Have you ever wondered why figure skaters are able to spin like a top so quickly? In many cases they're able to increase their speed without pushing off of anything simply by tucking their arms in to add any extra force to the spin. What's going on? To find out, we'll mimic the same basic technique figure skaters use and learn about some simple principles from classical mechanics to get to the bottom of how it works. Don't worry—no special coordination or skills are required! All you'll need is a sturdy, swiveling chair and a pair of light dumbbells or heavy books.
Any physical object resists change in its motion, including a change in direction. Isaac Newton described this behavior in his first law of motion: An object's tendency is to either sit still or move in a straight line at a constant speed unless it is acted on by an outside force. This tendency to resist a change in motion is called inertia, and heavier (more massive) objects are more resistant to changes in motion, because the more mass an object has, the more inertia it has.
Think of it this way: What's a harder thing to stop in its tracks—a train traveling at 20 miles per hour, or marble traveling at 20 miles per hour? A marble might be a relatively easy thing to grab, but because of how inertia works, if you tried to grab a moving train, that train would just pull you right along with it. That train is harder to stop because it has a colossally greater momentum than the marble does, even though they are moving at the same speed. That's because momentum is dependent on both velocity and mass (inertia). Keep this in mind as you conduct the following experiment, and also be mindful of the fact that momentum doesn't just disappear—it has to go somewhere!
● Swiveling chair (An office, desk or any other swiveling chair that spins freely will do.)
● Pair of light dumbbells or heavy books
● Set up your swivel chair in the center of a room. (Make sure you'll have enough room to spin with outstretched arms without striking any objects or hurting yourself!)
● This experiment is best performed on a carpeted floor. Try to avoid doing it on a hardwood floor, as our goal is to make sure the caster wheels on the chair remain stationary—the only part of the chair we want to pivot is the center column.
● Grab your dumbbells or heavy books.
● Sit in the chair as you would normally.
● Hold one dumbbell or book in each hand, with your arms outstretched.
● Begin your spin in whatever direction you're more comfortable with by kicking off of the ground. You may need to kick off several times. Try to make yourself spin quickly (but safely) while keeping your arms outstretched.
● Once you're spinning freely, pull your books or dumbbells in toward your chest. What happens to the speed of your rotation? Why do you think this is?
● Reextend your arms outward. What happens to the speed of your rotation this time? Why?