus be a forward force from the road on the tires, which accelerates the car.

Discussion Question

A When you step on the gas pedal, is your foot's force being transmitted in the sense of the word used in this section?

Last Update: 2009-06-21