Chapter 2

Rigid Bodies

The polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane.

Herbert Goldstein, Classical Mechanics [20], footnote, p. 207.

The motion of rigid bodies presents many surprising phenomena.

Consider the motion of a top. A top is usually thought of as an axisymmetric body, subject to gravity, with a point on the axis of symmetry that is fixed in space. The top is spun and in general executes some complicated motion. We observe that the top usually settles down into an unusual motion in which the axis of the top slowly precesses about the vertical, apparently moving perpendicular to the direction in which gravity is attempting to accelerate it.

Consider the motion of a book thrown into the air.1 Books have three main axes. If we idealize a book as a brick with rectangular faces, the three axes are the lines through the centers of opposite faces. Try spinning the book about each axis. The motion of the book spun about the longest and the shortest axis is a simple regular rotation, perhaps with a little wobble depending on how carefully it is thrown. The motion of the book spun about the intermediate axis is qualitatively different: however carefully the book is spun about the intermediate axis, it tumbles.

The rotation of the Moon is peculiar in that the Moon always presents the same face to the Earth, indicating that the rotational period and the orbit period are the same. Considering that the orbit of the Moon is constantly changing because of interactions with the Sun and other planets, and therefore its orbital period is constantly undergoing small variations, we might expect that the face of the Moon that we see would slowly change, but it does not. What is special about the face that is presented to us?

A rigid body may be thought of as a large number of constituent particles with rigid constraints among them. Thus the dynamical principles governing the motion of rigid bodies are the same as those governing the motion of any other system of particles with rigid constraints. What is new here is that the number of constituent particles is very large and we need to develop new tools to handle them effectively.

We have found that a Lagrangian for a system with rigid constraints can be written as the difference of the kinetic and potential energies. The kinetic and potential energies are naturally expressed in terms of the positions and velocities of the constituent particles. To write the Lagrangian in terms of the generalized coordinates and velocities we must specify functions that relate the generalized coordinates to the positions of the constituent particles. In the systems with rigid constraints considered up to now these functions were explicitly given for each of the constituent particles and individually included in the derivation of the Lagrangian. For a rigid body, however, there are too many consituent particles to handle each one of them in this way. We need to find means of expressing the kinetic and potential energies of rigid bodies in terms of the generalized coordinates and velocities, without going through the particle-by-particle details.

The strategy is to first rewrite the kinetic and potential energies in terms of quantities that characterize essential aspects of the distribution of mass in the body and the state of motion of the body. Only later do we introduce generalized coordinates. For the kinetic energy, it turns out a small number of parameters completely specify the state of motion and the relevant aspects of the distribution of mass in the body. For the potential energy, we find that for some specific problems the potential energy can be represented with a small number of parameters, but in general we have to make approximations to obtain a representation with a manageable number of parameters.

1 We put a rubber band or string around the book so that it does not open.