Fictitious force, peculiar to circular motion, that is equal but opposite to the centripetal force that keeps a particle on a circular path (see centripetal acceleration). For example, a stone attached to a string and whirling in a horizontal circular path is accelerated toward the centre of its path by the tension in the string, the only force acting on the string. However, in a reference frame at rest with the stone, another force—the centrifugal force—must be introduced for Newton's laws of motion to apply. Centrifugal force is a useful concept in analyzing behaviour in rotating systems.
Learn more about centrifugal force with a free trial on Britannica.com.
One of these fictitious forces invariably points directly outward from the axis of rotation, with magnitude proportional to the square of the rotation rate of the frame. In much of the literature on classical dynamics, this term is called centrifugal force.
The apparent motion that may be ascribed to centrifugal force is sometimes called the centrifugal effect.
It is sometimes convenient to treat the first term on the right hand side as if it actually were the absolute acceleration, and not merely the acceleration in the rotating frame. That is, we pretend the rotating frame is an inertial frame, and move the other terms over to the force side of the equation, and treat them as fictitious forces. When this is done, the equation of motion has the form:
where r is the radius from the axis of rotation. This result can be verified by taking the gradient of the potential to obtain the radially outward force:
The potential energy is useful, for example, in calculating the form of the water surface in a rotating bucket. Let the height of the water be : then the potential energy per unit mass contributed by gravity is (g = acceleration due to gravity) and the total potential energy per unit mass on the surface is . In a static situation (no motion of the fluid in the rotating frame), this energy is constant independent of position r. Requiring the energy to be constant, we obtain the parabolic form:
where is the height at r = 0 (the axis). See Figure 1.
Similarly, the potential energy of the centrifugal force is a minor contributor to the complex calculation of the height of the tides on the Earth (where the centrifugal force is included to account for the rotation of the Earth around the Earth-Moon center of mass).
The principle of operation of the centrifuge also can be simply understood in terms of this expression for the potential energy, which shows that it is favorable energetically when the volume far from the axis of rotation is occupied by the heavier substance.
It has been mentioned that to deal with motion in a rotating frame of reference, one alternative to a solution based upon translating everything into an inertial frame instead is to apply Newton's laws of motion in the rotating frame by adding pseudo-forces, and then working directly in the rotating frame. Next is a simple example of this method.
Figure 3 illustrates that a body that is stationary relative to the non-rotating inertial frame S' appears to be rotating when viewed from the rotating frame S, which is rotating at angular rate Ω. Therefore, application of Newton's laws to what looks like circular motion in the rotating frame S at a radius R, requires an inward centripetal force of −m Ω2 R to account for the apparent circular motion. According to observers in S, this centripetal force in the rotating frame is provided as a net force that is the sum of the radially outward centrifugal pseudo force m Ω2 R and the Coriolis force −2m Ω × vrot. To evaluate the Coriolis force, we need the velocity as seen in the rotating frame, vrot. According to the formulas in the Derivation section, this velocity is given by −Ω × R. Hence, the Coriolis force (in this example) is inward, in the opposite direction to the centrifugal force, and has the value −2m Ω2 R. The combination of the centrifugal and Coriolis force is then m Ω2 R−2m Ω2 R = −m Ω2 R, exactly the centripetal force required by Newton's laws for circular motion.
For further examples and discussion, see below, and see Taylor.
Figure 4 shows a simplified version of an apparatus for studying centrifugal force called the "whirling table". The apparatus consists of a rod that can be whirled about an axis, causing a bead to slide on the rod under the influence of centrifugal force. A cord ties a weight to the sliding bead. By observing how the equilibrium balancing distance varies with the weight and the speed of rotation, the centrifugal force can be measured as a function of the rate of rotation and the distance of the bead from the center of rotation.
From the viewpoint of an inertial frame of reference, equilibrium results when the bead is positioned to select the particular circular orbit for which the weight provides the correct centripetal force.
The whirling table is a lab experiment, and standing there watching the table you have a detached viewpoint. It seems pretty much arbitrary whether to deal with centripetal force or centrifugal force. But if you were the bead, not the lab observer, and if you wanted to stay at a particular position on the rod, the centrifugal force would be how you looked at things. Centrifugal force would be pushing you around. Maybe the centripetal interpretation would come to you later, but not while you were coping with matters. Centrifugal force is not just mathematics.
Figure 5 shows two identical spheres rotating about the center of the string joining them. This sphere example is one used by Newton himself to discuss the detection of rotation relative to absolute space. (A more practical experiment is to observe the isotropy of the cosmic background radiation.) The axis of rotation is shown as a vector Ω with direction given by the right-hand rule and magnitude equal to the rate of rotation: |Ω| = ω. The angular rate of rotation ω is assumed independent of time (uniform circular motion). Because of the rotation, the string is under tension. (See reactive centrifugal force.) The description of this system next is presented from the viewpoint of an inertial frame and from a rotating frame of reference.
where uR is a unit vector pointing from the axis of rotation to one of the spheres, and Ω is a vector representing the angular rotation, with magnitude ω and direction normal to the plane of rotation given by the right-hand rule, m is the mass of the ball, and R is the distance from the axis of rotation to the spheres (the magnitude of the displacement vector, |xB| = R, locating one or the other of the spheres). According to the rotating observer, shouldn't the tension in the string be twice as big as before (the tension from the centrifugal force plus the extra tension needed to provide the centripetal force of rotation)? The reason the rotating observer sees zero tension is because of yet another fictitious force in the rotating world, the Coriolis force, which depends on the velocity of a moving object. In this zero-tension case, according to the rotating observer the spheres now are moving, and the Coriolis force (which depends upon velocity) is activated. According to the article fictitious force, the Coriolis force is:
where R is the distance to the object from the center of rotation, and vB is the velocity of the object subject to the Coriolis force, |vB| = ωR.
In the geometry of this example, this Coriolis force has twice the magnitude of the ubiquitous centrifugal force and is exactly opposite in direction. Therefore, it cancels out the ubiquitous centrifugal force found in the first example, and goes a step further to provide exactly the centripetal force demanded by uniform circular motion, so the rotating observer calculates there is no need for tension in the string − the Coriolis force looks after everything.
This force also is the force due to tension seen by the rotating observers. The rotating observers see the spheres in circular motion with angular rate ωS = ωI − ωR (S = spheres). That is, if the frame rotates more slowly than the spheres, ωS > 0 and the spheres advance counterclockwise around a circle, while for a more rapidly moving frame, ωS < 0, and the spheres appear to retreat clockwise around a circle. In either case, the rotating observers see circular motion and require a net inward centripetal force:
However, this force is not the tension in the string. So the rotational observers conclude that a force exists (which the inertial observers call a fictitious force) so that:
The fictitious force changes sign depending upon which of ωI and ωS is greater. The reason for the sign change is that when ωI > ωS, the spheres actually are moving faster than the rotating observers measure, so they measure a tension in the string that actually is larger than they expect; hence, the fictitious force must increase the tension (point outward). When ωI < ωS, things are reversed so the fictitious force has to decrease the tension, and therefore has the opposite sign (points inward). Incidentally, checking the fictitious force needed to account for the tension in the string is one way for an observer to decide whether or not they are rotating – if the fictitious force is zero, they are not rotating. (Of course, in an extreme case like the gravitron amusement ride, you do not need much convincing that you are rotating, but standing on the Earth's surface, the matter is more subtle.)
The subscript B refers to quantities referred to the non-inertial coordinate system. Full notational details are in Fictitious force. For constant angular rate of rotation the last term is zero. To evaluate the other terms we need the position of one of the spheres:
and the velocity of this sphere as seen in the rotating frame:
where uθ is a unit vector perpendicular to uR pointing in the direction of motion.
The vector of rotation Ω = ωR uz (uz a unit vector in the z-direction), and Ω × uR = ωR (uz × uR) = ωR uθ ; Ω × uθ = −ωR uR. The centrifugal force is then:
and has the ability to change sign, being outward when the spheres move faster than the frame (ωS > 0 ) and being inward when the spheres move slower than the frame (ωS < 0 ). Combining the terms:
Figure 7 shows a ball dropping vertically (parallel to the axis of rotation Ω of the rotating frame). For simplicity, suppose it moves downward at a fixed speed in the inertial frame, occupying successively the vertically aligned positions numbered one, two, three. In the rotating frame it appears to spiral downward, and the right side of Figure 7 shows a top view of the circular trajectory of the ball in the rotating frame. Because it drops vertically at a constant speed, from this top view in the rotating frame the ball appears to move at a constant speed around its circular track. A description of the motion in the two frames is next.
where ω is the angular rate of rotation, m is the mass of the ball, and R is the radius of the spiral in the horizontal plane. Because there is no apparent source for such a force (hence the label "fictitious"), the rotating observer concludes it is just "a fact of life" in the rotating world that there exists an inward force with this behavior. Inasmuch as the rotating observer already knows there is a ubiquitous outward centrifugal force in the rotating world, how can there be an inward force? The answer is again the Coriolis force: the component of velocity tangential to the circular motion seen in the right panel of Figure 7 activates the Coriolis force, which cancels the centrifugal force and, just as in the zero-tension case of the spheres, goes a step further to provide the centripetal force demanded by the calculations of the rotating observer. Some details of evaluation of the Coriolis force are shown in Figure 8.
Because the Coriolis force and centrifugal forces combine to provide the centripetal force the rotating observer requires for the observed circular motion, the rotating observer does not need to apply any additional force to the object, in complete agreement with the inertial observer, who also says there is no force needed. One way to express the result: the fictitious forces look after the "fictitious" situation, so the ball needs no help to travel the perceived trajectory: all observers agree that nothing needs to be done to make the ball follow its path.
To show a different frame of reference, let's revisit the dropping ball example in Figure 7 from the viewpoint of a parachutist falling at constant speed to Earth (the rotating platform). The parachutist aims to land upon the point on the rotating ground directly below the drop-off point. Figure 9 shows the vertical path of descent seen in the rotating frame. The parachutist drops at constant speed, occupying successively the vertically aligned positions one, two, three.
In the stationary frame, let us suppose the parachutist jumps from a helicopter hovering over the destination site on the rotating ground below, and therefore traveling at the same speed as the target below. The parachutist starts with the necessary speed tangential to his path (ωR) to track the destination site. If the parachutist is to land on target, the parachute must spiral downward on the path shown in Figure 9. The stationary observer sees a uniform circular motion of the parachutist when the motion is projected downward, as in the left panel of Figure 9. That is, in the horizontal plane, the stationary observer sees a centripetal force at work, -m ω2 R, as is necessary to achieve the circular path. The parachutist needs a thruster to provide this force. Without thrust, the parachutist follows the dashed vertical path in the left panel of Figure 9, obeying Newton's law of inertia.
The stationary observer and the observer on the rotating ground agree that there is no vertical force involved: the parachutist travels vertically at constant speed. However, the observer on the ground sees the parachutist simply drop vertically from the helicopter to the ground, following the vertically aligned positions one, two, three. There is no force necessary. So how come the parachutist needs a thruster?
The ground observer has this view: there is always a centrifugal force in the rotating world. Without a thruster, the parachutist would be carried away by this centrifugal force and land far off the mark. From the parachutist's viewpoint, trying to keep the target directly below, the same appears true: a steady thrust radially inward is necessary, just to hold a position directly above target. Unlike the dropping ball case, where the fictitious forces conspired to produce no need for external agency, in this case they require intervention to achieve the trajectory. The basic rule is: if the inertial observer says a situation demands action or does not, the fictitious forces of the rotational frame will lead the rotational observer to the same conclusions, albeit by a different sequence.
Notice that there is no Coriolis force in this discussion, because the parachutist has zero horizontal velocity from the viewpoint of the ground observer.
There is evidence that Sir Isaac Newton originally conceived circular motion as being caused a balance between an inward centripetal force and an outward centrifugal force.
The modern conception of centrifugal force appears to have its origins in Christiaan Huygens' paper De Vi Centrifuga, written in 1659. It has been suggested that the idea of circular motion as caused by a single force was introduced to Newton by Robert Hooke.
Newton described the role of centrifugal force upon the height of the oceans near the equator in the Principia:
The effect of centrifugal force in countering gravity, as in this behavior of the tides, has led centrifugal force sometimes to be called "false gravity" or "imitation gravity" or "quasi-gravity".
Later scientists found this view unwarranted: they pointed out (as did Newton) that the laws of mechanics were the same for all observers that differed only by uniform translation; that is, all observers that differed in motion only by a constant velocity. Hence, the "fixed stars" or "absolute space" was not preferred, but only one of a set of frames related by Galilean transformations. The inadequacy of the notion of "absolute space" in Newtonian mechanics is spelled out by Blagojević:
Ultimately this notion of the transformation properties of physical laws between frames played a more and more central role. It was noted that accelerating frames exhibited "fictitious forces" like the centrifugal force. These forces did not behave under transformation like other forces, providing a means of distinguishing them. This peculiarity of these forces led to the names inertial forces, pseudo-forces or fictitious forces. In particular, fictitious forces did not appear at all in some frames: those frames differing from that of the fixed stars by only a constant velocity. Thus, the preferred frames, called "inertial frames", were identifiable by the absence of fictitious forces.
The idea of an inertial frame was extended further in the special theory of relativity. This theory posited that all physical laws should appear of the same form in inertial frames, not just the laws of mechanics. In particular, Maxwell's equations should apply in all frames. Because Maxwell's equations implied the same speed of light in the vacuum of free space for all inertial frames, inertial frames now were found to be related not by Galilean transformations, but by Poincaré transformations, of which a subset is the Lorentz transformations. That posit led to many ramifications, including Lorentz contractions and relativity of simultaneity. Einstein succeeded, through many clever thought experiments, in showing that these apparently odd ramifications in fact had very natural explanation upon looking at just how measurements and clocks actually were used. That is, these ideas flowed from operational definitions of measurement coupled with the experimental confirmation of the constancy of the speed of light.
Later the general theory of relativity further generalized the idea of frame independence of the laws of physics, and abolished the special position of inertial frames, at the cost of introducing curved space-time. Following an analogy with centrifugal force (sometimes called "artificial gravity" or "false gravity"), gravity itself became a fictitious force, as enunciated in the principle of equivalence.
In short, centrifugal force played a key early role in establishing the set of inertial frames of reference and the significance of fictitious forces, even aiding in the development of general relativity.
Nevertheless, all of these systems can also be described without requiring the concept of centrifugal force, in terms of motions and forces in an inertial frame, at the cost of taking somewhat more care in the consideration of forces and motions within the system.