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....

Restriction to rotation in a plane

Is angular momentum a vector, or a scalar? It does have a direction in space, but it's a direction of rotation, not a straight-line direction like the directions of vectors such as velocity or force. It turns out that there is a way of defining angular momentum as a vector, but in this book the examples will be confined to a single plane of rotation, i.e., effectively two-dimensional situations. In this special case, we can choose to visualize the plane of rotation from one side or the other, and to define clockwise and counterclockwise rotation as having opposite signs of angular momentum.

Discussion Question

A Conservation of plain old momentum, p, can be thought of as the greatly expanded and modified descendant of Galileo's original principle of inertia, that no force is required to keep an object in motion. The principle of inertia is counterintuitive, and there are many situations in which it appears superficially that a force is needed to maintain motion, as maintained by Aristotle. Think of a situation in which conservation of angular momentum, L, also seems to be violated, making it seem incorrectly that something external must act on a closed system to keep its angular momentum from running down.

Last Update: 2009-06-21