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Brown University Physics 0050/0070

Physics Department Moments of Inertia



It is shown in your text that, when a rigid body is constrained so that it can only
rotate along a fixed axis, its kinematics can be formulated in variables that
correspond exactly with the kinematics of linear motion in one dimension. Linear
displacement X corresponds with angular displacement linear velocity v with
angular velocity , and linear acceleration a , with angular acceleration .
Similarly, the dynamics of the body, once its moment of inertia I is defined with
respect to the axis of rotation, shows the same correspondence: in particular, when a
force F acts on a body of mass m the acceleration a is proportional to F:

F=ma, (1)

and when a torque L acts on a rigid body, the angular acceleration is proportional
to L:

L I . (2)

A complication in rotational dynamics is the determination of the moment of inertia

of a body. While the mass can be measured once and for all, the moment also
depends on the bodys orientation with respect to the fixed axis, as well as the
distance between the body and the axis of rotation. This experiment studies one
mildly complicated rigid body, composed of parts whose moments are well known
and a part whose contribution to the total moment of inertia of the body is not
obvious. The total moment of inertia of a composite body is:
I I 1 I 2 I 3 ..... (3)

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

Finally, an important geometric statement: when a body rotates about an axis

through an infinitesimal angle d a point at a distance r from the axis moves an
infinitesimal linear distance rd . It follows immediately that the tangential velocity
v of the point and the angular velocity w of the body are related by

v r (4)
and the accelerations are related by

a r (5)

Figure 1. Experiment setup

The Pasco Rotational Dynamics Apparatus is used in a manner shown in Figure 1.

There the disk(s), free to rotate when supported by air channeled through the air
table, carry a small pulley of radius rp at the axis. In a well of this pulley a smaller
thread anchor washer fixes one end of a thread. This thread, after being wound

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

several times around the pulley, passes across the table to an air cylinder bearing,
then down to a mass suspended by the thread. The length of the thread is sufficient
that, when the mass travels its full distance downward from the air bearing to the
laboratory floor, several turns still remain around the small pulley at the disk axis.

This arrangement couples rotations on the air table to the linear motion of the
hanging mass. In particular, equation (4) of the last section will always apply, with v
and w related by the radius of the small pulley on which the thread is wound.
Because we will be observing accelerated motion, the digital readout of the
apparatus would need extensive analyzing: a more direct method is available, and
should be familiar, from the early experiments of the semester.

Figure 2. Free fall velocity measurement

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

We determine the acceleration of the hanging mass by letting it drop through a three
photocell array of photo-bridges. The technique detailed in Reference (1) is identical
here, and we simply present Fig. 2 of that reference. The upper (U) and lower (L)
photo-bridges straddle the trajectory of the hanging mass as it drops to the floor. The
U bridge starts the TUL and TUM timers (operated in pulse mode). Successively, the
dropping mass turns each timer off. While the drop is repeated several times, always
starting from the same point Z, the middle bridge M is adjusted until the reading on
TUM is exactly one half the reading on TUL , at a distance s from Z. The instantaneous
velocity of the falling mass at S is then equal to the average velocity, calculated from
the time TUL and the distance between U and L. In this application, it is convenient to
mark the zero point on the rotation table itself, with the hanging mass above the
photocell array. Small pieces of tape, one on the bottom disk (which is stationary in
all the operations of this experiment) and one on the top disk, may be marked with
lines that coincide when the top disk, and the hanging mass, are at their initial

Having a way of determining the instantaneous velocity at some point on the

trajectory of the falling mass actually gives us the ability to measure the moment of
inertia of any mass distribution on the rotation table. In this experiment we measure
the moment of inertia of an object that is sufficiently complicated that a theoretical
value is not listed in your textbook (although some components of it are, and an
approximate estimate can be made). First let us see how the apparatus can help us
make the determination. Part of the apparatus bears a striking resemblance to a
situation we have encountered earlier (see Reference (2) ). The hanging mass falls
with an acceleration a determined by two forces, the downward force (mg) and an
upward force T exerted by the string, so that

ma = mgT (6)

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

Assuming the moment of inertia of the air bearing is negligible, this string tension T
is equal to that acting on the string pulley of the air table, and so causes a rotation of
the total mass. Let us call the moment of inertia of that total mass I: it will be more
than that of the disk (and pulley) because we will include in the rotating mass a
special piece of apparatus to be described.
The tension T exerts a torque Trp (where rp is the radius of the string pulley) and so
causes the angular acceleration
I Trp (7)

But T can be eliminated by combining Equations 6 and 7 to obtain

m( g a )rp I (8)

and since = a/rn, we can make a substitution, and put the result in a form in which
the moment of inertia is determined as a function of the acceleration of the hanging

I m( g a ) (9)

Figure 3. Variable Radius Mass

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

The addition to the rotating mass that compromise I is called the Variable Radius
Mass, referred to here as the VRM, and is shown in Figure 3.It consists of two
cylindrical masses, each of which can be moved to any position along its half of the
cross arm and locked there by a thumbscrew. The cross arm is supported by a center
section: among the color coded screws that assemble the different possible
configurations on the rotation apparatus, a solid red cap screw should have been
used to mount the VRM firmly on the string pulley and the aluminum disk: check
that this is so. Although the two masses of the VRM move independently, there is no
advantage here, and some disadvantage, to creating an unbalanced mass on the
apparatus. So always place the two masses at equal distances from the center.

The VRM introduces the ability to change the moment of inertia of the total spinning
mass without changing the mass itself. The VRM contributes only a part of the total
moment, but it is the most interesting part. This is not only because the radius can be
changed, but also because the cylinders of the VRM present a theoretical challenge.
The other components make known contributions to the total moment you will
determine, and a table of your text shows figures and formulas that would let you
predict those contributions. But you will see there that the moment of inertia of the
VRM, simple and symmetric as it first seems, does not appear. At the elementary
level, the experimental approach is necessary.

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia


1. Check that the apparatus is complete, with
a. The bottom steel disk locked (bottom disk clamp open)
b. Rotating body consisting of the aluminum disk, small pulley, thread anchor
washer, variable radius mass (VRM) and the solid red cap screw.
c. The 25 grams weight on the other end of the thin nylon cord. Record all
masses and radii needed to calculate in your notebook. Apparatus
constants include the pulley radius rp , the diameter of the hub of the VRM,
the separation of the U (upper) and L (lower) photo-bridge see Sect.

2. Check, with the air supply on and the regulator set at 9 psi, that all motions will
take place properly in that:

a. With the rotating body assembled on the apparatus and the nylon cord over
the air cylinder bearing, the 25 g mass moves freely from the height of the
laboratory work counter to the floor, with several extra turns of nylon cord
remaining around the pulley at the final mass position.

b. The photocells and table are so aligned that the mass cuts each beam cleanly
along its trajectory. The top photocell should be placed a few centimeters
below the lab counter, and the bottom counter at least 50 or 60 cm below it.
These positions can remain constant throughout the measurements. Record
the separation of the U and L photo-bridges.

c. The table is very level. A sensitive test is to roll up the hanging mass cord
onto the pulley, and carefully place the mass on the cap screw. Then the entire
table load (with the masses of the VRM as close to its hub as possible) should

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

be able to maintain a very slow rotation without turnaround.

3. Restore the hanging mass to its operating position, and set up (or check) a
backstop position on the formica surface of the rotation table. This will
mark the position of one arm of the VRM when the hanging mass is poised
above the upper photocell. Note that it is important, by using a small piece of
tape, for example, to mark which arm is used to define the initial position.

4. With the masses of the VRM next to its hub, record the distance of either mass
from the center of the cap screw. Note that the minimum value of the
separation D between the inner faces of the two arm masses is the hub
diameter. Make a determination of the total moment of inertia according to
the procedures of steps 5 to 7. This will be the minimum moment of a small

5. From the backstop position, release the disk and VRM so the mass drops
through the photocell array. Note the readings generated on the TM and TL
timers. If the first reading is not one half of the second reading, adjust the M
photo-bridge upward or downward, rewind to the backstop position, and
repeat this step.

6. When the timers satisfy the half-time/full-time condition, record the distance
S from the initial position of the hanging mass (the leading edge) when the
rotating mass is at the backstop position, to the position of the middle(M)
photo-bridge light beam.

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

7. Now move the masses of the VRM out equally about 1.9 cm on the cross arm.
Record the new radial distance of either from the red cap screw, and repeat
steps 5 and 6. Do this three times for a total of four measurements spanning
the range of the VRM.


For each radial setting of the VRM masses, calculate the instantaneous velocity v of
the mass at the distance S. This is equal to the average velocity of the mass in the fall
from the U to the L photo-beams, and is calculated by dividing the distance between
those two photo-bridges by the time read on the UL timer. The acceleration a is then
given by

a v 2 / 2s (10)
as in Experiment 1 (Ref. 1).

Once a is obtained, the moment of inertia I of the distribution on the rotation

apparatus follows from Equation (9) of the Plan of the Experiment section. Record
the moment calculated. Do this for each radius of the VRM used -4 in all.

Compare the values of I obtained from your measurements to rough estimates made
by using Eq. 3, assuming that the moment of inertia of the disk is 9500 gm cm2, and
that the VRM has a total mass of 460 gm, and considering each of the cylinders of
the VRM to be a point mass at the cylinder center. The two cylinders should be
equidistant from the center of rotation.

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Brown University Physics 0050/0070
Physics Department Moments of Inertia

Added Note:

A variant of this experiment (and other experiments) is also described in the manual
for the Pasco Rotational Dynamic Apparatus. The student is referred to that manual
(available in lab and online) for further information. The output signals from the
Pasco Rotational Dynamics Apparatus stereo phone plugs are TTL compatible, so
with the proper interface hardware and software you can monitor disk rotation disk
with a computer. The Science Workshop 750 interface and Data Studio software
(available on all lab computers) allow one to easily graph disk rotation angle versus
time (in real time). The slopes of the graphs can be computed to give angular
velocity and angular acceleration.

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