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Questions & Answers

When going around a roundabout, why do I feel a force pulling me outwards?

A: This question perhaps encapsulates the wonder of Newtonian Mechanics in the most practical way! For this, let us immerse ourselves in this thought experiment: suppose we are going about a roundabout - i.e. in uniform circular motion. We want to first address the question: what’s allowing our trajectory to turn into a circular path? Why aren’t we moving in a straight line instead?

The answer to that lies in the centripetal force: a type of resultant force that acts inwards, or towards the center of the circle. This is what allows us moving around the roundabout to morph into a circular path, otherwise we would have been flung sideways (inevitably causing a crash!). In our scenario, wherein we’re seated inside a car, this centripetal force is provided by the frictional force exerted between the tyres and the road.

Then comes the next question: what’s this outward force that we feel?

This happens to be the centrifugal force: a type of resultant force that acts outwards, away from the center of the circle. This force allows us to stay in a circular trajectory - if this force didn’t exist, we would have fallen into the center of the roundabout!

An important point to note: while yes, centrifugal and centripetal forces do counteract one another, and have equal magnitudes and opposite directions, they are NOT action-reaction pairs! That’s because action-reaction forces need to act on different objects, but centrifugal and centripetal forces both act on the same object moving in a circular path - in this case, our car.

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