|MadSci Network: Physics|
Centripetal force exists, without a doubt, but you'll still get an argument about the reality of centrifugal force. To set things up, consider this: you are sitting in a stationary vehicle, which then accelerates rapidly. You feel yourself pushed back into your seat. Was there a force which pushed you backward? No. Your body mass was merely displaying inertia in response to the forward force applied to the vehicle. "Centrifugal" force is the same thing, except that the vehicle is rotating, or following a curved path. Centripetal force is what holds the vehicle (or other body) in its path - it might be the elastic force provided by the rope tied to a whirling bucket, or the frictional force of the tires on the pavement of a curved racetrack. "Centrifugal" force is what the water, or the passengers, feel as the straight line they would be travelling in in the absence of other forces (imagine, for instance, the path each would travel if the rope broke or the car skidded) is counteracted by the walls of the container in which they are riding. As the force of inertia tries to keep us travelling in a straight line, the walls of the container push on us to force us to continue in the curved path to which the centripetal force constrains it. The centrifugal force is most emphatically not, as "common sense" has it, a force which pushes us out from the center. The centrifugal force is our perception of the battle between centripetal force and the force of inertia, and is equal in magnitude but opposite in direction to the centripetal force.
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