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....

Momentum and the Center of Mass

In this multiple-flash photograph, we see the wrench from above as it flies through the air, rotating as it goes. Its center of mass, marked with the black cross, travels along a straight line, unlike the other points on the wrench, which execute loops.

We have already discussed the idea of the center of mass in the first book of this series, but using the concept of momentum we can now find a mathematical method for defining the center of mass, explain why the motion of an object's center of mass usually exhibits simpler motion than any other point, and gain a very simple and powerful way of understanding collisions.

The first step is to realize that the center of mass concept can be applied to systems containing more than one object. Even something like a wrench, which we think of as one object, is really made of many atoms. The center of mass is particularly easy to visualize in the case shown on the left, where two identical hockey pucks collide. It is clear on grounds of symmetry that their center of mass must be at the midpoint between them. After all, we previously defined the center of mass as the balance point, and if the two hockey pucks were joined with a very lightweight rod whose own mass was negligible, they would obviously balance at the midpoint. It doesn't matter that the hockey pucks are two separate objects. It is still true that the motion of their center of mass is exceptionally simple, just like that of the wrench's center of mass.

Two hockey pucks collide. Their mutual center of mass traces the straight path shown by the dashed line.

The x coordinate of the hockey pucks' center of mass is thus given by xcm = (x1 + x2)/2, i.e., the arithmetic average of their x coordinates. Why is its motion so simple? It has to do with conservation of momentum. Since the hockey pucks are not being acted on by any net external force, they constitute a closed system, and their total momentum is conserved. Their total momentum is

In other words, the total momentum of the system is the same as if all its mass was concentrated at the center of mass point. Since the total momentum is conserved, the x component of the center of mass's velocity vector cannot change. The same is also true for the other components, so the center of mass must move along a straight line at constant speed.

The above relationship between the total momentum and the motion of the center of mass applies to any system, even if it is not closed.

total momentum related to center of mass motion

The total momentum of any system is related to its total mass and the velocity of its center of mass by the equation

ptotal = mtotalvcm .

What about a system containing objects with unequal masses, or containing more than two objects? The reasoning above can be generalized to a weighted average

with similar equations for the y and z coordinates.

Last Update: 2009-06-21