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Centripetal Force - The Real Force

The Spinning Penny demonstrates forces in motion. A force is a push or pull. To understand how and
why it works, you have to look at the forces that are acting on the penny. The shape of the balloon
makes the penny move in a circular path - otherwise the penny would want to continue to move in a
straight line. Another force to consider is friction. There's very little friction between the edge of
the penny and the balloon. More friction would cause the penny to slow down and stop.
The real force in action here is called centripetal force, which means center-seeking. This is a
force that is always directed toward the center of the circle and is actually responsible for keeping
the penny moving in a circular motion inside the balloon.
Whenever an object moves in a circular path the object is accelerating because the velocity is
constantly changing direction. All accelerations are caused by a net force acting on an object (the
force does not equal 0). In the case of an object moving in a circular path, the net force is a
special force called the centripetal force (not centrifugal!). So a centripetal force is a center
seeking force which means that the force is always directed toward the center of the
circle. Without this force, an object will simply continue moving in straight line motion.
Imagine swinging a rope with a mass attached to the end, around in a circle above your head, much
like your cup of water on the plate. The force of tension from the rope is what provides the
required centripetal force needed to keep the ball in the circular path. The smaller the mass, the
smaller the centripetal force you will have to apply to the rope. Smaller masses require smaller
centripetal force. The smaller the velocity of the object, the less centripetal force you will have to
apply. The smaller the length of rope (radius), the more centripetal force you will have to apply to
the rope.
Centripetal force (F) and the centripetal acceleration (A) are always pointing in the same direction.
(the force causes the acceleration) If you let go of the rope (or the rope breaks) the object will no
longer be kept in that circular path and it will be free to continue on with its current velocity. It
will go flying off!
The formula for centripetal force is F = mv2/r where m represents the mass of the object, v is
the speed (magnitude of the velocity) and r is the radius from the center of the circle to the
object. A centripetal force ends up being a net force and a net force always causes an acceleration
in the direction of the net force. So if the force is center seeking (centripetal) then the
acceleration is also centripetal. The formula for centripetal acceleration is a = v2/r.

[Notice that

if you multiply this by mass (m) you get the formula for centripetal force...that's because a net
force is equal to mass times acceleration.]

Centrifugal Force - The False Force

An incorrect word has worked its way into our daily vocabulary, and with it, an incorrect
understanding of the way physics works. "Centrifugal Force" ( Latin for "center fleeing") is often
used to describe why mud gets spun off a spinning tire, or water gets pushed out of the clothes
during the spin dry cycle of your washer. It is also used to describe why we tend to slide to the
outer side of a car going around a curve. It is a common explanation...the only problem is all of it is
absolutely wrong!!! Centrifugal force does not exist...there is no such thing.
Take for example this common situation. You are riding in a car going around a curve. Sitting on
your dashboard is a CD (used to be called a tape). As you go around the curve, the CD moves to
outside edge of the car. Because you don't want to blame it on ghosts, you say "centrifugal force
pushed the tape across the dashboard."--wwrroonngg!! When we view this situation from above the
car, we get a better view of what is really happening. There is enough static friction on the sides
of the tires to act as centripetal force which forces the car to stay in the circular path. The CD on
the slippery dashboard does not have enough friction to act as a centripetal force, so in the
absence of a centripetal force the CD follows a straight line of motion.
The car literally turns out from underneath the CD, but from the passenger's point of view it looks
as though something pushed the tape across the dashboard. If the car you are riding in has the
windows rolled down, then the CD will leave the car (or does the car leave the CD?) as it follows its
straight line path. Objects tend to NOT change motion unless a force acts on it and in this case,
not enough friction was acting on the CD. If the windows are rolled up, then the window will deliver
a centripetal force to the CD and keep it in a circular path. Any time the word Centrifugal Force is
used, what is really being described is a Lack-of-Centripetal Force.