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....

Conservation of Angular Momentum

When most people think of rotation, they think of a solid object like a wheel rotating in a circle around a fixed point. Examples of this type of rotation, called rigid rotation or rigid-body rotation, include a spinning top, a seated child's swinging leg, and a helicopter's spinning propeller. Rotation, however, is a much more general phenomenon, and includes noncircular examples such as a comet in an elliptical orbit around the sun, or a cyclone, in which the core completes a circle more quickly than the outer parts.

If there is a numerical measure of rotational motion that is a conserved quantity, then it must include nonrigid cases like these, since nonrigid rotation can be traded back and forth with rigid rotation. For instance, there is a trick for finding out if an egg is raw or hardboiled. If you spin a hardboiled egg and then stop it briefly with your finger, it stops dead. But if you do the same with a raw egg, it springs back into rotation because the soft interior was still swirling around within the momentarily motionless shell. The pattern of flow of the liquid part is presumably very complex and nonuniform due to the asymmetric shape of the egg and the different consistencies of the yolk and the white, but there is apparently some way to describe the liquid's total amount of rotation with a single number, of which some percentage is given back to the shell when you release it.

The best strategy is to devise a way of defining the amount of rotation of a single small part of a system. The amount of rotation of a system such as a cyclone will then be defined as the total of all the contributions from its many small parts.

An overhead view of a piece of putty being thrown at a door. Even though the putty is neither spinning nor traveling along a curve, we must define it as having some kind of rotation because it is able to make the door rotate.

The quest for a conserved quantity of rotation even requires us to broaden the rotation concept to include cases where the motion doesn't repeat or even curve around. If you throw a piece of putty at a door, the door will recoil and start rotating. The putty was traveling straight, not in a circle, but if there is to be a general conservation law that can cover this situation, it appears that we must describe the putty as having had some rotation, which it then gave up to the door. The best way of thinking about it is to attribute rotation to any moving object or part of an object that changes its angle in relation to the axis of rotation. In the puttyand- door example, the hinge of the door is the natural point to think of as an axis, and the putty changes its angle as seen by someone standing at the hinge. For this reason, the conserved quantity we are investigating is called angular momentum. The symbol for angular momentum can't be a or m, since those are used for acceleration and mass, so the symbol L is arbitrarily chosen instead.

As seen by someone standing at the axis, the putty changes its angular position. We therefore define it as having angular momentum.

Imagine a 1-kg blob of putty, thrown at the door at a speed of 1 m/s, which hits the door at a distance of 1 m from the hinge. We define this blob to have 1 unit of angular momentum. When it hits the door, it will give up most of its own angular momentum to the door, which will recoil and start rotating.

Experiments show, not surprisingly, that a 2-kg blob thrown in the same way makes the door rotate twice as fast, so the angular momentum of the putty blob must be proportional to mass,

L m.

Similarly, experiments show that doubling the velocity of the blob will have a doubling effect on the result, so its angular momentum must be proportional to its velocity as well,

L mv.

You have undoubtedly had the experience of approaching a closed door with one of those bar-shaped handles on it and pushing on the wrong side, the side close to the hinges. You feel like an idiot, because you have so little leverage that you can hardly budge the door. The same would be true with the putty blob. Experiments would show that the amount of rotation the blob can give to the door is proportional to the distance, r, from the axis of rotation, so angular momentum must also be proportional to r,

L mvr.

A putty blob thrown directly at the axis has no angular motion, and therefore no angular momentum. It will not cause the door to rotate.

Only the component of the velocity vector perpendicular to the dashed line should be counted into the definition of angular momentum.

We are almost done, but there is one missing ingredient. We know on grounds of symmetry that a putty ball thrown directly inward toward the hinge will have no angular momentum to give to the door. After all, there would not even be any way to decide whether the ball's rotation was clockwise or counterclockwise in this situation. It is therefore only the component of the blob's velocity vector perpendicular to the door that should be counted in its angular momentum,

L = mvr .

More generally, v should be thought of as the component of the object's velocity vector that is perpendicular to the line joining the object to the axis of rotation.

We find that this equation agrees with the definition of the original putty blob as having one unit of angular momentum, and we can now see that the units of angular momentum are (kgm/s)m, i.e., kgm2/s. This gives us a way of calculating the angular momentum of any material object or any system consisting of material objects:

angular momentum of a material object

The angular momentum of a moving particle is

L = mvr,

where m is its mass, v is the component of its velocity vector perpendicular to the line joining it to the axis of rotation, and r is its distance from the axis. Positive and negative signs are used to describe opposite directions of rotation.

The angular momentum of a finite-sized object or a system of many objects is found by dividing it up into many small parts, applying the equation to each part, and adding to find the total amount of angular momentum.

Note that r is not necessarily the radius of a circle. (As implied by the qualifiers, matter isn't the only thing that can have angular momentum. Light can also have angular momentum, and the above equation would not apply to light.)

Conservation of angular momentum has been verified over and over again by experiment, and is now believed to be one of the three most fundamental principles of physics, along with conservation of energy and momentum.

A figure skater pulls her arms in

Changing the axis

Earth's slowing rotation and the receding moon




Last Update: 2009-06-21