# Why is centrifugal force called fictitious? [duplicate]

When an object undergoes rotation, from the object's reference frame, which is a non-inertial reference frame, the object feels there is a radially outward force, a centrifugal force, acting on it. However, from an inertial reference frame, this force doesn't exist at all. That's why it is called a fictitious force.

My argument is, who are we to say what is fictitious or not. The object at the non-inertial frame really feels the centrifugal force! So, it is a real force for the object.

Suppose, there are two inertial reference frames $$S$$ & $$S'$$ and $$S'$$ is moving with a velocity v that is a significant fraction of the speed of light. From $$S$$ it would seem that time is going slower for $$S'$$. Surprisingly, it would seem from $$S'$$ that time is going slower for $$S$$ as well. Now, who is right? Answer: Both of them are right.

So, is it really right to call centrifugal force fictitious just because it doesn't exist in an inertial reference frame?

• Obligatory XKCD: xkcd.com/123 Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 23:01
• Possible duplicates: Does centrifugal force exist? , Is the centrifugal force a real force? and links therein. Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 4:53
• Does this answer your question? Does centrifugal force exist? Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 9:59
– rob
Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 17:00

I disagree that you feel centrifugal force. A person in a centrifuge actually feels their reaction to the centripetal force. If you sit in a car that is subject to harsh acceleration, you 'feel' as if you are being pushed back in your seat. There is no force pushing you back- it is simply the result of your inertia.

• Note that mechanical phenomena can be discussed in non-inertial frames of reference just as well as in the inertial ones, provided that one introduces appropriate pseudoforces (centrifugal force, Koriolis force, Euler force, etc.) Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 11:55
• If I want to avoid using pseudo forces altogether, what do I have to do? Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 13:45
• @AbuSafwan Choose an inertial frame. This can be physically achieved by using accelerometers to determine whether you, as an observer, are accelerating or not. A weighing scale is an example of an (single-directional) accelerometer. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 13:51
• @AbuSafwan No, or else you won't obtain the correct equations of motion. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:27
• @AbuSafwan In GR, gravity is a result of curved spacetime and geodesics, so it is not a source of proper acceleration. However, if an observer has non-zero proper acceleration, objects nearby will appear to have a fictitious (coordinate) acceleration. The easiest example is the surface of the Earth. The surface of the Earth is accelerating radially outwards with proper acceleration $g$, so we see freely-falling objects "accelerate" at $-g$. See my answer here. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:44

A force is fictitious if it doesn't obey Newton's three laws of motion. Recall Newton's first law:

The first law states that an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by a net external force.

Mathematically, this is equivalent to saying that if the net force on an object is zero, then the velocity of the object is constant. $$\sum \mathbf F=0\iff \frac{d\mathbf v}{dt}=0$$

You could call the first law a 'test' for the remaining two laws; if the first law doesn't hold you can't apply the other two. For example in a rotating reference frame an inertial path could look like the left picture:

The ball is obviously accelerating but there doesn't seem to be anything causing the force. You have two options in this situation. You could argue there is no force on the ball (I don't see anything causing a force!) and in that case Newton's first law would be violated because the ball is still accelerating. You could also argue that there is a force on the ball defined by $$\mathbf F\equiv m\, \mathbf a$$. In that case Newton's third law would be violated because there is no second force that is equal and opposite to $$\mathbf F$$. This violates momentum conservation and we have no choice but to call this force fictitious. Either way we conclude our reference frame is non-inertial.

Fictitious forces have plagued classical physics for a long time and they have only been resolved after the introduction of general relativity.

• +1 This is a good argument for separating fictitious from non-fictitious. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 12:54
• Can you explain the picture better? What are the smiley faces, what is the rail, what do the numbers and colours denote? Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 10:36
• @Fato39 I forgot to provide the source oops. The image was just to illustrate objects follow curved paths in non-inertial reference frames but a full explanation is given in this link en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_force#Bounced_ball Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 11:06

According to the basic Newtonian formulation of mechanics, "real" forces come in couples: a force (action) and its reaction acting on the source of the action. Furthermore "real" forces are independent of the used reference frame. Fictitious forces, as centrifugal or Coriolis one, violate both conditions. This is the reason why they are called in that way. Maybe that is not a good name because they have concrete effects (though the interpretation of these effects may be given without using fictitious forces by just describing the phenomenon in an inertial reference frame).

• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 15:26

The object at the non-inertial frame really feels the centrifugal force! So, it is a real force for the object.

This is actually incorrect. An accelerometer mounted on the object detects only the sum of the real forces. There is no experiment by which you can “feel” any fictitious force. They only exist in non-inertial frames and their existence or non-existence does not change the result of any physical measurement.

The distinction between inertial forces and real forces is physical, not merely a labeling reflecting some human prejudice.

• I particularly like this as an introduction to GR in which we might argue that, since it’s very hard to say whether we’re truly in an inertial frame (e.g. Foucault pendulum, etc) we should come up with more precise criteria for labeling forces fictitious. This might lead to the accelerometer criterion, but that seemingly labels uniform gravity as fictitious, and so the course begins … Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 11:23
• @J. Murray I completely agree. Once you have the GR framework for inertial forces in mind you wonder how classical mechanics ever managed with its concept
– Dale
Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 16:47
• "An accelerometer mounted on the object detects only the sum of the real forces." An accelerometer doesn't detect evenly distributed forces. For instance, suppose you put a spring with a homogeneously distributed charge in an electric field. The spring will accelerate, but will not contract, and thus will "detect" no acceleration. "There is no experiment by which you can “feel” any fictitious force." Just look at an object's acceleration in the frame of reference. Acceleration implies force. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 2:47
• @Accumulation the spring will not contract, but an accelerometer attached to the spring will detect the acceleration just fine. For your second point the problem is that, without changing the experiment at all you can change the reference frame used to analyze the experiment. That changes the fictitious forces. So which force does that experiment measure? The outcome does not depend on any fictitious force.
– Dale
Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 13:53

"Fictitious" is a loaded term. It is better to use the alternative terms "pseudo force" or "inertial force", which avoid implying that the force is not real. Whichever label is used the key point is that centrifugal force (and, similarly, Euler force and Coriolis force) arises purely from the fact that we are measuring the position, velocity and acceleration of the object relative to a non-inertial reference frame.

• I agree, I prefer “inertial force” since it is less negative and more descriptive
– Dale
Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 22:42

Without arguing why something is called something, I'll just give the justification for calling something, something.

Whenever a force emerges due to our choice of a non-inertial frame, it's called a fictitious force.

Consider as an example a person on an upward accelerating lift. If the person relies on his own frame, then he should write the equation of motion as $$-mg+N=ma=0$$ But this is wrong! Because the person is in a non-inertial frame. He must take this into account. There are two ways of doing this. First, he could analyze the problem from an inertial frame. In which case, he would write $$-mg+N=ma_\text{lift}$$ Or, he could introduce a force for which he has no reason. It's not from some sort of interaction of bodies such as gravitational or electrostatic forces. It's just a force out of nowhere. We call it a fictitious force. We write: $$-mg+N-ma_\text{lift}=0$$ Now, this is exactly the same as what is done in the initial frame.

In exactly this sense, the centrifugal force is fictitious.

In an inertial frame, we write $$m(\ddot{r}-r\dot{\theta}^2)=F_r$$ $$m(r\ddot{\theta}+2\dot{r}\dot{\theta})=F_\theta$$ In a non-inertial frame, we write $$m\ddot{r}=F_r+F_\text{fic}=F_r+mr\dot{\theta}^2$$ $$mr\ddot{\theta}=F_\theta-2m\dot{r}\dot{\theta}$$ If we are writing the second, we have no explanation for the fictitious term.

Imagine standing on a train where the floor is made of ice. The train is parked at the station. You are standing on the ice floor of the train, holding onto nothing. There are other passengers seated on the train.

As the train pulls out of the station, you stay in place inertially, because the ice provides no shear force to your feet due to a lack of friction. To a passenger sitting down, he looks at you accelerating towards the rear of the train and remarks, "Wow, there is a lot of force acting on that guy!" Upon close examination, however, the passenger notes the ice floor and realizes there is no such force to explain your rearward acceleration. The passenger concludes that this apparent force is fictitious and that they are instead simply making observations from a non-inertial frame.

the object feels there is a radially outward force

No, it does not, and this is the whole reason behind the misconception.

A human may feel this way, but this is a thing that goes on in your head, and simply means that we are not wired in a way that we can really process the forces at play in a meaningful way on a biological level - mostly because it never happens in real life, so there is no selector for evolution to develop it.

Tie a rope to a large rock and twirl it around you (in free space with no planet close by, to avoid any confusion with its gravity). Cut the rope with one fell swoop. In this moment, no more forces act on the rock. The rock does not fly radially away from you; it flies away tangentially to the circle it just described. There was no real force pointing away from you.

You can easily test this in your garden, or from your armchair by watching a hammer throw in slow motion. Note how the athletes keep rotating a quarter turn after letting go, before following the flying object with their eyes.

While the rock was still bound, there acted exactly one force on it: the force of the rope pulling straight towards you; or from the perspective of the rock, towards its "bottom" (i.e. the centripetal force - from latin "pedes: on foot", like in "pedestrian"). While rotating around you, at each moment it had a speed tangential to its circle or orbit; and the centripetal force is the one that makes it "fall" towards you, or in more neutral terms, constantly changes its direction.

In the case of a solid rotating object, the rope is replaced by the electromagnetic forces that keep the particles together. In the case of an object standing on a planet, the rope is replaced by gravity. Oh, and a fun thought experiment: if someone would switch off gravity right now, on Earth, and a totally inelastic object were sitting on a completely inelastic floor (i.e., with no internal "spring" forces in the picture), and maybe in a local vacuum, it would seem to start flying parallel to the floor, not towards the sky.

• "The rock does not fly radially away from you; it flies away tangentially to the circle it just described. There was no real force pointing away from you." Instantaneously, it does fly away radially, in the rotating frame of reference. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 2:50

"The object at the non-inertial frame really feels the centrifugal force! So, it is a real force for the object."

Three points on this:

1. This is a philosophical observation, not physical. Which does not mean it is invalid. It's just that all kinds of mischief arise when people confuse philosophical statements with physical statements.
2. In physics, a force is what causes an acceleration. Period. An object, person, cat, whatever, being rotated in some container about an axis is by definition accelerated radially inward. So from the point of view of what causes of acceleration are present, the force is also radially inward and there is no radially outward force.
3. But philosophically, I would argue that you don't feel any outward force. Think about it. If you are in a car making a sharp left turn and you wind up leaning with your right side against the car door, are you feeling any force on your left shoulder pushing you out? No. The only force you are actually feeling is on your right shoulder and it is pushing you in. The "feeling" of an outward force is a psychological interpretation of your experience that integrates a whole host of perceptions in that moment. The only force you really feel is inward.

So, is it really right to call centrifugal force fictitious just because it doesn't exist in an inertial reference frame?

Fictitious forces only exist in non-inertial frames.

Reactive centrifugal force (or whatever term you want to call it) is real and part of a pair of Newton third law forces. Consider a puck sliding on a frictionless surface, being centripetally accelerated in a circular path by an attached string that goes through a hole in the center of the circular path. The string exerts a centripetal force on the puck, coexistent with the puck exerting a reactive centrifugal force on the string.

As for the person in a centrifuge example, imagine the person is holding a brick against their stomach. The person will feel the reactive centrifugal force from the brick, coexistent with the centripetal force that the person exerts onto the brick.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactive_centrifugal_force

From S it would seem that time is going slower for S′. Surprisingly, it would seem from S′ that time is going slower for S as well. Now, who is right? Answer: Both of them are right.
So, is it really right to call centrifugal force fictitious just because it doesn't exist in an inertial reference frame?

S and S' don't disagree on how fast time is passing. They both agree on how much of S-time passes, and they both disagree on how much S'-time passes. What they disagree on is that S calls S-time just "time", while for S', the term "time" refers to S'-time. This isn't really a disagreement about a physical phenomenon such as time, this is merely a semantic disagreement about what physical phenomenon gets the label "time".

According to Einstein's Special Relativity postulates, neither of their labeling systems are superior. They both work equally well.

In the case of inertial versus non-inertial frame, it's still not quite correct to say that one is "right". Both of them have valid coordinate systems, and they have physical laws that predict phenomena. However, the non-inertial physics is more complicated.

Since it's good to have a universal set a of physical rules rather than having different rules depending on what frame of reference one chooses, and there is an objective basis on which we can say that the inertial frame, while not necessarily more "right", is more useful, it makes sense to formulate physics laws in terms of inertial frames, and that means having the word "force" refer to forces that exist in inertial frames, and adding the qualifier "fictitious" to phenomena that appear only in non-inertial frames.

The answer depends on the particular meaning that one puts in word fictitious:

• On the one hand, there is no doubt that centrifugal force (and other forces arising in non-inertial reference frames) is real - in the sense that it is measurable and has real physical effects (in the reference frame of the rotating object)
• On the other hand, real forces are characterized not only by their action, but also by their nature - the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetic interaction, weak and strong interactions) reflect properties of the objects which are independent (or at least invariant in respect to) the reference frames that we use. Centrifugal force does depend on the reference frame for its existence, even if considering inertial reference frames superior to the non-inertial ones coudl be considered a matter of convention/existence. It is in this sense that the centrifugal force is considered fictitious. (Note that real forces themselves may also undergo drastic transformations when changing a reference frame, even when between the inertial reference frames.)
• Finally, let me point out that the whole of physics is fictitious - existing only in the human minds - as opposed to the actual nature, which behaves the way it behaves without any knowledge of how we, humans, describe and interpret it. In this sense, what we call fictitious or real is a matter of convention - and we have decided that the inertial frames of reference are superior (and let us not forget that some people were prosecuted by inquisition allegedly for promoting this view.)

Remarks:

• My last remark about inquisition is more grounded in popular beliefs than in facts. Galileo and Giordano Bruno were famously prosecuted by the inquisition (the first was forced to renounce his views, the second was burned at stake). The deeper look into both cases however shows that the true reasons for prosecution had little or nothing to do with science.
• You need to be a little cautious about the claim that fictitious forces are measurable. They are not, in the sense that there is no physical experiment whose measurement depends on the fictitious force. They are only inferred to explain the motion of objects in a non-inertial frame
– Dale
Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 11:01
• @Dale Calling centrifugal force fictitious is largely a semnatical issue, so it could make it only more confusing, if we start debating the semantics of measurement. We all have experience of feeling a centrifugal force when taking a turn on a car/bicycle or riding a roller-coaster. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 11:30
• @RogerVadim Dale's point, I think, is that we don't feel a centrifugal force. If you're sitting with your eyes closed in a rollercoaster car which suddenly takes a sharp left turn, then you don't feel a fictitious force pushing you to the right, but rather a real force pushing you to the left. Humans are very bad measurement apparatuses, and our brains intuitively tell us that we're being pushed to the right because we evolved to navigate more-or-less inertial frames, but a careful analysis of our sensory perception would reveal that we never actually feel pseudoforces. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 12:23
• @JMurray You insist on the concept of measurement grounded in the notion of reference frame, and unsurprisingly find that non-inertial forces contradict this concept. In fact, one could formulate all of the mechanics (and perhaps even relativity) in non-inertial reference frames. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 12:41
• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 11:35