Newton's First Law (Law of Inertia)

May the Force Be with You
The F, the m and the a in Newton's formula are very important concepts in mechanics. The F is force, a push or pull exerted on an object. The m is mass, a measure of how much matter is in an object. And the a is acceleration, which describes how an object's velocity changes over time. Velocity, which is similar to speed, is the distance an object travels in a certain amount of time.

Let's restate Newton's first law in everyday terms:

    ­An object at rest will stay at rest, forever, as long as nothing pushes or pulls on it. An object in motion will stay in motion, traveling in a straight line, forever, until something pushes or pulls on it.

­The "forever" part is difficult to swallow sometimes. But imagine that you have three ramps set up as shown below. Also imagine that the ramps are infinitely long and infinitely smooth. You let a marble roll down the first ramp, which is set at a slight incline. The marble speeds up on its way down the ramp. Now, you give a gentle push to the marble going uphill on the second ramp. It slows down as it goes up. Finally, you push a marble on a ramp that represents the middle state ­between the first two -- in other words, a ramp that is perfectly horizontal. In this case, the marble will neither slow down nor speed up. In fact, it should keep rolling. Forever.

Marbles rolling down ramps
According to Newton's first law, the marble on that bottom ramp should just keep going. And going.
 

Physicists use the term inertia to describe this tendency of an object to resist a change in its motion. The Latin root for inertia is the same root for "inert," which means lacking the ability to move. So you can see how scientists came up with the word. What's more amazing is that they came up with the concept. Inertia isn't an immediately apparent physical property, such as length or volume. It is, however, related to an object's mass. To understand how, consider the sumo wrestler and the boy shown below.

sumo wrestler and little boy in ring
AFP/Getty Images
Which person in this ring will be harder to move? The sumo wrestler or the little boy?


Let's say the wrestler on the left has a mass of 136 kilograms, and the boy on the right has a mass of 30 kilograms (scientists measure mass in kilograms). Remember the object of sumo wrestling is to move your opponent from his position. Which person in our example would be easier to move? Common sense tells you that the boy would be easier to move, or less resistant to inertia.

You experience inertia in a moving car all the time. In fact, seatbelts exist in cars specifically to counteract the effects of inertia. Imagine for a moment that a car at a test track is traveling at a speed of 55 mph. Now imagine that a crash test dummy is inside that car, riding in the front seat. If the car slams into a wall, the dummy flies forward into the dashboard. Why? Because, according to Newton's first law, an object in motion will remain in motion until an outside force acts on it. When the car hits the wall, the dummy keeps moving in a straight line and at a constant speed until the dashboard applies a force. Seatbelts hold dummies (and passengers) down, protecting them from their own inertia.

­Interestingly, Newton wasn't the first scientist to come up with the law of inertia. That honor goes to Galileo and to René Descartes. In fact, the marble-and-ramp thought experiment described previously is credited to Galileo. Newton owed much to events and people who preceded him. Before we continue with his other two laws, let's review some of the important history that informed them.