Newton’s famous Laws of Motion have helped us understand the physical world for over three hundred years. Lately though, they’ve gotten a bad rap for being too basic and dusty to connect with the cutting edge of modern science. Newtonian physics just doesn’t grab the headlines like it used to. Now we’re obsessed with newer evidence the universe doesn’t work like Newton said it should: relativity, string theory, quantum particles, and the Higgs boson.
But let’s not toss away Newton’s Laws just yet. There are lessons we can learn from them, as we struggle to understand the forces that move us and shape our lives. A science lesson is no replacement for faith, but to borrow a phrase from Pastor Rob Bell, in the experience of a human being “everything is spiritual.”
Let’ review what you may not remember from high school physics:
- Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. In other words, things are lazy. They tend to keep doing whatever they’re already doing.
- The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is (a) directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, (b) in the same direction as the net force, and (c) inversely proportional to the mass of the object. In other words, the bigger a thing is, the harder it is to change its laziness.
- For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, if you push on something, you’re always going to have some push-back.
Let’s count these down, 3-2-1, with that third law first.
Newton’s 3rd Law: The Law of Push-Back
You’re struggling against something in your life. You could be trying to finish a project, get a job, work on a personal relationship goal, whatever. Remember Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion. I’m not trying to spout metaphysical voodoo at you, or misuse sound scientific principles. Just… draw a lesson from it. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The way the universe we’re in works, is that forces tend to be opposed by other forces.
Sitting in a chair, you may feel you’re doing nothing at all, but you’re constantly exerting force downward on the chair, and the chair is exerting force upward on you. That’s what keeps you from falling through! If you push your hand against a wall, not only are you exerting force on the wall, the wall is exerting equal force back on you, or else it would move. Now, here’s the important part: Anything, literally anything that you move- be it a pencil, a couch cushion, a cereal box, or a refrigerator- exerts equal force back on you while you’re moving it. In some way, maybe the same is true for projects, job searches, and relationship goals.
The lesson: You’re going to experience push-back in life. Expect it.
Newton’s 2nd Law: The Law of Proportion
Now for the second law, which is represented by the equation Force = Mass x Acceleration. Force is the push or pull you put on something, Mass is how big and heavy it is, and Acceleration is how much it moves. Simply put, the bigger something is, the more force it takes to move it.
For example, if you place your refrigerator on a clear floor and kick it as hard as you can, you might move it a little. However, if you then place a soccer ball on the floor and apply the same amount of force, you’ll probably break a window. The same force applied to an object with smaller mass produces much greater acceleration. By the same token, it’s simply going to take more force for you to accelerate the refrigerator the same way you accelerate the soccer ball.
Maybe the things you’re trying to accomplish that seem to require so much effort are simply bigger, more important things in your life. Sometimes we accept things aren’t worth doing if they’re taking a lot of energy out of us, or the best uses of our time are all those projects that feel easiest to do. But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe the easy things are simply smaller, less important endeavors. Maybe the goals we have to work hardest on are so intensive because they’re the biggest achievements.
The lesson: Bigger changes require bigger attention and energy from you.
Newton’s 1st Law: The Law of Persistence
Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. We live in a “lazy” universe where things like to keep doing what they’re doing. Yes, things change, but they only change because of forces acting on them. Your life is a hotbed of inertia if you just train yourself to look for it.
Objects in motion tend to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction. This is the beautiful clincher to the more personal side of Newton’s Laws. Here’s how the universe works: the more mass something has, the greater its inertia, and the more force it takes to stop it. It may take a while to get a big train started down the track, but once it reaches top speed, it’s a force to be reckoned with. The big, important changes in your life may be hard to get started. They may require more time and energy than you ever thought you’d have to spend on them. But once they’re in motion, they just might keep going on their own and carry you wherever you want to go.
The lesson: The biggest changes are always hardest at the beginning. It gets easier from there.
Well, that’s all Sir Newton has for us this week. Hang in there, guys. Scientifically speaking, it may not actually be darkest just before dawn (that time is between midnight and 1:00), but the biggest masses to accelerate really are the ones that require the most force. So keep pushing!
Until next time, may the Force be with you.