Fictitious forces (1/5): Record players and Coriolis deflection

An experiment showing how seemingly straight trajectories can be transformed into curly ones.

One of the phenomena that are really not intuitive to understand are fictitious forces. Especially relevant in oceanography: The Coriolis force. The most difficult step in understanding the Coriolis force is accepting that whether or not a trajectory appears straight or curved can depend on the frame of reference it is observed from.

Or to say it with John Knauss in his Introduction to Physical Oceanography: “Even for those with considerable sophistication in physical concepts, one’s first introduction to the consequences of the Coriolis force often produces something analogous to intellectual trauma”.

One way to show that the apparent change of shape is really due to different frames of reference, is to take a trajectory that is objectively AND subjectively straight and watch it being transformed into something curly.

Trajectories for different voltages driving the record player.

We did this at JuniorAkademie by taping a piece of paper on a record player, putting it into motion and then, at as constant a speed as possible, drawing along a ruler’s edge straight across. (if you don’t have a record player or rotating table at your disposal, you could also use a Lazy Susan and turn it as uniformly as possible).

Of course, this approach has a lot of potential pitfalls. For example, if you change the speed while you draw, you get kinks in your curls (as the child drawing in the video below points out when it happens). Also, by drawing on a flat paper rather than a spherical Earth, this isn’t completely equivalent to the Coriolis force.

And, more importantly, I think this experiment is only helpful for an audience that doesn’t “know” about fictitious forces yet. A problem we have experienced with oceanography students is that they “know” that moving objects should be deflected, and that they “see” a deflection even when there is none (for example when they are watching, from a non-rotating frame of reference, an object move across a rotating table). In that case, sliding the pen along the ruler might be perceived as forcing an otherwise curly trajectory to become a straight line, hence cheating by preventing a deflection that should occur.

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