Virginia Tech - Invent the Future

Centripetal Motion


"Centripetal Force on a Spinning Cup demonstrations principles in circular motion by having a cup of water seemingly defy gravity. The demonstration is used to explain centripetal acceleration, and a central force. While this demonstration takes some practice, it is one of the most fun and rewarding demonstration we have."

References example I took these words from elsewhere![1]

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Caption words here

  1. Platform with String
    • This is the platform on which the cup will sit while being spun in circles
    • Over time, the knots in the string will slip, and the platform will no longer be level. This can be fixed by untying and releveling the platform. Since this is quite tedious, the TA should be informed as soon as the platform seems to be slipping so that it can be repaired without a time constraint.
  2. Cup for water
    • Any transparent cup will work, but a cheap plastic one is ideal because the cup will eventually be launched across the room on accident.
  3. Water
    • Be sure to locate a source of water before starting your presentations.
  4. A brave/ well practiced demonstrator
    • This demo is scary at first, but with practice can become second nature.
  5. Practice cup
    • This is a cup that is filled with a wieght in foam. USe this cup to practice until you feel confident enough to use water.
    • This is not yet in the mechanics Bin.

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Image of the forces at play when the cup is spun broken into 3 categories: force on the water greater than, equal to, and less than the force of gravity

Image from Virginia Instructors of Physics [1]

In simplest terms, the water cup is undergoing uniform circular motion.

Uniform circular motion can be described as the motion of an object in a circle at a constant speed. As an object moves in a circle, it is constantly changing its direction. At all instances, the object is moving tangent to the circle. Since the direction of the velocity vector is the same as the direction of the object's motion, the velocity vector is directed tangent to the circle as well.

An object moving in a circle is accelerating. Accelerating objects are objects which are changing their velocity; either the speed or the direction. An object undergoing uniform circular motion is moving with a constant speed. Nonetheless, it is accelerating due to its change in direction. The direction of the acceleration is inwards and the object feels a net force

The net force acting upon such an object is directed towards the center of the circle. The net force is an inward or “centripetal force”. Without such an inward force, an object would continue in a straight line, never changing its direction. Yet, with the inward net force directed perpendicular to the velocity vector, the object is always changing its direction and undergoing an inward acceleration.

To relate to the demo, as the water spins around, the centripetal force pushes the cup inward to the center of the circle and the water does not have time to accelerate downward. This is similar to the force that keeps you in your seat when doing a loop on a roller coaster. The water wants to fly off from the circle, but the bucket gets in the way and keeps it in place. This is the same effect you feel when you go around a tight corner in the car and get squished against the door or the force that keeps you in your seat when doing a loop on a roller coaster.

Ultimately, the force that is accelerating the platform and water cup towards the center is the tension in the string. The tension required to maintain circular motion is described in the following equation:

$$ \mathbf{F}_{tension}={{mv^2}\over{r}}$$

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Performing the Demo

  1. Check that you have enough room around you so that you will not hit anything with the platform.
  2. Place the cup filled with water in the center of the board and make sure it is as level as possible.
  3. Begin by slowly swinging the platform back and forth to get a feel for it.
  4. When you are comfortable, swing the platform hard enough to get it going around in the circle.
  5. When changing the orientation of the swing or the speed, do so slowly and deliberately. The more accelerations there are, the more likely it is that the water will spill.
  6. When you are ready to stop, do so when the platform is on the bottom of its swing.
  7. Take a step in the same direction the platform is moving to give it a long enough time to slow down.

Explaining the Demo

Sample "script"

“Alright so what I have here is a water cup that I’m going to spin around in a circle above my head. What do you guys think is going to happen?”


“Alright so let’s see if you guys are right.”

(Demonstrator proceeds to spin the water cup until it is over his head, or on his/her side if they aren’t comfortable with going overhead)

(As cup is spinning) “As you guys can see the water isn’t coming out. Can anyone tell me why?”


“Alright all good Ideas (stops spinning) Alright well the reason the water stays in the cup is what’s called centripetal force. All of you guys have experienced that same force in some way.”

(Awes of disbelief)

“So how many of you guys have ridden a roller-coaster that goes upside down?”

(Hands raise)

“Alright, have you guys ever wondered why you haven’t fallen out while you’re upside down? (Silence momentarily) Like I said it’s due to the centripetal force of roller-coaster. “

“Now all of you guys haven’t ridden roller-coasters, but all have you have ridden in cars right?” (Yeses)

“Alright, how many of your parents have made a really fast turn and you felt yourself being pulled to the side of the car? (All think)”

“That’s the same thing, centripetal force. While the car is changing direction you want to keep going straight so you hit the door. “

“How many of you guys liked this demonstration? Alright that’s what I like to hear. Next we have……”

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