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Chapter 10. Rotation and Translation: simultaneity?

Chapter 10. Rotation and Translation: simultaneity?

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Chapter 10

Rotation and translation




A questionnaire was given to pupils in grades 11 (N=17) and 12 (N=18),2

and to Science students in the first and second years of university (N=41,

42).3 The following situation is presented:

A puck of radius R, initially at rest against one of the edges MN of a

horizontal air table (a frictionless table) represented schematically by the

rectangle MNPQ in the diagram in box 2, moves across this table under the

influence of a constant horizontal force F (in the direction NP). A device

ensures that the force always acts on the same point of the puck, either at

point A (marked with a dot) or at point B (marked with a cross).

The participants were asked this question:

Will it take the same time, a shorter time or a longer time for the puck to

hit the opposite edge PQ of the table when the constant force F is applied at

point A than at point B?

The correct answer to this question, in view of the points recalled in box

1, is that the time taken by the puck to cross the table is the same in both

cases, since it depends only on the translation of the puck, i.e., on the motion

of the centre of mass G. And the motion of G remains the same when the

point of application of the force changes (identical force applied, same initial

and final positions,


of the centre of mass). This answer is

sufficient; however, one might add that, when the force is applied at B, the

motion of the puck consists of a translation identical to that of the puck when

the force is applied at A, and of a simultaneous pendulum-like rotation

around the vertical axis passing through G.4 In the absence of numerical data

(mass and radius of the puck, intensity of the force, distance travelled), it is

not possible to predict what point of the puck will hit the edge PQ.

Box 2 sums up the correct answer to the question and gives the answers

obtained; according to more than 60% of all the participants, the puck takes


Première scientifique (E) and Terminale scientifique (TC), the two last years of secondary

school in France, science sections.


DEUG A, France.


The phenomena can be explained in terms of the work done by the force and the fact that the

puck acquires kinetic energy as it moves. Thus, when the force is applied at B, it does

more work than (or at least as much work as) the force applied at A since the distance of

the projections on NP of the initial and final positions and of B is greater than (or at

least equal to)

Therefore the final kinetic energy of the puck is greater (or

at least the same) if the force is applied at B rather than at A. This means that when the

puck hits the edge PQ, its final kinetic energy of translation is identical to that which it has

when the force is applied at A, and its final kinetic energy of rotation is associated to its

rotational motion. The value of the final rotational kinetic energy ranges from 0, when the

projection on NP of

is equal to

to a maximum value when the projection on NP


is equal to


Chapter 10

longer to hit the edge PQ when the force F is applied at B than when it is

applied at A.

More than 70% of the pupils and 20% of the students who answer that

the puck will take longer if the force is applied at B give the following

justification (see box 3): when the force F is applied at B, the puck

accomplishes a rotation of

before it translates along the direction of F, so

that the line of action of the force goes through the centre of mass G; and

only then is the translation motion of the puck the same as when the force F

is applied directly at A, i.e., when the line of action of F passes through the

centre of mass from the start:

“The solid will first rotate by 90 degrees, then the solid will begin to

move, so the total time (rotation time and translation time) is greater than

the time of translation alone.” (Grade 11)

Rotation and translation


“You have to wait for the moving object to rotate by 90 degrees for the

force to be applied at A.” (Grade 11)

“First, before moving, the object will rotate by a quarter turn so that B is

in the place of A; after that, it has a uniform rectilinear motion.”5 (Grade


“F will cause the solid to rotate on one spot for a limited time (t < time of

displacement) which will cause a delay.” (Grade 12)

“The force begins by causing the puck to rotate; then the puck starts to

move forward.” (First year university)

“A rotation of


before rectilinear displacement.” (Second year

According to these explanations, the rotation of the object occurs prior to

translation, until the solid is in a “suitable position” for translation. Although

the two motions are produced simultaneously in the example chosen, the

pupils and students dissociate them.

The simultaneity of rotation and translation is not, however, completely

ignored in the answers given; 20% of the students and 6% of the pupils refer

to it. But that does not mean that such answers are correct. Indeed, the puck

is said to take longer to reach the opposite edge of the table when F is

applied at B, because:

“For the same force, there will be a joint motion, a rotation around G and

a translation.” (Grade 11)

“The motion of the puck can be broken down into two parts: translation

and rotation; this increases the duration of the displacement.” (First

university year)

“While moving forward, the solid will spin.” (Second university year)

Translation and rotation are, apparently, not able to coexist without

mutually affecting each other, and delaying the motion of the puck.


More than one out of two pupils state that the puck has a uniform rectilinear motion. This

error is still very widespread among the students. A common argument is that the resultant

force exerted on the puck is zero – this is incorrect, but the belief is due to the use that is

commonly made of the air table. Another error is that the force exerted on the puck is

constant. This is probably due to a confusion between “uniform” and “uniformly

accelerated,” or to an incorrect and very frequent identification of force with speed (see

chapter 3 and Viennot 1979, 1989a).


Chapter 10

Thus, the point of application of the force on the puck is often wrongly

considered to be a decisive factor in the duration of the motion involving

translation and, possibly, rotation – whether or not they are understood as

being simultaneous.

But at least, in the justifications quoted so far, the motion of the whole

puck is analysed. This cannot be said for a third type of justification.

Box 3 shows that a considerable proportion of the pupils (36% in grade

12) and students (37% in the first and second university year) believe that

the puck takes longer to cross the table when F is applied at B than when F

is applied at A, basing their arguments on the fact that point B is more

distant from the edge PQ than is point A.

“The distance

is greater than

” (Grade 11)

“B covers more distance, B is farther away than A.” (Grade 12)

“Even though the speeds are the same, point B travels a greater distance

than point A (points where the forces are applied).” (First university year)

“The force is applied over a greater distance,” (Second university year)

As is the case for some comments mentioning the work done by the force

F (rightly said to be greater when this force is applied at B), these arguments

are most often (in 80% of the cases) based on a formula that is valid only for

a point mass: dW = F. v dt.

The reasoning applied then only bears on a single point of the solid,

which is not the centre of mass G, but the point of application of the force.

Those who reason in this way are far from having understood that the

translation of a solid does not depend on the point of application of the force,

Rotation and translation


and, therefore, is independent of any rotation of the object about its centre of

mass, all other things being equal.



These results indicate that the majority of the pupils and students

questioned apply at least one of the following aspects of reasoning in their

approach to solids:

a tendency to consider simultaneous motions as successive;

a tendency to consider that the motions influence each other, even in

those cases when the simultaneity of motions has been recognised;

a tendency to analyse a single material point, that at which the force

is applied.

The third tendency is probably largely due to school learning. At both the

secondary school and university levels, teaching centres on the mechanics of

a point mass. It is not surprising, given these conditions, that pupils and

students should attach such a disproportionate importance to the exact point

of application of force in the translation of a solid.

As for the first tendency, there may be two explanations.

In “causal linear reasoning,” described in chapter 5, several concomitant

phenomena are considered as successive.6

Moreover, what is learnt at school is likely to reinforce this tendency.

Indeed, at both the secondary school and university levels, phenomena are

studied separately – translation, then rotation, and finally, if necessary,

deformation. The situations that are presented for study indicate that this is

the preferred approach. As regards the translation of an object, its rotation is

usually excluded by limiting the forces that it is subjected to or by

considering it as “point-like”; it is presented as non-deformable. As for the

rotation of an object (a non-deformable object, of course), global

displacement is eliminated as the axis of rotation is specified as being fixed

in space. Finally, the situation in which deformation is typically studied

involves a spring, one end of which is fixed (so that no global displacement

is possible) whilst the other end is subjected to a force along the axis of the

spring (so that no rotation need be considered). Thus, pupils and students are

accustomed to studying phenomena separately; although intended to

simplify study, this separation easily leads to a belief that the phenomena

considered are incompatible in time. It is therefore not surprising that some

pupils and students should not understand the simultaneity of translation and

rotation, or that they should exclude it altogether.


See also Fauconnet (1981) and Rozier (1988).


Chapter 10

Whatever it is that causes these forms of reasoning – whether a natural

tendency that goes far beyond mechanics, or a consequence of teaching on

this subject, or both – they are applied by more than two-thirds of the pupils

questioned. The teaching community cannot ignore them. If we set ourselves

the objective of making students understand the points mentioned here, how

can we achieve it?

The main trends of natural reasoning cannot be modified by a single

intervention (see chapters 5, 6, and 9). It is only by applying a series of

measures, in the various fields of physics, that one can hope to redress the

exclusive reasoning which considers “one variable” or “one phenomenon” at

a time. Problems like the one in the questionnaire discussed here can be dealt

with in this context.

For pupils to answer such questions correctly, would they need to know

very much more than they are taught now? In secondary school and at

university, the relationship

is given, and often demonstrated. It is

all that is needed to solve the problem presented above. However, this

relationship is usually applied to a solid in translation, with a conveniently

orthodox point of application of each force (a point that is “along the line of

the motion” or through the centre of mass); such a choice restricts the scope

of the relationship. The question described in this article is an example of a

situation that can be proposed to make a formal relationship mean as much

as possible. Finally, why is it that even though only the translation of objects

is on the syllabus (for grade 12 science sections, established before 1994 in

France), the exact point of application of forces is still made to seem so

important? Arrows representing weight are carefully suspended from the

centre of mass, and the reaction of an inclined plane on a block is

represented at a precisely determined point of the side in contact with the

plane. Those who still feel that this is absolutely necessary ought to consider

that the end result may be what we have come across in this study: an

exclusive centring on the point of application, when it is not relevant.

Therefore, as always with this type of investigation, the main question raised

is that of teaching objectives.


Fauconnet, S. 1981. Etude de résolution de problèmes: quelques problèmes de même

structure en physique, Thesis (Thèse de 3ème cycle), Université Paris 7.

Menigaux, J. 1991. Raisonnements des étudiants et des lycéens en mécanique du solide.

Bulletin de l'Union des Physiciens n° 738, pp 1419-1429.

Rozier, S. 1988. Le raisonnement linéaire causal en thermodynamique classique élémentaire.

Thesis, Université Paris 7.

Rotation and translation


Viennot, L. 1979. Le raisonnement spontané en dynamique élémentaire, Hermann, Paris.

Viennot, L. 1989a. Bilans des forces et loi des actions réciproques. Analyse des difficultés des

élèves et enjeux didactiques, Bulletin de l'Union des Physiciens, 716, pp. 951 -971.

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Chapter 11

From electrostatics to electrodynamics:

historical and present difficulties

In association with Abdelmadjid Benseghir and Jean Louis Closset. This

chapter is based on a study by Benseghir (1989), and makes use of material

from an article by Benseghir and Closset published in Didaskalia (1993).

The electric circuit is a familiar object nowadays, at least in schools.

However, the difficulties that it poses are considerable.1 Indeed, it requires

an analysis in terms of systems and quasistationary change, and chapter 5

has shown how difficult this can prove. Here, the authors seek to explore the

historical and didactical impact of an exclusively “electrostatic” view of the

electric circuit, which is much more compatible with sequential reasoning

than with systemic analysis.

Historically, electrodynamics appeared after electrostatics. And in

teaching, too, it is usually broached after electrostatic interaction and

electrical charges have been introduced. Thus, since previous knowledge

influences new knowledge, it would not be surprising if the concepts and

methodological approaches used in electrostatics constituted a determining,

or limitating, framework for the elaboration of electrodynamics.

Has this been the case in the history of science, and is a similar process at

work among pupils? It is true that historical progress and the development of

personal knowledge do not always follow the same pattern. But our students

might be coming up against the same problems as our forebears, as was seen


See Tiberghien and Delacôte (1976), Johsua (1985), and Closset (1983, 1989).



Chapter 11

in their approaches to changes in frames of reference and to impetus

(chapters 3 and 4).

These questions are examined below, through an analysis of the principal

stages in the history of the development of electrodynamics, and of the

results of a survey conducted among French and Algerian students.

But first, let us go over a few elements of physics.





The existence of charges at the terminals of the generator should not be

used to explain the current in a circuit. Charges circulate inside the

generator, too, or their accumulation would be dangerous. If the phenomena

of attraction and repulsion of the electrons in the circuit by the charges at the

terminals were to explain the current, that might do for external circulation,

but not for internal circulation. Something else, then, must be capable of

propelling the charges inside the generator in spite of the terminal charges.

No matter what the mechanism behind it – electrochemical or inductive –

this “something else” is called the “electromotive force.” Sometimes the

term “electromotive field” is used to designate the force per unit charge

which corresponds to this action.

In an open circuit, the electromotive field makes the charges move

towards the terminals until the electrostatic field resulting from this

accumulation exactly counterbalances this electromotive field. In such a

situation, therefore, there is a considerable asymmetry in charge at the

terminals. But in a closed circuit, the circulation of the charges is not

impeded by such an accumulation: the charges circulate in the entire circuit.

There are charges at the terminals, too, but not only at the terminals: there

are charges on the surfaces of all the components in the circuit. How else can

one explain the fact that the electric field in the wires follows their shape

exactly, no matter how tangled they may be? Again, this cannot be attributed

solely to the charges at the terminals: the field of a dipole follows smoothly

curved lines (called “field lines”), never those of a looped telephone cord,

for example.

Until 1993, at least,2 French textbooks were scarcely explicit as regards

these major differences between open and closed circuits, between


The 1993 syllabus for grade 8 (Quatrième) is explicitly aimed at clarifying the difference

between open and closed circuits, as regards the roles of the charges located at the

terminals of the battery (Quatrieme is the third year of secondary schooling in France, and

the first grade in which physics is taught as a full discipline).

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Chapter 10. Rotation and Translation: simultaneity?

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