# What determines the direction of precession of a gyroscope?

I understand how torque mathematically causes a change to the direction of angular momentum, thus precessing the gyroscope.

However, the direction, either clockwise or counterclockwise, of this precession seems to me a bit arbitrary beyond mathematical definitions. (What if torque were defined by a "left hand rule", for example?).

What's the fundamental physical reason that the precession of a gyroscope would be directed in a certain direction?

Related question.

• It is not beyond mathematical definition, there is an equation for it. Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 21:00
• As a matter of strategy saying " I think I am asking the same question as was raised [in some earlier question]" is a way to get your question closed as a duplicate, except that I think the two are related but not-identical. Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 21:06
• Actually in general OP is before asking urged to first investigate if a question is a duplicate. Also in general, I'm more reluctant to close a question that explicitly mentions duplicate-like Phys.SE posts, because OP obviously must not have been satisfied with the answers given there. Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 10:05

OK, the direction of precession of a gyroscope.

The first image shows a gimbal mounted gyroscope wheel. From outside to inside there is a yellow housing and a red housing.

I define three axes:

• Roll axis - the gyroscope wheel spins around the roll axis.
• Pitch axis - motion of the red housing. As you can see, the gimbal mounting ensures the pitch axis is perpendicular to the roll axis.
• Swivel axis - motion of the yellow housing.

First I will discusse a state of uniform precession:
the wheel is spinning fast.
there is some swivel.

The second image shows a single quadrant. The idea is to think of that quadrant as having a fixed position relative to the red housing, with sections of spinning wheel moving through that quadrant

The mass moving through that quadrant is moving towards the swivel axis. Think of a point particle somewhere along the wheel rim, for example the point where the green arrow starts. That point is circumnavigating the swivel axis, with a corresponding velocity. Moving closer to the swivel axis that point will tend to pull ahead of the overall swiveling motion.

The brown cilinder represents a weight that tends to pitch the gyroscope wheel.

In two of the quadrants the wheel mass moving through that quadrant is moving towards the swivel axis, in the other two away from the swivel axis.

The green arrows represent tendency for each quadrant when the wheel is spinning and swiveling. The tendencies from the four quadrants combined add up to a pitching effect.

(Incidentally, given a spin rate and precession rate one can calculate the corresponding tendency to pitch by integrating the effect around the wheel.)

The reason the brown weight is not pitching the wheel down is that the combination of the wheel spinning and swiveling gives a tendency to pitch up that keeps the brown weight from pitching down.

The key factor is motion. The tendency to pitch as represented by the green arrows arises if the wheel is spinning and swiveling. Likewise, when there is spinning and pitching then swiveling motion starts.

In a demonstration the gyroscope wheel is initially just spinning. Then a torque is added. The gyroscope wheel yields a little to the torque, the motion of yielding to the torque is a pitching motion, that gives a swiveling motion, that swiveling motion counteracts the torque, so the wheel doesn't pitch any further. In demonstrations the gyroscope wheel is usually spinning so fast that the pitching motion is imperceptably small.

General remark:
Concepts such as the spin angular momentum vector are very powerful, but they are highly abstract concepts, and inaccessible to physical understanding. For understanding cause and effect one has to track down the physics in terms of force/momentum.

This explanation is adapted from the article about gyroscope physics that is on my own website.

(Initially I had given only links, hence the conversation between me and manishearth.)

• I really appreciate the fact that you first discuss the stable state, and then how a "still" spinning gyro reacts to an angular impulse. That makes more sense from a kinetics point of view. Also the fact that "the initial pitching motion gives a swiveling motion" is another precession in itself, is very interesting. Commented Sep 16, 2018 at 17:09

Notice that angular momentum is assigned a positive or negative value based on a Foo-hand rule just like torque?

I belive that as long as you use the same hand for both direction you will get the same result for the direction of precession.

In other words, the arbitrary choice does not affect the physics, just our assignment of positive or negative values to some of the quantities.

Notice that I have not actualy said why the particulr direction occurs, but I haven't a good closed form answer, so I'll wait for someone else to cover that.

• I concur, the mathematical definitions drop out. A foo-hand rule is used to assign a direction of vector of angular momentum, and then the same foo-hand rule is applied in the rule for finding the direction of gyroscopic precession. As in all physics: as long as applied consistently throughout right-hand-rule and left-hand-rule are interexchangable; the foo-hand rule is not in any way a factor; it doesn't explain anything, it doesn't introduce arbitrariness. (Still, despite its irrelevancy I have seen well meaning physicists offering invocation of foo-hand rule magic as "explanation".) Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 23:46

It basically is conservation of angular momentum that determines which way the gyroscope will rotate. The important thing to realize, is that angular momentum is a vector quantity, with certain magnitude, and direction pointing along the axis of rotation (again, apply right-hand rule).

The only thing you need to solve in principle is $$\frac{d\vec{L}}{dt}=\vec{r}\times\vec{F}$$ where $\vec{L}$ is angular momentum, and $\vec{F}$ is the force (gravity) applied at position $\vec{r}$.

The simplest model of a gyroscope that you can analyze using this equation, is a disk rotating on an axis, that is placed perpendicular to another axis (and gravity) at some distance. (Of course everything is rotating frictionless).

• I understand how the equations lead to the result, with conservation of angular momentum as a vector quantity. Maybe I'm being unreasonable, but this still feels a bit unsatisfying as a physical reason. Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 16:53
• I think part of my confusion may arise from how we define torque and angular momentum as vectors, through the right-hand rule. If we define the torque vector as perpendicular to the rotational motion, why should it change the angular momentum as a vector? It seems to be almost like a definition made to fit with observation (that the torque is perpendicular to rotational motion and the gyroscope just happens to precess in that direction). Looking at the vector definitions of these quantities just doesn't seem to me like a complete physical explanation. Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 16:57
• And physically, I don't see how the force/torque acting (downwards) upon the particles of the spinning wheel of the gyroscope should compel the system (the rotating wheel) to move in a certain horizontal direction; there is not one particle compelled in a certain horizontal direction with the force of gravity. Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 17:08
• @highschooler Think about a disk rotating about an axis that is slightly shifted from the symmetry axis. What happens with the centre of mass? I think this is the way you should look at it. It also explains why precession reverses when rotation is reversed. Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 17:12
• @highschooler You are read abot academia.edu/12037987/… and write the next comment if you need more input Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 10:22

This question of the causation of gyroscopic torque (and its magnitude and direction) troubled me all my life until I had a 'Eureka' moment about 20 years ago. I have written up the explanation of this phenomenon on my website, www.newtontime.com, using nothing more than Newton's Laws of Motion and without any need for 'fancy' mathematics. The analysis is simply based on the geometric locus of a particle which is rotating about a spin axis whilst simultaneously rotating about a tilt axis. By simple numerical integration of all the forces (Mass x Acceleration) acting on all the particles of a spinning/tilting ring, it can easily be shown that a moment is developed about the third, mutually perpendicular, gyro-torque axis. The magnitude and direction of this gyroscopic torque accords exactly with the universally observed and agreed values.

The right hand rule is OK only for decelerating gyros. Say a horizontal disc spins clockwise as seen from above & observer viewing west edge pushes it down: For first 180 degrees average precession lowers north edge of disc but raises it for the next half turn. At constant rotation rate, north edge is back down to original elevation. If disc is coasting, hence decelerating, viewer sees south edge fall because more time is spent within even numbered half cycles than within previous (odd) half cycles. For accelerating disc, vice versa.

My thoughts on Gyro Precession physical cause: I think of the Angular Momentum Vector as simply: the axis-of-rotation. And the Center-of-mass as the Pivot Point (tiny pivoting sphere). The first concept: On a spinning gyro: that PP can only have One axis at any instant in time (even if that axis is rapidly wobbling all over the place). The second concept is if you add an outside force to the gyro (like putting a weight on the axial). That is not a straight linear force, it is actually a rotation. It is probably a vibration (a rocking with a certain amount of cycles), caused by the initial outside force, and "corrected" for by the action of the gyroscope (after all, that is what a gyro does, correct for outside forces to keep the PP stable, right?) . So that vibration-rocking has an axis. So the happy gyro has one axis for its wheel spinning = Spin axis, and now you trying to give it another axis = Vib axis. So it has to merge those 2 axis into one axis. Now this gyro is doing a great job in "correcting" for the the downward force of the added weight (by virtue of the Vib action: even if it only one cycle). But it cannot spin on 2 axis at once. So it takes its existing Spin axis and moves it toward the Vib axis and they become one axis: this it the direction of precession.

Now the gyro PP is happy with one axis to spin about again. But the added weight is constant, so the axis-of-rotation keeps merging the Vib axis to its Spin axis to make a new single Spin axis, over and over, all the while keeping the PP in the same location (in space) with all of its corrective vibration-rocking reactions. That's what I think.

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Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 23:09
• My thing above about one axis is not correct, sorry. Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 17:56

My explanation (I thought about gyroscopes for a week!):

Imagine bicycle wheel in your hands. Looking from the top upper part of the wheel is moving away from you and bottom towards you. The vector of acceleration (tangential) is pointing in the same direction as vector of (linear) velocity. Now you let your left hand off. If the wheel was not spinning it would fall in such a way that the top would move to the left and bottom to the right - so there is acceleration to the left acting on the upper part and to the right on the bottom.

Add vectors of acceleration (one from the circular motion and one from gravity). Now consider that net velocity must be in the same direction as net acceleration. You will notice that wheel precesses to the left (anticlockwise from top).