The angular momentum of a single particle is $mr^2 \omega$, and its linear velocity is $\omega r$. Suppose that $m=1$, distance from the rotation axis $r=1$ and $\omega=1$.

What happens when the distance from the axis of rotation is reduced to $r=0.5$? This is analogous to a rotating ice skater that pulls their arms inwards, there is no external force that changes the momentum of particles, so the angular momentum remains constant. According to the formula it means it has to be equal to $1$, and therefore the angular velocity will be 4 times the original angular velocity $\omega$. Moreover the linear speed of the particle will double.

How is that possible? Doesn't it contradict the law that states if there's no external force acing on the particle, its linear momentum should remain constant?

  • $\begingroup$ Think about this: How much force is needed to maintain the original circular motion? Then, how do you reduce the radius to 0.5? $\endgroup$
    – Bill N
    Jan 25, 2020 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ To maintain? I guess zero. To reduce the radius I have to apply a force that is perpendicular to the velocity vector, and it doesn't have to be an external force. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ Circular motion requires a force directed toward the center, $F_c=mr\omega^2$. Also, think about the direction the particle moves as it is changing $r$ and whether work is done on the particle. Does the kinetic energy of the particle increase? $\endgroup$
    – Bill N
    Jan 25, 2020 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ It spirals inwards, I guess its kinetic energy has to increase, and it explains why its linear velocity eventually doubles, but I don't really see why it changes because of spiraling. $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, does the velocity and therefore kinetic energy of the particle increase because when the radius is being reduced the velocity is not perpendicular to the force vector and it causes a change in the velocity of particle? $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2020 at 22:06

2 Answers 2


Angular momentum $\mathbf L$ is given by:

$$\mathbf L = \mathbf r \times \mathbf P$$

Now the torque $\mathbf {\tau} $ acting on an object is given by:

$$\boldsymbol {\tau } = \frac {d \mathbf L}{dt}$$ $$\Rightarrow \boldsymbol {\tau } = \frac {d (\mathbf r \times \mathbf P) }{dt}$$ $$\Rightarrow \boldsymbol {\tau } = \mathbf r \times \mathbf F + \mathbf v \times \mathbf P$$

Since $\mathbf v $ and $\mathbf P$ are in the same direction therefore $$\mathbf v \times \mathbf P = 0$$ i.e., $$\Rightarrow \boldsymbol {\tau } = \mathbf r \times \mathbf F $$ Now as you correctly say that $\mathbf L$ is constant therefore $$\boldsymbol {\tau } = \mathbf r \times \mathbf F =0$$ Clearly since $\mathbf r \neq 0$ then this means that $\mathbf F$ at all instants points towards the centre (i.e., to say that line of action of the force passes through the centre). Note that force cannot be zero as a centripetal force is always required for maintaining circular motion.

Object changing it's orbit

Now as you can see from the figure during transition from outer orbit to inner orbit the force and velocity vector have acute angle between them therefore the force acts to accelerate the object and hence increase it's speed.

Also it should be noted that for angular momentum to be conserved the absence of force isn't a necessary criteria (example elliptical orbits of planets).

Regarding the comment:

So if I calculated the speed of particle after the radius has been reduced down to $0.5$ it would turn out to be $2v$, where $v$ is the original speed? Is there a formula that I can use?

Yes as you know that $$\mathbf L = \mathbf r \times \mathbf P$$ $$\frac {\mathbf L}{m} = \mathbf r \times \mathbf v \tag 1$$ Clearly after the radius reduces to $\mathbf {r'}$ then the velocity becomes $\mathbf {v'}$ $$\Rightarrow \frac {\mathbf L}{m} = \mathbf {r'} \times \mathbf {v'} \tag 2$$

Therefore from $(1)$ and $(2)$ (also noting that after the particle comes into orbit the vectors have $90°$ angle between them) $$\Rightarrow v'r'=vr$$ Then $$v'= v \frac {r}{r'}$$

Note that this has been explained in the following Vsauce video (explanation starts from 10:05 to 13:15):

  • $\begingroup$ So if I calculated the speed of particle after the radius has been reduced down to 0.5 it would turn out to be $2v$, where $v$ is the original speed? Is there a formula that I can use? $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2020 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ @user55 I have modified my answer to accommodate your comment. $\endgroup$
    – user249968
    Jan 26, 2020 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ Actually I was thinking about a formula that doesn't use the conservation of angular momentum. The conservation rule is great because it simplifies the calculations, but I was thinking how much more complicated it would be if I were to calculate the new speed without refering to the law of conservation ofangular momentum and calculating the force component parallel to the velocity vector. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2020 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ @user5539357 you can ask a separate question for that. $\endgroup$
    – user249968
    Jan 26, 2020 at 10:31

This all depends on what you define to be an external force or, equivalently, what is and is not part of your system. If your system is just the particle and nothing else, then there definitely is an external force. In fact, there's an external force even before the radius is reduced, namely the centripetal force maintaining the particle's circular motion. If your system is more than just the particle, then there must be something else in the system providing both the centripetal force as well as any force required to decrease the radius of rotation. In this case, the total momentum (angular and linear) of the whole system is conserved, and whatever momentum the particle appears to have gained or lost will be matched by an equal and opposite gain or loss experienced by the rest of the system.


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