Most people have heard of centripetal and centrifugal force. Though it may be somewhat difficult to keep track of which is which, chances are anyone who has heard of the two concepts remembers that one is the tendency of objects in rotation to move inward, and the other is the tendency of rotating objects to move outward. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as centrifugal (outward) force. There is only centripetal (inward) force and the inertia that makes objects in rotation under certain situations move outward, for example, a car making a turn, the movement of a roller coaster—even the spinning of a centrifuge.
HOW IT WORKS
Like many other principles in physics, centripetal force ultimately goes back to a few simple precepts relating to the basics of motion. Consider an object in uniform circular motion: an object moves around the center of a circle so that its speed is constant or unchanging.
The formula for speed—or rather, average speed—is distance divided by time; hence, people say, for instance, "miles (or kilometers) per hour." In the case of an object making a circle, distance is equal to the circumference, or distance around, the circle. From geometry, we know that the formula for calculating the circumference of a circle is 2 πr, where r is the radius, or the distance from the circumference to the center. The figure π may be rendered as 3.141592 …, though in fact, it is an irrational number: the decimal figures continue forever without repetition or pattern.
From the above, it can be discerned that the formula for the average speed of an object moving around a circle is 2 πr divided by time. Furthermore, we can see that there is a proportional relationship between radius and average speed. If the radius of a circle is doubled, but an object at the circle's periphery makes one complete revolution in the same amount of time as before, this means that the average speed has doubled as well. This can be shown by setting up two circles, one with a radius of 2, the other with a radius of 4, and using some arbitrary period of time—say, 2 seconds.
The above conclusion carries with it an interesting implication with regard to speeds at different points along the radius of a circle. Rather than comparing two points moving around the circumferences of two different circles—one twice as big as the other—in the same period of time, these two points could be on the same circle: one at the periphery, and one exactly halfway along the radius. Assuming they both traveled a complete circle in the same period of time, the proportional relationship described earlier would apply. This means, then, that the further out on the circle one goes, the greater the average speed.
Velocity = Speed + Direction
Speed is a scalar, meaning that it has magnitude but no specific direction; by contrast, velocity is a vector—a quantity with both a magnitude (that is, speed) and a direction. For an object in circular motion, the direction of velocity is the same as that in which the object is moving at any given point. Consider the example of the city of Atlanta, Georgia, and Interstate-285, one of several instances in which a city is surrounded by a "loop" highway. Local traffic reporters avoid giving mere directional coordinates for spots on that highway (for instance, "southbound on 285"), because the area where traffic moves south depends on whether one is moving clockwise or counterclockwise. Hence, reporters usually say "southbound on the outer loop."
As with cars on I-285, the direction of the velocity vector for an object moving around a circle is a function entirely of its position and the direction of movement—clockwise or counter-clockwise—for the circle itself. The direction of the individual velocity vector at any given point may be described as tangential; that is, describing a tangent, or a line that touches the circle at just one point. (By definition, a tangent line cannot intersect the circle.)
It follows, then, that the direction of an object in movement around a circle is changing; hence, its velocity is also changing—and this in turn means that it is experiencing acceleration. As with the subject of centripetal force and "centrifugal force," most people have a mistaken view of acceleration, believing that it refers only to an increase in speed. In fact, acceleration is a change in velocity, and can thus refer either to a change in speed or direction. Nor must that change be a positive one; in other words, an object undergoing a reduction in speed is also experiencing acceleration.
The acceleration of an object in rotational motion is always toward the center of the circle. This may appear to go against common sense, which should indicate that acceleration moves in the same direction as velocity, but it can, in fact, be proven in a number of ways. One method would be by the addition of vectors, but a "hands-on" demonstration may be more enlightening than an abstract geometrical proof.
It is possible to make a simple accelerometer, a device for measuring acceleration, with a lit candle inside a glass. The candle should be standing at a 90°-angle to the bottom of the glass, attached to it by hot wax as you would affix a burning candle to a plate. When you hold the candle level, the flame points upward; but if you spin the glass in a circle, the flame will point toward the center of that circle—in the direction of acceleration.
Mass × Acceleration = Force
Since we have shown that acceleration exists for an object spinning around a circle, it is then possible for us to prove that the object experiences some type of force. The proof for this assertion lies in the second law of motion, which defines force as the product of mass and acceleration: hence, where there is acceleration and mass, there must be force. Force is always in the direction of acceleration, and therefore the force is directed toward the center of the circle.
In the above paragraph, we assumed the existence of mass, since all along the discussion has concerned an object spinning around a circle. By definition, an object—that is, an item of matter, rather than an imaginary point—possesses mass. Mass is a measure of inertia, which can be explained by the first law of motion: an object in motion tends to remain in motion, at the same speed and in the same direction (that is, at the same velocity) unless or until some outside force acts on it. This tendency to maintain velocity is inertia. Put another way, it is inertia that causes an object standing still to remain motionless, and likewise, it is inertia which dictates that a moving object will "try" to keep moving.
Now that we have established the existence of a force in rotational motion, it is possible to give it a name: centripetal force, or the force that causes an object in uniform circular motion to move toward the center of the circular path. This is not a "new" kind of force; it is merely force as applied in circular or rotational motion, and it is absolutely essential. Hence, physicists speak of a "centripetal force requirement": in the absence of centripetal force, an object simply cannot turn. Instead, it will move in a straight line.
The Latin roots of centripetal together mean "seeking the center." What, then, of centrifugal, a word that means "fleeing the center"? It would be correct to say that there is such a thing as centrifugal motion; but centrifugal force is quite a different matter. The difference between centripetal force and a mere centrifugal tendency—a result of inertia rather than of force—can be explained by referring to a familiar example.
Riding in a Car
When you are riding in a car and the car accelerates, your body tends to move backward against the seat. Likewise, if the car stops suddenly, your body tends to move forward, in the direction of the dashboard. Note the language here: "tends to move" rather than "is pushed." To say that something is pushed would imply that a force has been applied, yet what is at work here is not a force, but inertia—the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, and an object at rest to remain at rest.
A car that is not moving is, by definition, at rest, and so is the rider. Once the car begins moving, thus experiencing a change in velocity, the rider's body still tends to remain in the fixed position. Hence, it is not a force that has pushed the rider backward against the seat; rather, force has pushed the car forward, and the seat moves up to meet the rider's back. When stopping, once again, there is a sudden change in velocity from a certain value down to zero. The rider, meanwhile, is continuing to move forward due to inertia, and thus, his or her body has a tendency to keep moving in the direction of the now-stationary dashboard.
This may seem a bit too simple to anyone who has studied inertia, but because the human mind has such a strong inclination to perceive inertia as a force in itself, it needs to be clarified in the most basic terms. This habit is similar to the experience you have when sitting in a vehicle that is standing still, while another vehicle alongside moves backward. In the first split-second of awareness, your mind tends to interpret the backward motion of the other car as forward motion on the part of the car in which you are sitting—even though your own car is standing still.
Now we will consider the effects of centripetal force, as well as the illusion of centrifugal force. When a car turns to the left, it is undergoing a form of rotation, describing a 90°-angle or one-quarter of a circle. Once again, your body experiences inertia, since it was in motion along with the car at the beginning of the turn, and thus you tend to move forward. The car, at the same time, has largely overcome its own inertia and moved into the leftward turn. Thus the car door itself is moving to the left. As the door meets the right side of your body, you have the sensation of being pushed outward against the door, but in fact what has happened is that the door has moved inward.
The illusion of centrifugal force is so deeply ingrained in the popular imagination that it warrants further discussion below. But while on the subject of riding in an automobile, we need to examine another illustration of centripetal force. It should be noted in this context that for a car to make a turn at all, there must be friction between the tires and the road. Friction is the force that resists motion when the surface of one object comes into contact with the surface of another; yet ironically, while opposing motion, friction also makes relative motion possible.
Suppose, then, that a driver applies the brakes while making a turn. This now adds a force tangential, or at a right angle, to the centripetal force. If this force is greater than the centripetal force—that is, if the car is moving too fast—the vehicle will slide forward rather than making the turn. The results, as anyone who has ever been in this situation will attest, can be disastrous.
The above highlights the significance of the centripetal force requirement: without a sufficient degree of centripetal force, an object simply cannot turn. Curves are usually banked to maximize centripetal force, meaning that the roadway tilts inward in the direction of the curve. This banking causes a change in velocity, and hence, in acceleration, resulting in an additional quantity known as reaction force, which provides the vehicle with the centripetal force necessary for making the turn.
The formula for calculating the angle at which a curve should be banked takes into account the car's speed and the angle of the curve, but does not include the mass of the vehicle itself. As a result, highway departments post signs stating the speed at which vehicles should make the turn, but these signs do not need to include specific statements regarding the weight of given models.
To return to the subject of "centrifugal force"—which, as noted earlier, is really just centrifugal motion—you might ask, "If there is no such thing as centrifugal force, how does a centrifuge work?" Used widely in medicine and a variety of sciences, a centrifuge is a device that separates particles within a liquid. One application, for instance, is to separate red blood cells from plasma.
Typically a centrifuge consists of a base; a rotating tube perpendicular to the base; and two vials attached by movable centrifuge arms to the rotating tube. The movable arms are hinged at the top of the rotating tube, and thus can move upward at an angle approaching 90° to the tube. When the tube begins to spin, centripetal force pulls the material in the vials toward the center.
Materials that are denser have greater inertia, and thus are less responsive to centripetal force. Hence, they seem to be pushed outward, but in fact what has happened is that the less dense material has been pulled inward. This leads to the separation of components, for instance, with plasma on the top and red blood cells on the bottom. Again, the plasma is not as dense, and thus is more easily pulled toward the center of rotation, whereas the red blood cells respond less, and consequently remain on the bottom.
The centrifuge was invented in 1883 by Carl de Laval (1845-1913), a Swedish engineer, who used it to separate cream from milk. During the 1920s, the chemist Theodor Svedberg (1884-1971), who was also Swedish, improved on Laval's work to create the ultracentrifuge, used for separating very small particles of similar weight.
In a typical ultracentrifuge, the vials are no larger than 0.2 in (0.6 cm) in diameter, and these may rotate at speeds of up to 230,000 revolutions per minute. Most centrifuges in use by industry rotate in a range between 1,000 and 15,000 revolutions per minute, but others with scientific applications rotate at a much higher rate, and can produce a force more than 25,000 times as great as that of gravity.
In 1994, researchers at the University of Colorado created a sort of super-centrifuge for simulating stresses applied to dams and other large structures. The instrument has just one centrifuge arm, measuring 19.69 ft (6 m), attached to which is a swinging basket containing a scale model of the structure to be tested. If the model is 1/50 the size of the actual structure, then the centrifuge is set to create a centripetal force 50 times that of gravity.
The Colorado centrifuge has also been used to test the effects of explosions on buildings. Because the combination of forces—centripetal, gravity, and that of the explosion itself—is so great, it takes a very small quantity of explosive to measure the effects of a blast on a model of the building.
Industrial uses of the centrifuge include that for which Laval invented it—separation of cream from milk—as well as the separation of impurities from other substances. Water can be removed from oil or jet fuel with a centrifuge, and likewise, waste-management agencies use it to separate solid materials from waste water prior to purifying the water itself.
Closer to home, a washing machine on spin cycle is a type of centrifuge. As the wet clothes spin, the water in them tends to move outward, separating from the clothes themselves. An even simpler, more down-to-earth centrifuge can be created by tying a fairly heavy weight to a rope and swinging it above one's head: once again, the weight behaves as though it were pushed outward, though in fact, it is only responding to inertia.
Roller Coasters and Centripetal Force
People ride roller coasters, of course, for the thrill they experience, but that thrill has more to do with centripetal force than with speed. By the late twentieth century, roller coasters capable of speeds above 90 MPH (144 km/h) began to appear in amusement parks around America; but prior to that time, the actual speeds of a roller coaster were not particularly impressive. Seldom, if ever, did they exceed that of a car moving down the highway. On the other hand, the acceleration and centripetal force generated on a roller coaster are high, conveying a sense of weightlessness (and sometimes the opposite of weightlessness) that is memorable indeed.
Few parts of a roller coaster ride are straight and flat—usually just those segments that mark the end of one ride and the beginning of another. The rest of the track is generally composed of dips and hills, banked turns, and in some cases, clothoid loops. The latter refers to a geometric shape known as a clothoid, rather like a teardrop upside-down.
Because of its shape, the clothoid has a much smaller radius at the top than at the bottom—a key factor in the operation of the roller coaster ride through these loops. In days past, roller-coaster designers used perfectly circular loops, which allowed cars to enter them at speeds that were too high, built too much force and resulted in injuries for riders. Eventually, engineers recognized the clothoid as a means of providing a safe, fun ride.
As you move into the clothoid loop, then up, then over, and down, you are constantly changing position. Speed, too, is changing. On the way up the loop, the roller coaster slows due to a decrease in kinetic energy, or the energy that an object possesses by virtue of its movement. At the top of the loop, the roller coaster has gained a great deal of potential energy, or the energy an object possesses by virtue of its position, and its kinetic energy is at zero. But once it starts going down the other side, kinetic energy—and with it speed—increases rapidly once again.
Throughout the ride, you experience two forces, gravity, or weight, and the force (due to motion) of the roller coaster itself, known as normal force. Like kinetic and potential energy—which rise and fall correspondingly with dips and hills—normal force and gravitational force are locked in a sort of "competition" throughout the roller-coaster rider. For the coaster to have its proper effect, normal force must exceed that of gravity in most places.
The increase in normal force on a roller-coaster ride can be attributed to acceleration and centripetal motion, which cause you to experience something other than gravity. Hence, at the top of a loop, you feel lighter than normal, and at the bottom, heavier. In fact, there has been no real change in your weight: it is, like the idea of "centrifugal force" discussed earlier, a matter of perception.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Aylesworth, Thomas G. Science at the Ball Game. New York: Walker, 1977.
Beiser, Arthur. Physics, 5th ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
Buller, Laura and Ron Taylor. Forces of Nature. Illustrations by John Hutchinson and Stan North. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
"Centrifugal Force—Rotational Motion." National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Web site). <http://observe.ivv.nasa.gov/nasa/space/centrifugal/centrifugal3.html> (March 5, 2001).
"Circular and Satellite Motion" (Web site). <http://www.glenbrook.k12.il.us/gbssci/phys/Class/circles/circtoc.html> (March 5, 2001).
Cobb, Vicki. Why Doesn't the Earth Fall Up? And Other Not Such Dumb Questions About Motion. Illustrated by Ted Enik. New York: Lodestar Books, 1988.
Lefkowitz, R. J. Push! Pull! Stop! Go! A Book About Forces and Motion. Illustrated by June Goldsborough. New York: Parents' Magazine Press, 1975.
"Rotational Motion." Physics Department, University of Guelph (Web site). <http://www.physics.uoguelph.ca/tutorials/torque/> (March 4, 2001).
Schaefer, Lola M. Circular Movement. Mankato, MN: Pebble Books, 2000.
Snedden, Robert. Forces. Des Plaines, IL: Heinemann Library, 1999.
Whyman, Kathryn. Forces in Action. New York: Gloucester Press, 1986.
A change in velocity.
A term describing the tendency of objects in uniform circular motion to move away from the center of the circular path. Though the term "centrifugal force" is often used, it is inertia, rather than force, that causes the object to move outward.
The force that causes an object in uniform circular motion to move toward the center of the circular path.
The tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, and of an object at rest to remain at rest.
A measure of inertia, indicating the resistance of an object to a change in its motion—including a change in velocity.
A quantity that possesses only magnitude, with no specific direction. Mass, time, and speed are all scalars. A scalar is contrasted with a vector.
The rate at which the position of an object changes over a given period of time.
Movement along a tangent, or a line that touches a circle at just one point and does not intersect the circle.
UNIFORM CIRCULAR MOTION:
The motion of an object around the center of a circle in such a manner that speed is constant or unchanging.
A quantity that possesses both magnitude and direction. Velocity, acceleration, and weight (which involves the downward acceleration due to gravity) are examples of vectors. It is contrasted with a scalar.
The speed of an object in a particular direction.
cen·trip·e·tal force • n. Physics a force that acts on a body moving in a circular path and is directed toward the center around which the body is moving.
cen·trif·u·gal force • n. Physics an apparent force that acts outward on a body moving around a center, arising from the body's inertia.