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What Is Inertia?

A long time ago there lived a really smart guy named Galileo Galilei.
Galileo was a great scientist, with interests in physics, math, astronomy,
and philosophy. One of his most important contributions to the scientific
world was a discovery he made about moving objects.

Earlier, another famous guy, Aristotle, had said that there were two kinds
of motion: natural and unnatural. He believed that natural motion
occurred without a force - things like the sun, the moon, and other, similar
types of objects in the sky moved without anything pushing or pulling
them. Unnatural motion then, was motion that required a force something pushing or pulling the object to make it move.

But Galileo discovered that this was, in fact, not correct! Galileo said that,
yes, a force was needed in order to get an object moving, but once that
object was moving it would keep moving even with no force acting on it.
Through various experiments, he was able to show that all objects have
the tendency to remain as they are - either at rest or in motion. This
property is called inertia, and it's not a force, rather it is the property of
matter to resist changes in motion.

So if an object is moving, it resists not moving, and if it's stationary, it

resists movement. That's inertia! This was a great discovery indeed. But, a
little while later, another great scientist named Isaac Newton came along
(the guy under the apple tree) and refined Galileo's idea of inertia. Galileo
was concerned with how things moved, Newton was interested in why
things moved.

Newton's work gave Galileo's concept of inertia the status of a scientific

law, his first law, usually called the law of inertia. This law states that
'every object continues in its state of rest or of uniform speed in a straight
line unless acted on by a net force.' In summary, objects at rest stay at
rest, and objects in motion stay in motion unless a force changes their

Inertia is pretty cool stuff. You know that famous trick of pulling a table
cloth out from under dishes on a table? The dishes don't fall off the table
because of inertia - they're at rest so that's how they stay! Satellites in
orbit stay in orbit because they are already moving - no force acts on
them to stop them from doing so.

There's a caveat here, though. Friction is a force that affects motion.

You've experienced friction plenty of times; that burn you feel sliding down
a metal slide is friction between your skin and the slide. When you rub
your hands together there's friction between them. Your car stops at a red
light because your foot pushes your brake parts together, creating friction.
Friction occurs for solids, liquids, and gases, and acts in the direction that
is opposite to the direction of motion. The amount of friction depends on
the surface of the objects moving against each other, so it's an important
factor in the movement (or rest) of objects.

Newton, Motion And Force

It is easy to recognize an object in motion and an object at rest. Supersonic jets, race cars and even my mini-van can be objects in motion or at
rest. What keeps an object at rest or in motion? What causes an object at
rest to move? Furthermore, what causes an object in motion to stop? Well,
the short answer to these questions is force, which is any influence that
causes an object to change its shape or motion.

Isaac Newton developed scientific laws regarding motion and force

Isaac Newton Image
For example, I must apply force to move a heavy object, such as my chair
or a set of dumbbells. In fact, I have to apply a force, albeit not as much,
to move even a lighter object, such as my pencil. If I press down on a ball
of clay, the force of my hand causes the clay to change its shape. In this
lesson, we will explore the relationship between force and motion as
explained by Newton's laws.

What Is Newton's First Law Of Motion?

Newton's first law of motion states that an object at rest remains at rest
and an object in motion remains in motion with the same velocity unless
acted upon by what we call an unbalanced force. Let's break this law
down by defining some key terms. Velocity is the speed of an object in a
specified direction. An unbalanced force is an external force that changes

the motion of an object. When an object is at rest or moving at a constant

velocity, all the forces acting on it are balanced.

For example, my cup of coffee is resting on my kitchen table as I make

this lesson. The force of gravity pulling down is balanced by the force of
my kitchen table pushing up on my cup of coffee. Now, if I am to move my
coffee, I must apply an external force to disrupt the balance. Thank
goodness my muscles are strong enough to apply such a force so I can
enjoy my cup of coffee. Ah, now that's good joe! Newton's first law of
motion is also referred to as the law of inertia. Inertia is simply the
resistance to change in motion. In short, objects tend to keep doing what
they are already doing.

Application Of Newton's First Law Of Motion

The external force of the hand will move the cup by creating unbalanced
External Force Cup Example
There are plenty of applications to Newton's first law of motion. Consider a
car moving west along a highway with a constant velocity of 65 miles per
hour. What happens when the driver takes his foot off the gas pedal?
According to Newton's first law of motion, the car should remain at a
velocity of 65 mph, as long as the forces are balanced. As we have
witnessed, however, the car slows down, and it comes to rest. This
observation begs the question: what external forces act on the car to stop

its motion?

The answer is friction. Friction is a force acting in the opposite direction of

motion when two objects come into contact with each other. Without
external forces, the car would continue to move west at 65 mph. Now,
consider a golfer hitting a ball off the tee. While the ball is on the tee, it is
said to be at rest. That is, it has no motion. Once the swinging club comes

into contact with the ball, the club applies an external force, disrupts the
state of balance and sends the ball flying into motion.

How Does Newton's Law Apply To Liquids?

Now, I like coffee, so let's see how Newton's law of motion applies to
drinking coffee and driving. While the car is at rest, or even moving at a
constant velocity, so is the coffee, and it stays in the cup. But what
happens to the coffee if you increase velocity in a forward direction? The
coffee keeps doing what it has been doing and ends up in your lap; that is,
assuming there is no lid on the cup. Let's break it down.

When you push on the gas pedal, the wheels spin. However, the road
applies a force to the wheels and pushes the car forward. The back of the
seat applies a force to your back and pushes you forward as well. But
what about the coffee? The coffee maintains its velocity at 65 mph, and
your lap actually moves forward into the coffee. Ouch!

Dizziness occurs when blood in the body keeps moving down after the
elevator stops
Inertia Elevator Example
Just the opposite happens when we hit the car's breaks. The brakes slow
or even stop the spinning of the wheels. When braking from a constant
velocity of 65 mph, the coffee tends to maintain its velocity of 65 mph,
and now it's going to end up on the dash of your car. The coffee
experiences inertia when we brake to a stop. The coffee resists the
change in motion and keeps moving forward.

Likewise, we experience inertia when braking the car. You may feel
yourself tend to slide forward in your seat when braking to a stop. In
reality, you're simply doing what you were already doing, and the seat is
moving backwards, relative to your body. You would continue to slide
forward in your seat unless your seat belt is in place to apply an external
force to your body.

How Does Newton's Law Apply To Our Body?

We can apply Newton's law of inertia to body functions. Have you ever
experienced a dizzy feeling after coming to a stop in a descending

elevator? Better hold on to the railing! Our body and all its contents move
down along with the elevator. Once the elevator comes to a sudden stop,
the floor of the elevator applies an external force to our body, causing it to
come to a stop as well.

However, the blood in our body doesn't experience this same force in the
same way. It's kind of like the coffee. The blood tends to keep moving
down even after the elevator comes to a stop. The blood descends away
from our head, and this temporary loss of blood to the brain causes us to
feel dizzy. So, again - hold on!

Does Newton's Law Apply In Space?

The lack of gravity in space lets objects stay in a constant state of motion
Newtons Motion Law in Space
Newton's first law of motion is evident in space as well as it is on earth.
The International Space Station orbits the earth at about 200 miles with a
velocity of 17,500 mph. Now that is fast! Astronauts can step out of the
space station and remain right next to it, as they will continue to orbit with
the same velocity. Additionally, astronauts can set their tools next to them
in space, and they will continue to orbit at the same velocity.

Don't try this at home! Don't try it in a plane. Don't try it in a car, even if
it's going a lot slower! Why? Well, there we have external forces - for
example, gravity - and they will disrupt the constant motion, sending your
body tumbling to the ground. The force of gravity is negligible in space, so
the objects continue their constant state of motion. Apparently, they all
seem to be sitting still because they're not moving relative to each other.

Lesson Summary

Let's summarize. Newton's first law of motion states that an object at rest
remains at rest and an object in motion remains in motion at a constant
velocity unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Velocity is the speed
of an object in a specified direction. Force is any influence that causes an
object to change its shape or its state of motion. An unbalanced force is
an external force that changes the state of motion of the object.

Newton's first law of motion is also referred to as the law of inertia, where
inertia is the resistance to change in motion. Newton's law of motion
applies to objects both on earth and in space

Place a book on your desk. Does the book move? Unless you move the
book, it will remain where you put it without moving (see picture below).

Imagine a spacecraft moving through space. When the engines are

turned off, the spacecraft will coast through space at the same speed
and in the same direction. The book and the spacecraft have inertia.
Inertia is the property of an object that resists changes in its motion.
Because of inertia, an object at rest tends to stay at rest. An object in
motion tends to keep moving at a constant speed in a straight line.
Newton's First Law

Newton's First Law of motion explains how inertia affects moving and
nonmoving objects. Newton's first law states that an object will remain at
rest or move at a constant speed in a straight line unless it is acted on by
an unbalanced force. Inertia comes frommass. Objects with more mass

have more inertia. To understand inertia, imagine moving a bowling ball

and golf ball which are at rest.

As shown in the picture above, a golf ball has a mass of 0.05 kilogram
and the bowling ball has a mass of five kilograms. The bowling ball has
100 times more mass than the golf ball, so it has 100 times more inertia
too. Now ask yourself which needs more force to start moving? If you
push for same distance, the bowling ball takes MUCH more force to get it
moving the same speed as the golf ball. The bowling ball needs more
force because a bowling ball has more inertia than a golf ball. The
greater an object's inertia, the greater the force needed to change its
According to Newton's first law, an unbalanced force is needed to move
the book on your desk. You could supply the force by pushing the book.
An unbalanced force is needed to change the speed or direction of the
spacecraft. This force could be supplied by the spacecraft's engines.
Because of inertia, an object at rest will remain at rest until something
causes it to move. Likewise, a moving object continues to move at the
same speed and in the same direction unless something acts on it to
change its speed or direction.
Effects Of Inertia

You can feel the effects of inertia every day. Suppose you are riding in a
car. What happens if the car comes to a sudden stop? Your body has
inertia. When the car stops, you keep in moving forward. What happens
when the car starts moving? Because of inertia, your body tends to stay
at rest when the car moves forward. In baseball, inertia tends to keep a
player running in a straight line. So base runners have to 'round' the
bases instead of making sharp turns (see picture below).

An oscillator is a physical system that has repeating cycles (harmonic

motion). A child on a swing is an oscillator, as is a vibrating guitar string.
A wagon rolling down a hill is not an oscillator.
Systems that oscillate move back and forth around a center
or equilibrium position. You can think of equilibrium as the system at
rest, undisturbed, with zero net force. A wagon rolling down a hill is not
in equilibrium because the force of gravity that causes it to accelerate is
not balanced by another force. A child sittingmotionless on a swing is in
equilibrium because the force of gravity is balanced by the tension in the

A restoring force is any force that always acts to pull a system back
toward equilibrium. Restoring force is related to the force of gravity or
weight and the lift force (or tension) of the string of a pendulum(see the
diagram above). If a pendulum is pulled forward or backward, gravity
creates a restoring force that pulls it toward equilibrium. Systems with
restoring forces become oscillators.
Inertia causes an oscillator to go past equilibrium. The motion of an
oscillator is the result of the interaction between a restoring force and
inertia. For example, the restoring force pulls a pendulum toward
equilibrium. But, because of Newton's first law, the pendulum does not
just stop at equilibrium. According to the first law, an object in motion
tends to stay in motion. The pendulum has inertia that keeps it moving
forward so it overshoots its equilibrium position every time.
Cars and planes with more inertia take more force to accelerate (see
the picture below). Since inertia is related to mass, in order to reduce
inertia you must reduce mass. The mass of a car or plane is a trade-off
between inertia and the strength of materials of the car or plane. You
want strong materials, but you don't want them so heavy that it takes
too much energy (fuel) just to get the car or plane moving!

Seat belts could be called 'anti-inertia' belts. It tends to keep moving in a

straight line, even if the driver's foot is not on the gas pedal. Everyone
inside the car also has inertia. They are moving at the same speed as the

Suppose you are riding in a car. The driver is forced to step on brakes
suddenly. Inertia keeps you moving forward at the same speed as the car
was moving. You will keep moving until something stops you. This might
be the car's steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield. You might be hurt
if you hit these parts of the car, unless you are wearing a seat belt. A
seat belt keeps you from moving forward when the car stops suddenly
(see picture below). Seat belts can prevent serious injuries. You should
always remember to 'buckle up' when you get into a car.
If you suddenly apply the brakes to your rapidly moving bicycle, you
have to brace yourself to keep from falling forward. As shown in the
picture below, if you are on a ride at an amusement park in which you
suddenly accelerated forward, your body seems to push back against the

In both cases you have demonstrated Newton's first law, the law of
The principle or law of inertia states that a mass at rest tends to remain
at rest. A mass moving at a constant velocity tends to keep moving at
that velocity, unless acted upon by an outside force. Thus, Newton's first
law involves the problem of changing velocity, or of acceleration. For
instance, suppose you are standing still in a 'bumper car' at the
amusement park and someone drives another car into yours (see picture

You will be accelerated from zero kilometers per hour to some value
greater than zero. The force of collision is able to move your car. This
unbalanced force produces acceleration. Newton's first law of motion
states that no force is needed to keep something moving in a straight
line at a constant speed. A force is needed to stop that motion or to
change it in some way. This is a description of inertia, which is a property
of all things. You are probably used to thinking that moving objects
eventually slow down by themselves. But this slowing down is the result
of forces such as friction. Without such forces, an object set moving
would move forever (see picture below).

Continue reading...

Is inertia a force? No. Forces are results of interactions between two

objects; they are not properties of single objects, so inertia cannot be a
force. Remember that because velocity includes both the speed and
direction of motion, a net force is required to change either the speed or
the direction of motion. If the net force is zero, Newton's first law means
the object will continue with the same speed and direction.
Mass is a measure of inertia because an object with a large mass is
harder to start in motion and harder to stop than an object with a smaller
mass. This is because the object with the large mass has greater inertia.
For example, imagine that you are going to push a grocery cart that has

only one potato in it. No problem, right? But suppose the grocery cart is
filled with potatoes, as in the picture below. Now the total mass - and the
inertia - of the cart full of potatoes is much greater. It will be harder to
get the cart moving and harder to stop it once it is moving.

Lesson Summary
Inertia is the tendency of an object to remain at rest or in motion.
Newton's first law of motion states that an object will remain at rest or
move at a constant speed in a straight line unless it is acted on by an
unbalanced force. The effects of inertia can be f