Most people have heard of centripetal and centrifugal force. Though it may be somewhat difficult to keep track of which is which, chances are anyone who has heard of the two concepts remembers that one is the tendency of objects in rotation to move inward, and the other is the tendency of rotating objects to move outward. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as centrifugal (outward) force. There is only centripetal (inward) force and the inertia that makes objects in rotation under certain situations move outward, for example, a car making a turn, the movement of a roller coaster—even the spinning of a centrifuge.
Like many other principles in physics, centripetal force ultimately goes back to a few simple precepts relating to the basics of motion. Consider an object in uniform circular motion: an object moves around the center of a circle so that its speed is constant or unchanging.
The formula for speed—or rather, average speed—is distance divided by time; hence, people say, for instance, "miles (or kilometers) per hour." In the case of an object making a circle, distance is equal to the circumference, or distance around, the circle. From geometry, we know that the formula for calculating the circumference of a circle is 2 π r, where r is the radius, or the distance from the circumference to the center. The figure π may be rendered as 3.141592 …, though in fact, it is an irrational number: the decimal figures continue forever without repetition or pattern.
From the above, it can be discerned that the formula for the average speed of an object moving around a circle is 2 π r divided by time. Furthermore, we can see that there is a proportional relationship between radius and average speed. If the radius of a circle is doubled, but an object at the circle's periphery makes one complete revolution in the same amount of time as before, this means that the average speed has doubled as well. This can be shown by setting up two circles, one with a radius of 2, the other with a radius of 4, and using some arbitrary period of time—say, 2 seconds.
The above conclusion carries with it an interesting implication with regard to speeds at different points along the radius of a circle. Rather than comparing two points moving around the circumferences of two different circles—one twice as big as the other—in the same period of time, these two points could be on the same circle: one at the periphery, and one exactly halfway along the radius. Assuming they both traveled a complete circle in the same period of time, the proportional relationship described earlier would apply. This means, then, that the further out on the circle one goes, the greater the average speed.