Momentum Machine
How ice skaters, divers, and gymnasts get themselves spinning and twisting faster.
You've probably seen an ice skater spinning on the tip of one skate suddenly start to spin dramatically faster. A diver or gymnast may also suddenly flip or twist much faster. This speeded-up rotation results from a sudden redistribution of mass. You can make yourself suddenly spin faster while sitting in a rotating chair.

No assembly needed.

(5 minutes or more)

Sit in a chair with one of the masses in each hand and with arms outstretched. Have your partner start rotating you slowly, then have that person let go and move away. Quickly pull the masses inward and notice that you rotate faster. Be careful! A very rapid spin may cause the chair to tip over! Also, you may be dizzy when you get up.

Newton found that an object in motion tended to remain in motion, in a straight line and at a constant speed, unless it was acted upon by a net force. Today, we call this observation the law of conservation of momentum. The momentum of an object is the product of its mass and its velocity.

There is an equivalent law for rotating objects. A rotating object tends to remain rotating with a constant angular momentum unless it is acted upon by an outside twisting force. The definition of angular momentum is slightly more complex than that of linear momentum. Angular momentum is the product of two quantities known as angular velocity and moment of inertia. Angular velocity is merely velocity measured in degrees, or radians-per-second, rather than meters-per-second.

Moment of inertia depends on both the mass of an object and on how that mass is distributed. The farther from the axis of rotation the mass is located, the larger the moment of inertia. So your moment of inertia is smaller when your arms are held at your sides and larger when your arms are extended straight out.

If the motion of a rotating system is not affected by an outside twisting force, then angular momentum is conserved for this system, which means that the angular momentum stays the same.

A person sitting on a rotating chair or stool approximates a system in which angular momentum is conserved. The friction of the bearings on the chair stem serves as an outside twisting force, but this force is usually fairly low for such chairs. Since angular momentum is conserved, the product of angular velocity and moment of inertia must remain constant. This means that if one of these factors is increased, the other must decrease, and vice versa. If you're initially rotating with your arms outstretched, then when you draw your arms inward, your moment of inertia decreases. This means that your angular velocity must increase, and you spin faster.

The conservation of angular momentum explains why an ice skater starts to spin faster when he suddenly draws his arms inward, or why a diver or gymnast who decreases her moment of inertia by going into the "tuck" position starts to flip or twist at a faster rate.