This question is somehow related to Newton's bucket and absolute rotation concepts, but applied to a simple, tangible scenario.

Let's suppose I could hover over the North Pole, and "detach" from Earth's rotation. In this scenario :

  • From my point of view, the Earth is spinning below my feet
  • For an Earth observer, I am spinning at 1 revolution per day (East to West, opposed to Earth's rotation)

In this situation, will I experience a centrifugal force pulling my hands away from my body, just like a suspended chain in a carousel :

$F = m r \omega^2 $

where :

  • $m$ : ~ weight of my hands
  • $r$ : circumference described by my hands around the axis of rotation
  • $w$ : rotational speed of Earth

I suspect I should not feel such centrifugal force, but I find it somehow counterintuitive. It would imply that :

  • A person simply standing at the North Pole does indeed experience that (tiny) force
  • So, after all, I can define an absolute frame of reference to check whether I am spinning or not, similarly to Newton's bucket. The water surface in a bucket standing over the North Pole will become concave

2 Answers 2


You are absolutely correct: the easiest way to see if you are in an inertial frame is to see if objects obey Netwonian laws of motion (at least until we start talking high speed things).

For a better intuition on this, consider the following experiment which is on a more human scale. Find a roundabout on a playground. Stand in the middle, and have someone spin it fast. You will easily feel the effects of rotating motion, including centrifugal "forces." Now, sit in the middle on a chair, and while they spin the roundabout one way, you spin your chair in the opposite direction to cancel the rotation out. You will feel no rotating frame effects, just as you do not feel them over a North pole.

If that experiment isn't intuitive enough, we can bring in an outside influence to make the intuition easier. Have someone hold onto a broomstick over the top of the roundabout's bars, and you hold onto it while sitting on the chair. You can use this broomstick to hold onto yourself so that you always face your friend. Then have another friend start spinning the roundabout beneath you. Physics wise, this is identical to you spinning yourself in the second experiment, but the intuition is a bit easier to follow beacuse we can see rather evidently that we are holding still while the merry go round is beneath us. There is clearly no reason to feel rotational effects in this situation (beyond the minimal torque caused by the imperfect bearings in your seat).

So we see that when we are standing on the roudnabout, we experiance rotational effects. If we are decoupled from the roundabout, and remain fixed in an inertial frame, we do not experience them. Likewise, if we are standing on the North Pole, we will experience rotational effects, such as those which cause the surface of hte bucket of water to be curved. But if we are decoupled from the Earth's rotation, for any reason, we are decoupled from the rotation; we feel nothing.

Minor caveat: Practically speaking, the curvature of the water will be so slight that you will not be able to detect it in the presence of the curvature caused by the surface tension of water in the bucket, known as a meniscus. Its not to say the effects aren't there, just that they are much smaller than we could measure. However, this effect does cause the Earth's oceans to bulge. The oceans at the equator are actually 21km further from the center of the earth than the oceans at the poles!


The centrifugal force is $m \omega^2 R$ where $\omega$ is the angular velocity which is the same for everyone on Earth, $2 \pi / 24 hr$. $R$ is the distance from the axis of rotation, so that would be zero on the North Pole. Thus, you will not experience a centrifugal force on the pole. You experience the largest force on the equator.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The question is about an extended object at the pole, not a point object. $\endgroup$
    – benrg
    Sep 26, 2020 at 19:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.