Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Conceptual Framework for Circular Motion

I now live fifteen minutes from Disneyland, so my friends and family in my native Northern California think it's a little strange that I've never visited the Magic Kingdom again since a childhood trip to the south. The truth is that for me as a preschooler, Disneyland was not the Happiest Place on Earth. My mother took me on a ride in which little cars shaped like rocket ships circled rapidly around a central pillar. I knew I was going to die. There was a force trying to throw me outward, and the safety features of the ride would surely have been inadequate if I hadn't screamed the whole time to make sure Mom would hold on to me. Afterward, she seemed surprisingly indifferent to the extreme danger we had experienced.

Circular motion does not produce an outward force

My younger self's understanding of circular motion was partly right and partly wrong. I was wrong in believing that there was a force pulling me outward, away from the center of the circle. The easiest way to understand this is to bring back the parable of the bowling ball in the pickup truck from chapter 4. As the truck makes a left turn, the driver looks in the rearview mirror and thinks that some mysterious force is pulling the ball outward, but the truck is accelerating, so the driver's frame of reference is not an inertial frame. Newton's laws are violated in a noninertial frame, so the ball appears to accelerate without any actual force acting on it. Because we are used to inertial frames, in which accelerations are caused by forces, the ball's acceleration creates a vivid illusion that there must be an outward force.

a / 1. In the turning truck's frame of reference, the ball appears to violate Newton's laws, displaying a sideways acceleration that is not the re- sult of a forceinteraction with any other object. 2. In an inertial frame of reference, such as the frame fixed to the earth's surface, the ball obeys Newton's first law. No forces are acting on it, and it continues moving in a straight line. It is the truck that is participating in an interaction with the asphalt, the truck that accelerates as it should according to Newton's second law.

In an inertial frame everything makes more sense. The ball has no force on it, and goes straight as required by Newton's first law. The truck has a force on it from the asphalt, and responds to it by accelerating (changing the direction of its velocity vector) as Newton's second law says it should.

Circular motion does not persist without a force

b / 1. An overhead view of a person swinging a rock on a rope. A force from the string is required to make the rock's velocity vector keep changing direc- tion. 2. If the string breaks, the rock will follow Newton's first law and go straight instead of continuing around the circle.

I was correct about one thing, however. To make me curve around with the car, I really did need some force such as a force from my mother, friction from the seat, or a normal force from the side of the car. (In fact, all three forces were probably adding together.) One of the reasons why Galileo failed to refine the principle of inertia into a quantitative statement like Newton's first law is that he was not sure whether motion without a force would naturally be circular or linear. In fact, the most impressive examples he knew of the persistence of motion were mostly circular: the spinning of a top or the rotation of the earth, for example. Newton realized that in examples such as these, there really were forces at work. Atoms on the surface of the top are prevented from flying off straight by the ordinary force that keeps atoms stuck together in solid matter. The earth is nearly all liquid, but gravitational forces pull all its parts inward.

Uniform and nonuniform circular motion

Circular motion always involves a change in the direction of the velocity vector, but it is also possible for the magnitude of the velocity to change at the same time. Circular motion is referred to as uniform if |v| is constant, and nonuniform if it is changing.

Your speedometer tells you the magnitude of your car's velocity vector, so when you go around a curve while keeping your speedometer needle steady, you are executing uniform circular motion. If your speedometer reading is changing as you turn, your circular motion is nonuniform. Uniform circular motion is simpler to analyze mathematically, so we will attack it first and then pass to the nonuniform case.

Self-Check Which of these are examples of uniform circular motion and which are nonuniform?

(1) the clothes in a clothes dryer (assuming they remain against the inside of the drum, even at the top)

(2) a rock on the end of a string being whirled in a vertical circle .

Answer (1) Uniform. They have the same motion as the drum itself, which is rotating as one solid piece. No part of the drum can be rotating at a different speed from any other part. (2) Nonuniform. Gravity speeds it up on the way down and slows it down on the way up.

Only an inward force is required for uniform circular motion.

Figure b showed the string pulling in straight along a radius of the circle, but many people believe that when they are doing this they must be "leading" the rock a little to keep it moving along. That is, they believe that the force required to produce uniform circular motion is not directly inward but at a slight angle to the radius of the circle. This intuition is incorrect, which you can easily verify for yourself now if you have some string handy. It is only while you are getting the object going that your force needs to be at an angle to the radius. During this initial period of speeding up, the motion is not uniform. Once you settle down into uniform circular motion, you only apply an inward force.

c / To make the brick go in a circle, I had to exert an inward force on the rope.

If you have not done the experiment for yourself, here is a theoretical argument to convince you of this fact. We have discussed in chapter 6 the principle that forces have no perpendicular effects. To keep the rock from speeding up or slowing down, we only need to make sure that our force is perpendicular to its direction of motion. We are then guaranteed that its forward motion will remain unaffected: our force can have no perpendicular effect, and there is no other force acting on the rock which could slow it down. The rock requires no forward force to maintain its forward motion, any more than a projectile needs a horizontal force to "help it over the top" of its arc.

d / A series of three hammer taps makes the rolling ball trace a triangle, seven hammers a heptagon. If the number of hammers was large enough, the ball would essentially be experiencing a steady inward force, and it would go in a circle. In no case is any forward force necessary.

Why, then, does a car driving in circles in a parking lot stop executing uniform circular motion if you take your foot off the gas? The source of confusion here is that Newton's laws predict an object's motion based on the total force acting on it. A car driving in circles has three forces on it (1) an inward force from the asphalt, controlled with the steering wheel; (2) a forward force from the asphalt, controlled with the gas pedal; and (3) backward forces from air resistance and rolling resistance.

e / When a car is going straight at constant speed, the forward and backward forces on it are canceling out, producing a total force of zero. When it moves in a circle at constant speed, there are three forces on it, but the forward and backward forces cancel out, so the vector sum is an inward force.

You need to make sure there is a forward force on the car so that the backward forces will be exactly canceled out, creating a vector sum that points directly inward. In uniform circular motion, the acceleration vector is inward Since experiments show that the force vector points directly inward, Newton's second law implies that the acceleration vector points inward as well. This fact can also be proven on purely kinematical grounds, and we will do so in the next section.

Discussion Questions


In the game of crack the whip, a line of people stand holding hands, and then they start sweeping out a circle. One person is at the center, and rotates without changing location. At the opposite end is the person who is running the fastest, in a wide circle. In this game, someone always ends up losing their grip and flying off. Suppose the person on the end loses her grip. What path does she follow as she goes flying off? (Assume she is going so fast that she is really just trying to put one foot in front of the other fast enough to keep from falling; she is not able to get any significant horizontal force between her feet and the ground.)

B Suppose the person on the outside is still holding on, but feels that she may loose her grip at any moment. What force or forces are acting on her, and in what directions are they? (We are not interested in the vertical forces, which are the earth's gravitational force pulling down, and the ground's normal force pushing up.)
C Suppose the person on the outside is still holding on, but feels that she may loose her grip at any moment. What is wrong with the following analysis of the situation? "The person whose hand she's holding exerts an inward force on her, and because of Newton's third law, there's an equal and opposite force acting outward. That outward force is the one she feels throwing her outward, and the outward force is what might make her go flying off, if it's strong enough."
D If the only force felt by the person on the outside is an inward force, why doesn't she go straight in?

In the amusement park ride shown in the figure, the cylinder spins faster and faster until the customer can pick her feet up off the floor without falling. In the old Coney Island version of the ride, the floor actually dropped out like a trap door, showing the ocean below. (There is also a version in which the whole thing tilts up diagonally, but we're discussing the version that stays flat.) If there is no outward force acting on her, why does she stick to the wall? Analyze all the forces on her.

F What is an example of circular motion where the inward force is a normal force? What is an example of circular motion where the inward force is friction? What is an example of circular motion where the inward force is the sum of more than one force?
G Does the acceleration vector always change continuously in circular motion? The velocity vector?

Last Update: 2009-06-21