Newton’s laws: misinterpretation that lasted hundreds of years

One of Newton’s laws, more precisely the first of them, was misinterpreted for almost 300 years. The three laws of motion, largely the mothers of physics, were always debated regarding their meaning. Currently, the source of those endless debates and doubts was discovered, it was due to a bad translation.

Newton's laws

A poor translation of Newton’s laws of motion

The first of Newton’s laws of motion, the law of inertia, says that “every body is preserved in its state, whether at rest or in uniformly straight motion, except to the extent that it is forced to change its state by the forces that are imposed on it.”

According to research by a US scientist, the law is misinterpreted. This is Daniel Hoek, a scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. According to Hoek, “no object in the world can be free from interaction with forces.”

Hoek thoroughly examined the English physicist’s writings written in 1687 in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This is how he discovered that one of the phrases used by Newton in Latin was poorly translated.

The phrase in question is “nisi quatenus,” which means “except to the extent that,” and which was translated as “unless.” In this way, Hoek affirms that Newton was not referring to imaginary bodies without forces, but rather pointed out that “motion only changes to the extent that a force affects it.”

According to the American philosopher, what Newton described is the following law: “Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion and bodies at rest tend to remain at rest, except to the extent that an external force acts on them.”

New understanding changes the law of inertia

The generally accepted interpretation applied to bodies not subject to an external force. It was worth reflecting on why the English physicist would create a law referring to bodies free of forces when such a thing does not exist in the universe.

There are always external forces acting on bodies. However, for Hoek, it is not just a matter of misinterpretation or semantics. It is the real understanding of one of the fundamental laws that govern the movement of the universe. Including movements in outer space.

According to Hoek, by correctly translating that phrase, “one of the most important principles of physics was restored to its original splendor.” The erroneous translation from Latin to English was made by Andrew Motte in 1729, so it was misinterpreted for almost 300 years. The new interpretation changes, as described, the original meaning of the law of inertia.

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