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College Physics 2e

6.1 Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity

College Physics 2e6.1 Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define arc length, rotation angle, radius of curvature and angular velocity.
  • Calculate the angular velocity of a car wheel spin.

In Kinematics, we studied motion along a straight line and introduced such concepts as displacement, velocity, and acceleration. Two-Dimensional Kinematics dealt with motion in two dimensions. Projectile motion is a special case of two-dimensional kinematics in which the object is projected into the air, while being subject to the gravitational force, and lands a distance away. In this chapter, we consider situations where the object does not land but moves in a curve. We begin the study of uniform circular motion by defining two angular quantities needed to describe rotational motion.

Rotation Angle

When objects rotate about some axis—for example, when the CD (compact disc) in Figure 6.2 rotates about its center—each point in the object follows a circular arc. Consider a line from the center of the CD to its edge. Each pit used to record sound along this line moves through the same angle in the same amount of time. The rotation angle is the amount of rotation and is analogous to linear distance. We define the rotation angle ΔθΔθ to be the ratio of the arc length to the radius of curvature:

The figure shows the back side of a compact disc. There is a scratched part on the upper right side of the C D, about one-fifth size of the whole area, with inner circular dots clearly visible. Two line segments are drawn enclosing the scratched area from the border of the C D to the middle plastic portion. A curved arrow is drawn between the two line segments near this middle portion and angle delta theta written alongside it.
Figure 6.2 All points on a CD travel in circular arcs. The pits along a line from the center to the edge all move through the same angle ΔθΔθ in a time ΔtΔt.
A circle of radius r and center O is shown. A radius O-A of the circle is rotated through angle delta theta about the center O to terminate as radius O-B. The arc length A-B is marked as delta s.
Figure 6.3 The radius of a circle is rotated through an angle ΔθΔθ. The arc length ΔsΔs is described on the circumference.

The arc lengthΔsΔs is the distance traveled along a circular path as shown in Figure 6.3 Note that rr is the radius of curvature of the circular path.

We know that for one complete revolution, the arc length is the circumference of a circle of radius rr. The circumference of a circle is rr. Thus for one complete revolution the rotation angle is


This result is the basis for defining the units used to measure rotation angles, ΔθΔθ to be radians (rad), defined so that

rad = 1 revolution.rad = 1 revolution.

A comparison of some useful angles expressed in both degrees and radians is shown in Table 6.1.

Degree Measures Radian Measure
30º 30º π 6 π 6
60º 60º π 3 π 3
90º 90º π 2 π 2
120º 120º 3 3
135º 135º 4 4
180º 180º π π
Table 6.1 Comparison of Angular Units
A circle is shown. Two radii of the circle, inclined at an acute angle delta theta, are shown. On one of the radii, two points, one and two are marked. The point one is inside the circle through which an arc between the two radii is shown. The point two is on the cirumfenrence of the circle. The two arc lengths are delta s one and delta s two respectively for the two points.
Figure 6.4 Points 1 and 2 rotate through the same angle (ΔθΔθ), but point 2 moves through a greater arc length ΔsΔs because it is at a greater distance from the center of rotation (r)(r).

If Δθ=2πΔθ=2π rad, then the CD has made one complete revolution, and every point on the CD is back at its original position. Because there are 360º360º in a circle or one revolution, the relationship between radians and degrees is thus

2 π rad = 360º 2 π rad = 360º

so that


Angular Velocity

How fast is an object rotating? We define angular velocity ωω as the rate of change of an angle. In symbols, this is

ω= Δ θ Δ t ,ω= Δ θ Δ t ,

where an angular rotation ΔθΔθ takes place in a time ΔtΔt. The greater the rotation angle in a given amount of time, the greater the angular velocity. The units for angular velocity are radians per second (rad/s).

Angular velocity ωω is analogous to linear velocity vv. To get the precise relationship between angular and linear velocity, we again consider a pit on the rotating CD. This pit moves an arc length ΔsΔs in a time ΔtΔt, and so it has a linear velocity

v= Δ s Δ t .v= Δ s Δ t .

From Δθ=ΔsrΔθ=Δsr we see that Δs= r Δ θ Δs= r Δ θ . Substituting this into the expression for vv gives

v= r Δ θ Δ t =.v= r Δ θ Δ t =.

We write this relationship in two different ways and gain two different insights:

v= or ω=vr.v= or ω=vr.

The first relationship in v= or ω=vrv= or ω=vr states that the linear velocity vv is proportional to the distance from the center of rotation, thus, it is largest for a point on the rim (largest rr), as you might expect. We can also call this linear speed vv of a point on the rim the tangential speed. The second relationship in v= or ω=vrv= or ω=vr can be illustrated by considering the tire of a moving car. Note that the speed of a point on the rim of the tire is the same as the speed vv of the car. See Figure 6.5. So the faster the car moves, the faster the tire spins—large vv means a large ωω, because v=v=. Similarly, a larger-radius tire rotating at the same angular velocity (ωω) will produce a greater linear speed (vv) for the car.

The given figure shows the front wheel of a car. The radius of the car wheel, r, is shown as an arrow and the linear velocity, v, is shown with a green horizontal arrow pointing rightward. The angular velocity, omega, is shown with a clockwise-curved arrow over the wheel.
Figure 6.5 A car moving at a velocity vv to the right has a tire rotating with an angular velocity ωω.The speed of the tread of the tire relative to the axle is vv, the same as if the car were jacked up. Thus the car moves forward at linear velocity v=v=, where rr is the tire radius. A larger angular velocity for the tire means a greater velocity for the car.

Example 6.1

How Fast Does a Car Tire Spin?

Calculate the angular velocity of a 0.300 m radius car tire when the car travels at 15.0m/s15.0m/s (about 54km/h54km/h). See Figure 6.5.


Because the linear speed of the tire rim is the same as the speed of the car, we have v = 15.0 m/s . v = 15.0 m/s . The radius of the tire is given to be r = 0.300 m . r = 0.300 m . Knowing vv and rr, we can use the second relationship in v=ω=vrv=ω=vr to calculate the angular velocity.


To calculate the angular velocity, we will use the following relationship:


Substituting the knowns,



When we cancel units in the above calculation, we get 50.0/s. But the angular velocity must have units of rad/s. Because radians are actually unitless (radians are defined as a ratio of distance), we can simply insert them into the answer for the angular velocity. Also note that if an earth mover with much larger tires, say 1.20 m in radius, were moving at the same speed of 15.0 m/s, its tires would rotate more slowly. They would have an angular velocity


Both ωω and vv have directions (hence they are angular and linear velocities, respectively). Angular velocity has only two directions with respect to the axis of rotation—it is either clockwise or counterclockwise. Linear velocity is tangent to the path, as illustrated in Figure 6.6.

Take-Home Experiment

Tie an object to the end of a string and swing it around in a horizontal circle above your head (swing at your wrist). Maintain uniform speed as the object swings and measure the angular velocity of the motion. What is the approximate speed of the object? Identify a point close to your hand and take appropriate measurements to calculate the linear speed at this point. Identify other circular motions and measure their angular velocities.

The given figure shows the top view of an old fashioned vinyl record. Two perpendicular line segments are drawn through the center of the circular record, one vertically upward and one horizontal to the right side. Two flies are shown at the end points of the vertical lines near the borders of the record. Two arrows are also drawn perpendicularly rightward through the end points of these vertical lines depicting linear velocities. A curved arrow is also drawn at the center circular part of the record which shows the angular velocity.
Figure 6.6 As an object moves in a circle, here a fly on the edge of an old-fashioned vinyl record, its instantaneous velocity is always tangent to the circle. The direction of the angular velocity is clockwise in this case.

Ladybug Revolution

Join the ladybug in an exploration of rotational motion. Rotate the merry-go-round to change its angle, or choose a constant angular velocity or angular acceleration. Explore how circular motion relates to the bug's x,y position, velocity, and acceleration using vectors or graphs.

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