Rotation, Revolution and The Answer

“Sy, I’m startin’ to think you got nothin’. Al and me, we ask what’s pushing the Moon away from us and you give us angular momentum and energy transfers. C’mon, stop dancin’ around and tell us the answer.”

“Yeah, Sy, gravity pulls things together, right, so how come the Moon doesn’t fall right onto us?”

“Not dancing, Vinnie, just laying some groundwork for you. Newton answered Al’s question — the Moon is falling towards us, but it’s going so fast it overshoots. That’s where momentum comes in, Vinnie. Newton showed that a ball shot from a cannon files further depending on how much momentum it gets from the initial kick. If you give it enough momentum, and set your cannon high enough that the ball doesn’t hit trees or mountains, the ball falls beyond the planet and keeps on falling forever in an elliptical orbit.”

“Forever until it hits the cannon.”

“hahaha, Al. Anyway, the ball achieves orbit by converting its linear momentum to angular momentum with the help of gravity. The angular momentum pretty much defines the orbit. In Newton’s gravity‑determined universe, momentum and position together let you predict everything.”

“Linear and angular momentum work the same way?”

“Mostly. There’s only one kind of linear momentum — straight ahead — but there are two kinds of angular momentum — rotation and revolution.”

“Aw geez, there’s another pair of words I can never keep straight.”

“You and lots of people, Vinnie. They’re synonyms unless you’re talking technicalese. In Physics and Astronomy, rotation with the O gyrates around an object’s own center, like a top or a planet rotating on its axis. Revolution with the E gyrates around some external location, like the planet revolving around its sun. Does that help?”

“Cool, that may come in handy. So Newton’s cannon ball got its umm, revolution angular momentum from linear momentum so where does rotation angular momentum come from?”

“Subtle question, Vinnie, but they’re actually all just momentum. Fair warning, I’m going to avoid a few issues that’d get us too far into the relativity weeds. Let’s just say that momentum is one of those conserved quantities. You can transfer momentum from one object to another and convert between forms of momentum, but you can’t create momentum in an isolated system.”

“That sounds a lot like energy, Sy.”

“You’re right, Al, the two are closely related. Newton thought that momentum was THE conserved quantity and all motion depended on it. His arch‑enemy Leibniz said THE conserved quantity was kinetic energy, which he called vis viva. That disagreement was just one battle in the Newton‑Leibniz war. It took science 200 years to understand the momentum/kinetic energy/potential energy triad.”

“Wait, Sy, I’ve seen NASA steer a rocketship and give it a whole different momentum. I don’t see no conservation.”

“You missed an important word, Vinnie — isolated. Momentum calculations apply to mechanical systems — no inputs of mass or non‑mechanical energy. Chemical or nuclear fuels break that rule and get you into a different game.”

“Ah-hahh, so if the Earth and Moon are isolated…”

“Exactly, and you’re way ahead of me. Like we said, no significant net forces coming from the Sun or Jupiter, so no change to our angular momentum.”

“Hey, wait, guys. Solar power. I know we’ve got a ton of sunlight coming in every day.”

“Not relevant, Al. Even though sunlight heats the Earth, mass and momentum aren’t affected by temperature. Anyhow, we’re finally at the point where I can answer your question.”

“About time.”

“Hush. OK, here’s the chain. Earth rotates beneath the Moon and gets its insides stirred up by the Moon’s gravity. The stirring is kinetic energy extracted from the energy of the Earth‑Moon system. The Moon’s revolution or the Earth’s rotation or both must slow down. Remember the M=m·r·c/t equation for angular momentum? The Earth‑Moon system is isolated so the angular momentum M can’t change but the angular velocity c/t goes down. Something’s got to compensate. The system’s mass m doesn’t change. The only thing that can increase is distance r. There’s your answer, guys — conservation of angular momentum forces the Moon to drift outward.”

“Long way to the answer.”

“To the Moon and back.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Top Choice

Al grabs me as I step into his coffee shop. “Sy, ya gotta stop Vinnie, he’s using up paper napkins again, and he’s making a mess!”

Sure enough, there’s Vinnie at his usual table by the door. He’s got a kid’s top, a big one, spinning on a little stand. He’s methodically dropping crumpled-up paper wads onto it and watching them fly off onto the floor. “Hey, Vinnie, what’s the project?”

“Hi, Sy. I’m trying to figure how come these paper balls are doing a circle but when they fly off they always go in a straight line, at least at first. They got going-around momentum, right, so how come they don’t make a spiral like stars in a galaxy?”

Astronomy professor Cathleen’s standing in the scone line. She never misses an opportunity to correct a misconception. “Galaxy stars don’t spray out of the center in a spiral, Vinnie. Like planets going around a star, stars generally follow elliptical orbits around the galactic center. A star that’s between spiral arms now could be buried in one ten million years from now. The spiral arms appear because of how the orbits work. One theory is that the innermost star orbits rotate their ellipse axes more quickly than the outer ones and the spirals form where the ellipses pile up. Other theories have to do with increased star formation or increased gravitational attraction within the pile-up regions. Probably all three contribute to the structures. Anyhow, spirals don’t form from the center outward.”

My cue for some physics. “What happens in a galaxy is controlled by gravity, Vinnie, and gravity doesn’t enter into what you’re doing. Except for all that paper falling onto Al’s floor. There’s no in-plane gravitational or electromagnetic attraction in play when your paper wads leave the toy. Newton would say there’s no force acting to make them follow anything other than straight lines once they break free.”

“What about momentum? They’ve got going-around momentum, right, shouldn’t that keep them moving spirally?”

I haul out Old Reliable for a diagram. “Thing is, your ‘going-around momentum,’ also known as ‘angular momentum,’ doesn’t exist. Calm down, Vinnie, I mean it’s a ‘fictitious force‘ that depends on how you look at it.”

“Is this gonna be frames again?”

“Yup. Frames are one of our most important analytical tools in Physics. Here’s your toy and just for grins I’ve got it going around counterclockwise. That little white circle is one of your paper wads. In the room’s frame that wad in its path is constantly converting linear momentum between the x-direction and the y-direction, right?”

“East-West to North-South and back, yeah, I get that.”

“Such a mess to calculate. Let’s make it easier. Switch to the perspective of a frame locked to the toy. In that frame the wad can move in two directions. It can fly away along the radial direction I’ve called r, or it can ride along sideways in the s-direction.”

“So why hasn’t it flown away?”

“Because you put some spit on it to make it stick — don’t deny it, I saw you. While it’s stuck, does it travel in the r direction?”

“Nope, only in the s direction. Which should make it spiral like I said.”

“I’m not done yet. One of Newton’s major innovations was the idea of infinitesimal changes, also known as little-bits. The s-direction is straight, not curved, but it shifts around little-bit by little-bit as the top rotates. Newton’s Laws say force is required to alter momentum. What force influences the wad’s s-momentum?”

“Umm … that line you’ve marked c.”

“Which is the your spit’s adhesive force between the paper and the top. The wad stays stuck until the spit dries out and no more adhesion so no more c-force. Then what happens?”

“It flies off.”

“In which direction?”

“Huh! In the r-direction.”

“And in a straight line, just like Newton said. What you called ‘going-around momentum’ becomes ‘radial momentum’ and there’s no spiraling, right?”

“I guess you’re right, but I miss spirals.”

Al comes over with a broom. “Now that’s settled, Vinnie, clean up!”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks for the question, Jen Keeler. Stay tuned.

The Force(s) of Geometry

There’s a lot more to Geometry than congruent triangles.  Geometry can generate hurricanes and slam you to the floor.

It all starts (of course) with Newton.  His three laws boil down to

Effect is to Cause as Change of Motion is to Force.

They successfully account for the physical movement of pretty much everything bigger than an atom.  But sometimes the forces are a bit weird and it takes Geometry to understand them.

Side forceFor instance, suppose Fred and Ethel collaborate on a narwhale research project.  Fred is based in San Diego CA and Ethel works out of Norfolk VA. They fly to meet their research vessel at the North Pole. Fred’s plane follows the green track, Ethel’s plane follows the yellow one.  At the start of the trip, they’re on parallel paths going straight north (the dotted lines).  After a few hours, though, Ethel notices the two planes pulling closer together.

Ethel calls on her Newton knowledge to explain the phenomenon.  “It can’t be Earth’s gravity moving us together, because that force points down to Earth’s center and this is a sideways motion.  Our planes each weigh about 2000 kilograms and we’re still 2,000 kilometers apart.  By Newton’s F = G m1m2/r2 equation, the gravitational force between us should be (6.7×10-11 N m2/kg2) x (2000 kg) x (2000 kg) / (2,000 m)2 = 6.7×10-11 newtons, way too small to account for our speed of approach.  Both planes were electrically grounded when we fueled up, so we’re both carrying a neutral electric charge and it can’t be an electrostatic force.  If it were magnetic my compass would be going nuts and it’s not.  Woo-hoo, I’ve discovered a new kind of force!”

See what I did there?  Fred and Ethel would have stayed a constant distance apart if Earth were a cylinder.  Parallel lines running up a cylinder never meet.  But Earth is a sphere, not a cylinder.  Any pair of lines on a sphere must meet, sooner or later.  Ethel’s “sideways force” is a product of Geometry.

Images extracted from NOAA’s SOS Explorer app, available from

Hurricanes, too.  This video shows a day in the life of Hurricane Sandy.  Weather geeks will find several interesting details there, but for now just notice the centers of  counter-clockwise rotation (the one off the Florida coast is Sandy).  Storm centers in the Northern Hemisphere virtually always spin counterclockwise.  Funny thing is, in the Southern Hemisphere those centers go clockwise instead.

The difference has to do with angular momentum.  We could get all formal vector math here, but the easy way is to consider how fast the air is moving in different parts of the world.

We’ve all seen at least one ice show act where skaters form a spinning line. The last skater to join up (usually it’s a short girl) has to push like mad to catch the end of that moving line and everyone applauds her success. Meanwhile the tall girl at the center of the line is barely moving except to fend off dizziness.

YellowknifeThe line rotates as a unit — every skater completes a 360o rotation in the same time. Similarly, everywhere on Earth a day lasts for exactly 24 hours.

Skaters at the end of the line must skate faster than those further in because they have to cover a greater distance in the same amount of time.  The same geometry applies to Earth’s atmosphere.  The Earth is 25,000 miles around at the equator but only 12,500 miles around near the latitude of Whitehorse, Canada.  By and large, a blob of air at the equator must move twice as fast as a blob at 60o north.

chain 2Now suppose our speedy skater hits a slushy patch of ice.  Her end of the line is slowed down, so what happens to the rest of the line?  It deforms — there’s a new center of rotation that forces the entire line to curl around towards the slow spot.  Similarly, that blob near the Equator in the split-Earth diagram curls in the direction of the slower-moving air to its north, which is counter-clockwise.

In the Southern hemisphere, “slower” is southward and clockwise.

If not for Geometry (those differing circle sizes), we wouldn’t have hurricanes.  Or gravity — but that’s another story.

~~ Rich Olcott