Physics » Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation » Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity

Angular Velocity

Angular Velocity

How fast is an object rotating? We define angular velocity\(\omega \) as the rate of change of an angle. In symbols, this is

\(\omega =\frac{\text{Δ}\theta }{\text{Δ}t}\text{,}\)

where an angular rotation \(\text{Δ}\theta \) takes place in a time \(\text{Δ}t\). The greater the rotation angle in a given amount of time, the greater the angular velocity. The units for angular velocity are radians per second (rad/s).

Angular velocity \(\omega \) is analogous to linear velocity \(v\). To get the precise relationship between angular and linear velocity, we again consider a pit on the rotating CD. This pit moves an arc length \(\text{Δ}s\) in a time \(\text{Δ}t\), and so it has a linear velocity


From \(\text{Δ}\theta =\frac{\text{Δ}s}{r}\) we see that \(\text{Δ}s=r\text{Δ}\theta \). Substituting this into the expression for \(v\) gives

\(v=\frac{r\text{Δ}\theta }{\text{Δ}t}=\mathrm{r\omega }\text{.}\)

We write this relationship in two different ways and gain two different insights:

\(v=\mathrm{r\omega }\text{ or }\omega =\frac{v}{r}\text{.}\)

The first relationship in \(v=\mathrm{r\omega }\text{ or }\omega =\frac{v}{r}\) states that the linear velocity \(v\) is proportional to the distance from the center of rotation, thus, it is largest for a point on the rim (largest \(r\)), as you might expect. We can also call this linear speed \(v\) of a point on the rim the tangential speed. The second relationship in \(v=\mathrm{r\omega }\text{ or }\omega =\frac{v}{r}\) can be illustrated by considering the tire of a moving car. Note that the speed of a point on the rim of the tire is the same as the speed \(v\) of the car. See the figure below.

So the faster the car moves, the faster the tire spins—large \(v\) means a large \(\omega \), because \(v=\mathrm{r\omega }\). Similarly, a larger-radius tire rotating at the same angular velocity (\(\omega \)) will produce a greater linear speed (\(v\)) for the car.

The given figure shows the front wheel of a car. The radius of the car wheel, r, is shown as an arrow and the linear velocity, v, is shown with a green horizontal arrow pointing rightward. The angular velocity, omega, is shown with a clockwise-curved arrow over the wheel.

A car moving at a velocity \(v\) to the right has a tire rotating with an angular velocity \(\omega \).The speed of the tread of the tire relative to the axle is \(v\), the same as if the car were jacked up. Thus the car moves forward at linear velocity \(v=\mathrm{r\omega }\), where \(r\) is the tire radius. A larger angular velocity for the tire means a greater velocity for the car.

Example: How Fast Does a Car Tire Spin?

Calculate the angular velocity of a 0.300 m radius car tire when the car travels at \(\text{15}\text{.}0\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m/s}\) (about \(\text{54}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{km/h}\)). See the figure above.


Because the linear speed of the tire rim is the same as the speed of the car, we have \(v=\text{15.0 m/s}.\) The radius of the tire is given to be \(r=\text{0.300 m}.\) Knowing \(v\) and \(r\), we can use the second relationship in \(v=\mathrm{r\omega }\mathrm{, }\omega =\frac{v}{r}\) to calculate the angular velocity.


To calculate the angular velocity, we will use the following relationship:

\(\omega =\frac{v}{r}\text{.}\)

Substituting the knowns,

\(\omega =\frac{\text{15}\text{.}0\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m/s}}{0\text{.}\text{300}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m}}=\text{50}\text{.}0\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{rad/s.}\)


When we cancel units in the above calculation, we get 50.0/s. But the angular velocity must have units of rad/s. Because radians are actually unitless (radians are defined as a ratio of distance), we can simply insert them into the answer for the angular velocity. Also note that if an earth mover with much larger tires, say 1.20 m in radius, were moving at the same speed of 15.0 m/s, its tires would rotate more slowly. They would have an angular velocity

\(\omega =\left(\text{15}\text{.}0\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m/s}\right)/\left(1\text{.}\text{20}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m}\right)=\text{12}\text{.}5\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{rad/s.}\)

Both \(\omega \) and \(v\) have directions (hence they are angular and linear velocities, respectively). Angular velocity has only two directions with respect to the axis of rotation—it is either clockwise or counterclockwise. Linear velocity is tangent to the path, as illustrated in the figure below.

Optional Take-Home Experiment

Tie an object to the end of a string and swing it around in a horizontal circle above your head (swing at your wrist). Maintain uniform speed as the object swings and measure the angular velocity of the motion. What is the approximate speed of the object? Identify a point close to your hand and take appropriate measurements to calculate the linear speed at this point. Identify other circular motions and measure their angular velocities.

The given figure shows the top view of an old fashioned vinyl record. Two perpendicular line segments are drawn through the center of the circular record, one vertically upward and one horizontal to the right side. Two flies are shown at the end points of the vertical lines near the borders of the record. Two arrows are also drawn perpendicularly rightward through the end points of these vertical lines depicting linear velocities. A curved arrow is also drawn at the center circular part of the record which shows the angular velocity.

As an object moves in a circle, here a fly on the edge of an old-fashioned vinyl record, its instantaneous velocity is always tangent to the circle. The direction of the angular velocity is clockwise in this case.

PhET Explorations: Ladybug Revolution

Ladybug Revolution

Join the ladybug in an exploration of rotational motion. Rotate the merry-go-round to change its angle, or choose a constant angular velocity or angular acceleration. Explore how circular motion relates to the bug’s x,y position, velocity, and acceleration using vectors or graphs.

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