# 6.3 Centripetal force  (Page 5/15)

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A physicist will choose whatever reference frame is most convenient for the situation being analyzed. There is no problem to a physicist in including inertial forces and Newton’s second law, as usual, if that is more convenient, for example, on a merry-go-round or on a rotating planet. Noninertial (accelerated) frames of reference are used when it is useful to do so. Different frames of reference must be considered in discussing the motion of an astronaut in a spacecraft traveling at speeds near the speed of light, as you will appreciate in the study of the special theory of relativity.

Let us now take a mental ride on a merry-go-round—specifically, a rapidly rotating playground merry-go-round ( [link] ). You take the merry-go-round to be your frame of reference because you rotate together. When rotating in that noninertial frame of reference, you feel an inertial force that tends to throw you off; this is often referred to as a centrifugal force (not to be confused with centripetal force). Centrifugal force is a commonly used term, but it does not actually exist. You must hang on tightly to counteract your inertia (which people often refer to as centrifugal force). In Earth’s frame of reference, there is no force trying to throw you off; we emphasize that centrifugal force is a fiction. You must hang on to make yourself go in a circle because otherwise you would go in a straight line, right off the merry-go-round, in keeping with Newton’s first law. But the force you exert acts toward the center of the circle.

This inertial effect, carrying you away from the center of rotation if there is no centripetal force to cause circular motion, is put to good use in centrifuges ( [link] ). A centrifuge spins a sample very rapidly, as mentioned earlier in this chapter. Viewed from the rotating frame of reference, the inertial force throws particles outward, hastening their sedimentation. The greater the angular velocity, the greater the centrifugal force. But what really happens is that the inertia of the particles carries them along a line tangent to the circle while the test tube is forced in a circular path by a centripetal force.

Let us now consider what happens if something moves in a rotating frame of reference. For example, what if you slide a ball directly away from the center of the merry-go-round, as shown in [link] ? The ball follows a straight path relative to Earth (assuming negligible friction) and a path curved to the right on the merry-go-round’s surface. A person standing next to the merry-go-round sees the ball moving straight and the merry-go-round rotating underneath it. In the merry-go-round’s frame of reference, we explain the apparent curve to the right by using an inertial force, called the Coriolis force    , which causes the ball to curve to the right. The Coriolis force can be used by anyone in that frame of reference to explain why objects follow curved paths and allows us to apply Newton’s laws in noninertial frames of reference.

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