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Currently in my last year of high school, and I have always been told that centrifugal force does not exist by my physics teachers. Today my girlfriend in the year below asked me what centrifugal force was, I told her it didn't exist, and then she told me her textbook said it did, and defined it as "The apparent force experienced towards the outside of a circle is the centrifugal force and is due to the mass of the object resisting the inward centripetal acceleration that the object is experiencing". I was pretty shocked to hear this after a few years of being told that it does not exist.

I did some reading and found out all sorts of things about pseudo forces and reference frames. I was wondering if someone could please explain to me what the hell is going on (in high school student terms), is it wrong to say that centrifugal force does not exist?

This has always nagged me a bit as I often wonder that if every force has a reaction force then a centripetal force must have a reaction centrifugal force, but when I asked my teachers about this they told me that centrifugal force does not exist. Now I'm just confused. Help.

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Note that the textbook says: "The apparent force". It's not real; what you are feeling is inertia. –  hdhondt Apr 22 at 11:06
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My answer here will shed light on this matter : physics.stackexchange.com/q/108925 –  Awesome Apr 22 at 12:42
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xkcd.com/123 –  Awesome Apr 22 at 12:43
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@hdhondt How does one feel inertia? What you feel is the effect other objects have on you as they accelerate and you remain (momentarily) in your own inertial frame. See also this answer –  garyp Apr 22 at 13:39
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The final paragraph asks about reaction forces, and I don't think anyone has really addressed this. Suppose you (mass M) are in a bucket (mass m) connected by a spring (mass 0) to a fixed centre. You and the bucket are whirling around. What are the forces? There is a centripetal force of Ma on you. There is a centripetal force of (m+M)a on the bucket from the spring (you can tell by how much the spring has stretched). There is an outward force of Ma from you on the bucket. That's the reaction force to your centripetal force. It's real. I think that is what nonphysicists call centrifugal force. –  Theodore Norvell Apr 23 at 0:42
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8 Answers 8

Summary

Centrifugal force and Coriolis force exist only within a rotating frame of reference and their purpose is to "make Newtonian mechanics work" in such a reference.

So your teacher is correct; according to Newtonian mechanics, centrifugal force truly doesn't exist. There is a reason why you can still define and use it, though. For this reason, your girlfriend's book might also be considered correct.

Details

As you know, Newton's laws work in so-called "inertial frames of reference". However, a point on the surface of the Earth is not really an inertial frame of reference because it is spinning around the center of the Earth. (So you can think of it as a rotating coordinate system.) So Newton's mechanics don't apply if you want to describe motion and use a reference point on the Earth. This is quite inconvenient, because we mostly want to engineer things that work on the Earth.

Fortunately, there is a trick: you can use a point on the surface of the Earth as your reference and pretend that it's an inertial frame of reference, if you also pretend that some external "imaginary" (fictious) forces exist in addition to the real ones. These are the centrifugal force and the Coriolis force.

Further reading

If you are interested in more, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inertial_frame_of_reference
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifugal_force_%28rotating_reference_frame%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_effect

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The trick is, centrifugal force is a fictitious force.

Centrifugal force exists! To everyone denying it, do this to them: xkcd.com/123. However it is a fictitious force. To quote wikipedia:

A fictitious force is an apparent force that acts on all masses whose motion is described using a non-inertial frame of reference, such as a rotating reference frame.

So, if you sit in a merry-go-round, you can feel a force pulling you out. You can measure it. For you this force exists but for your mother standing outside the merry-go-round, watching you, there is no centrifugal force. She can see the merry-go-round applying a centripetal force to you, so you go along with the merry-go-round and do not fall off. If it didn't, your mass makes you go in a straight line and you fall off.

The reason why the two observers observe different forces is that the merry-go-round is not an inertial frame of reference whereas the ground, upon which your mother stands, is.

In an inertial frame of reference there is no centrifugal force but there can be in a non-inertial frame of reference.

So the centrifugal force appears to be there because an observer in a merry-go-round is not in an inertial frame of reference. By changing frames of reference you can eliminate it.

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"Where the ground, your mother stands on, is" -- well it isn't, but it's a lot less non-inertial since it's doing a lot fewer revolutions per day :-) –  Steve Jessop Apr 22 at 16:51
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You are technically totally correct ;-) So for the sake of completeness, let's assume the mother's ground is at rest. –  PanicSheep Apr 22 at 16:57
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To be technically correct (which is the best kind of correct), even if the earth were at rest, an earth-based frame of reference is not inertial, as it contains gravity as a fictitious force. –  Tristan Apr 22 at 17:19
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Well, gravity is fictitious only in general relativity, not in Newtonian mechanics. –  Ruslan Apr 22 at 19:43
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+1 for relevant xkcd. –  iananananan Apr 23 at 0:33
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As I disagree with all the answers I am going to try to explain some of the fundamentals of science: Science in it's very essence can not explain why things happen the way they do, they simply try to model reality based on observations in the past to predict events in the future. In other words, defining a centrifugal force is possible as for example your girlfriend's book does, but it is redundant in the greater scheme of the physics model of reality as other aspects of the physics model can be used to describe the same events without the need for such a force.

Now, to address your original question: Does centrifugal force exist?

  • No, because just like gravitational force/gravitation/"space warping" or even things like the electroweak interaction it doesn't exist in any way except as a term to describe an observed pattern in the past we expect to happen in the future as well. Science can never* claim to explain anything, it can just build more and more efficient and abstract models to predict future events.
  • No, because in the most generally accepted model(s)** of physics the force is not used. See the other answers for this.
  • Yes, in the sense of it being useful at a certain level of prediction to model certain things without too much abstraction. Similarly certain things can be explained in chemistry with certain "laws" which physics can predict in a more complex and abstract form. This doesn't mean the chemical laws do not exist, they simply are less abstract.

* <small> well, just to be perfectly correct here something like theology is considered by some a science and it at least at a fundamental level has the right to make the claim, regardless of the question whether it can or can not explain anything </small>

** Models if you take for example the Newtonian model and the newer quantum physical model as separate models with different levels of abstractions rather than the quantum physical as simply a better newer version of the Newtonian model.

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Finally, an answer that presents both points. Although I think you have the abstractions wrong - the deeper you go, the less abstractions you have, not the other way around. Abstractions are handy to protect you against unnecessary complexities - e.g. a friction force is an abstraction of something that ultimately boils down to the electromagnetic force (and beyond). But calculating friction based on EMF? Oh boy. Oh, and science explains things alot - it just doesn't guarantee that it's the 100% exact explanation. That's why it's constantly being updated for new observations :) –  Luaan Apr 22 at 14:59
    
@Luaan: Yeah, it is mostly a thing of definition in which direction you go with "abstraction". I - and the philosophy of science if memory serves me right - tend to see abstraction as going farther from the simple observations made in reality. This makes sense if you look at the development of science from a macroscopic perspective through time, but seems odd to someone who is taught forces like the centrifugal force form the beginning as a simpler perspective on the "real deal". Regardless, how could science explain things? It can only say: we saw this and this happen statistically –  David Mulder Apr 22 at 15:25
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I don't think this answer is useful within the context of the question. –  garyp Apr 22 at 16:09
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@garyp: It is the only answer which explains the concept of abstraction and explains why his girlfriends book isn't simply wrong. –  David Mulder Apr 22 at 16:26
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David, I think this is a totally awesome answer, I enjoyed reading it :) But I also agree with @garyp in the sense that maybe it's a bit too abstract here, because the OP asked for an answer "in high school student terms". –  Venemo Apr 22 at 19:26
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In Newtonian physics, objects continue moving in a straight line unless a force acts on them, therefore if an object is not moving in a straight line, a force must be acting on it.

Consider planets. Why don't they just fly off into space on a straight line? Because the sun pulls them.

Consider a rock at the end of a string. Why does it not fly off when spun? Because the line holds it in place.

When you get into something that is spinning (such as merry go round), you will fly off in a straight line because you weren't holding on to anything.

If you do hold on to something, you will feel as if something is pulling you outwards. Actually, your arms are pulling you inwards (which is what stops you from flying off), and you are feeling the reaction to your action (also Newton's laws). Because motion is relative, you can define some clever reference points which make it seem like there is a force pushing you outwards, but in the end it doesn't make a lot of sense.

If you hold an accelerometer while on the merry go round, you will see that you are experiencing acceleration (which implies a force, because of $F=ma$). If you spin fast enough, you will also feel yourself the various effects of having large forces applied to you, such as blood draining from parts of your body. If you let go and fly off, you will notice that the accelerometer shows no acceleration, and you are not feeling any, even if you were spinning very quickly. Where did the "centrifugal force" go? It went away as soon as you stopped applying a centripetal (towards the center) force on yourself by letting go.

This is why it's called a fictional force, it only seems to exist if you use a frame of reference that allows fictional forces to appear.

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The key to the conundrum is that for the purpose of explaining the apparent forces on someone to whom a rotating frame of reference appears to define stationary, for example all human beings everywhere, centrifugal force may need to be taken into consideration since it appears to be there. Although it may be small depending on the speed of rotation. Which is what your girlfriend's textbook says. For the purpose of stating Newton's laws of motion in an inertial frame of reference, which is what your teachers were doing, there is no such thing as this centrifugal force. You might reasonably think that since they contradict, one of those points of view must be so stupid that nobody would ever say it. But that's not the case.

"Centrifugal force" and "Coriolis force" exist as terms in the equation of motion of an object relative to a rotating frame of reference:

  • Consider "rotating with the frame of reference" to be stationary. That's just what "frame of reference" means.
  • Consider an object initially "at rest" (that is to say, at some instant in time it is rotating with the frame of reference), but nothing is in place to keep it rotating. Like spinning something on a string in a circle and then releasing just at the instant we start to calculate its motion.
  • Let time run from that initial point.

Then the object moves away from the centre of rotation. In an inertial (non-rotating) frame of reference it was not initially at rest. In that frame of reference we'd say that it moves in a straight line. In the rotating frame of reference it accelerates away from the centre -- the initial acceleration is directly away but it starts to follow a curved path.

The "force" that causes the initial "acceleration" is called "centrifugal force", and the "force" that acts on a moving body in a rotating frame and causes the the curve is called "coriolis force".

But the equations of motion in a rotating frame of reference are horrible, and the equations of motion in an inertial frame of reference are really simple. So, who cares about rotating frames of reference, to the point of giving a name to a "force" that doesn't exist in the inertial frames of reference that we prefer for calculation? People who live on a planet, is who. These non-existent forces have to be taken into account if you want to accurately compute the flight of a sufficiently long-range artillery shell or the movement of weather, relative to the ground instead of relative to some fixed point in space through which the earth rotates.

Do they exist? If you take a rotating frame of reference then they can be observed, just like any other force, and for that matter we subjectively experience them when we spin fast enough. If you take an inertial frame of reference then there's no such term in the laws of physics. So yes they exist, you can measure them if you're standing on a planet. No, they don't really exist, they're just a by-product of the frame of reference you chose. A bit like gravity in general relativity is a by-product of choosing an "unnatural" frame of reference, one that fails to follow the curvature of space-time ;-)

Note that in both frames of reference, inertial or rotating, an object that remains stationary in the rotating frame (and rotates in a circle in the inertial frame) necessarily experiences a "centripetal force" (a force towards the centre). Thus gravity causes things to orbit, and the tension in a piece of string causes a spinning poi to follow a circular path. So what "centrifugal force" really is, in a rotating frame of reference, is the term you need in order to satisfy the requirement that a stationary object must experience 0 net force. In an inertial frame that object describing a circle is not stationary, so it does not experience 0 net force, so there is no balancing term.

You are on to something when you speak about equal and opposite forces. Since the spinning object experiences a centripetal force, the object exerting that force necessarily must experience an equal and opposite force. The moon pulls the earth in its direction, and the string of the poi pulls your hand in the direction of the poi. This is not what is usually called "centrifugal force", but it is away from the centre, and it "really" does exist.

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In the last paragraph you talk about equal and opposite forces. Is the force towards the outside what is called the "reactive centrifugal force"? or is this something else altogether? –  Dylan Cleaver Apr 22 at 19:16
    
@DylanCleaver: yes, that's exactly it. I just hadn't heard that phrase (or if I have heard it didn't remember it). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactive_centrifugal_force points out a subtlety that I missed, which is that I could have distinguished the string from the post/hand a bit better and considered all forces on both. –  Steve Jessop Apr 22 at 19:24
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Centrifugal force is force that pulls rotating object away from the center of rotation, Centrifugal is part of Newtonian mechanics and it's derived from Newton's Second law $$F=ma$$ Where $F$ is force in newtons, $m$ is mass of an object and $a$ is acceleration. In circular motion acceleration is $a=\frac{v^2}{r}$ and full equation for centrifugal force is $$ F=\frac{mv^2}{r} $$ Where $v$ is speed and $r$ is radius. Here's sample image of circular motion and centrifugal and centripetal force acting on an object:

enter image description here

Same happens with pilots of jet planes:

enter image description here

They experience centrifugal force and if that force is enough they can lost consciousness.

EDIT:

Imagine a bus and someone who is standing in it, and suddenly the bus driver turns the bus, because the car changed its direction of velocity it has accelerated, while someone who was standing was continuing moving in old direction, because of that he/she will fall, but because of bus driver is sitting very hardly he will experience centrifugal force. It's easier to imagine a spaceship, if he/she was floating relative to spaceship and spaceship has changed its direction of motion, it will accelerate, while he/she will be continuing moving in old direction so he/she won't experience centrifugal force, while spaceship will. (I have found nice animation about that situation in spaceship Click Here.)

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The reason I have voted this down is that this answers seems to intentionally conflate inertial pseudo-forces (in this cases the effects of using a rotating frame of reference) with real forces (those that appear when you use a inertial frame of reference). It is certainly true that there are mathematical mechanisms for doing physics in non-inertial frames, but the are a complicating factor; it should be emphasized that the laws of physics have their simplest form in inertial frames. –  dmckee Apr 22 at 13:20
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I agree with @dmgee here. The first sentence says "Centrifugal force is force that pulls rotating object away from the center of rotation". Yet, in an inertial frame, the object accelerates towards the centre. There is no force pulling the object away from the centre, there is a force pulling it toward the centre; this force is centripetal. –  Theodore Norvell Apr 22 at 23:57
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Your girlfriend's book is wrong.

....is due to the mass of the object resisting the inward centripetal acceleration that the object is experiencing"

Centrifugal force is not due to the resistance. The resistance towards acceleration is called "Inertia". Centrifugal force only occurs in non-inertial rotating frame of reference.

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Centrifugal force does exist... it's clearly the force that makes a centrifuge work:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifuge

Can't spin an object in a centrifuge without a centrigual force, right? =)

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"Clearly" has no explanatory value. –  David Richerby Apr 22 at 17:09
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