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A New Theory for Systems That Defy Newton’s Third Law

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Newton’s third law tells us that for every action, there’s an equal reaction going the opposite way. It’s been reassuring us for 400 years, explaining why we don’t fall through the floor (the floor pushes up on us too), and why paddling a boat makes it glide through water. When a system is in equilibrium, no energy goes in or out and such reciprocity is the rule. Mathematically, these systems are elegantly described with statistical mechanics, the branch of physics that explains how collections of objects behave. This allows researchers to fully model the conditions that give rise to phase transitions in matter, when one state of matter transforms into another, such as when water freezes.

But many systems exist and persist far from equilibrium. Perhaps the most glaring example is life itself. We’re kept out of equilibrium by our metabolism, which converts matter into energy. A human body that settles into equilibrium is a dead body.

In such systems, Newton’s third law becomes moot. Equal and opposite fall apart. “Imagine two particles,” said Vincenzo Vitelli, a condensed matter theorist at the University of Chicago, “where A interacts with B in a different way than how B interacts with A.” Such nonreciprocal relationships show up in systems like neuron networks and particles in fluids and even, on a larger scale, in social groups. Predators eat prey, for example, but prey doesn’t eat its predators.

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Closeup photo of an automated two-wheeled robot on a wooden tableBy programming a fleet of robots to behave nonreciprocally — blue cars react to red cars differently than red cars react to blue cars — a team of researchers elicited spontaneous phase transitions. Kristen Norman for Quanta Magazine

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Click the link below for the article:

https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-new-theory-for-systems-that-defy-newtons-third-law-20211111?utm_source=pocket_discover

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