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....

Conservation of Momentum

In many subfields of physics these days, it is possible to read an entire issue of a journal without ever encountering an equation involving force or a reference to Newton's laws of motion. In the last hundred and fifty years, an entirely different framework has been developed for physics, based on conservation laws.

The new approach is not just preferred because it is in fashion. It applies inside an atom or near a black hole, where Newton's laws do not. Even in everyday situations the new approach can be superior. We have already seen how perpetual motion machines could be designed that were too complex to be easily debunked by Newton's laws. The beauty of conservation laws is that they tell us something must remain the same, regardless of the complexity of the process.

So far we have discussed only two conservation laws, the laws of conservation of mass and energy. Is there any reason to believe that further conservation laws are needed in order to replace Newton's laws as a complete description of nature? Yes. Conservation of mass and energy do not relate in any way to the three dimensions of space, because both are scalars. Conservation of energy, for instance, does not prevent the planet earth from abruptly making a 90-degree turn and heading straight into the sun, because kinetic energy does not depend on direction. In this chapter, we develop a new conserved quantity, called momentum, which is a vector.

Last Update: 2009-06-21