How a Swinging Pendulum Proves the Earth Rotates

Posted by K R on

Once upon a time, you were probably on an elementary school field trip at a science museum or an observatory. Just before lunch, your teacher had the class stand in a circle around an enormous weight suspended on a string, and watch it swing back and forth, back and forth. The teacher (or maybe a tour guide) explained that if you watched the pendulum for long enough, it would seem to alter its course, swinging in a slightly different direction. And that this somehow proved the Earth was rotating beneath your feet. You probably nodded and watched the weight swing for a while. And even though you didn’t see anything really change, you thought, “Sure,” and then went to trade your friend an Oreo cookie for half of their Hi-C Ecto Cooler. Now that you’re older, you’ll occasionally think back on that pendulum and wonder how it could have proved anything. After all, the demonstration was in a building on the Earth, so if the Earth was rotating, shouldn’t the pendulum be rotating with it? This famous experiment, now found in museums around the world, was first demonstrated in 1851. French physicist Leon Foucault suspended a 61-pound weight from a 200-foot-long wire at the Pantheon in Paris and set it swinging. He needed the bob to be so heavy and the wire so long to ensure that the pendulum would be able to swing for a long time, at least an hour. A pin on the bottom of the weight drew a line in a circle of wet sand set underneath the experiment. After an hour, the line the pin drew in the sand intersected with the first line at an angle of roughly 11.25 degrees, which is exactly what Foucault had predicted. The demonstration was an international sensation and was quickly repeated to crowds across Europe and North America. By this point, everyone knew that the Earth rotated but this was the first experiment to measure the speed at which it did so. Foucault got eternal fame by having a pendulum named after him, which later became the title of a mind-bending book by Umberto Eco you probably tried to read in college before turning to the much easier candy of Dan Brown novels. More via WIRED.

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