What is centrifugal force? Physics definitions

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Kids playing tetherball using centrifugal force

Kids playing tetherball using centrifugal force

When something is going straight, it always keeps going straight unless something else stops it or turns it. (The Iranian scientist Ibn Sina figured this out about 1000 AD). If it can’t go straight, then it goes as straight as it can. So when you hit a tetherball, it tries to go straight away from you. But the rope pulls on the ball and keeps the tetherball from going straight. So the tetherball goes as straight as it can – around the pole in a circle. That’s centrifugal force – the energy of something trying to go straight even though it can’t.

The Earth is also affected by centrifugal force. It is moving, so it tries to keep moving in a straight line. But the gravity of the Sun pulls the Earth toward it, just as the rope pulls the tetherball. Gravity can’t pull the Earth into the Sun, because the Earth keeps trying to go straight. So the Earth (and all the other planets) take a middle road, going in a circle around the Sun. Centrifugal force also makes the Moon go around the Earth in the same way, for the same reason.

(In case you were wondering: centrifugal force is *not* what keeps electrons from collapsing into the nucleus of an atom – that’s a different and more complicated set of forces.)

Learn by doing: play some tetherball!
More about inertia
More about gravity
More about momentum

Bibliography and further reading about centrifugal force:

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By |2018-05-31T11:49:24+00:00August 16th, 2017|Islam, Physics|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is centrifugal force? Physics definitions. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 16, 2017. Web. December 13, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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