Angular momentum

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In physics the angular momentum of an object with respect to a reference point is a measure for the extent to which, and the direction in which, the object rotates about the reference point.

In particular, if the body rotates about an axis, then the angular momentum with respect to a point on the axis is related to the mass of the object, the angular velocity and the distance of the mass to the axis.

Without applying torque to the object, with respect to the reference point, the angular momentum is constant. The angular momentum is a measure for the amount of torque that has been applied over time to the object. The object has rotational inertia that resists changes in rotational motion, quantified by the moment of inertia.

Angular momentum is an important concept in both physics and engineering with numerous applications. For example, the kinetic energy stored in a massive rotating object such as a flywheel is proportional to the angular momentum.

Angular momentum in classical mechanics


The traditional mathematical definition of the angular momentum of a particle about some origin is:

L is the angular momentum of the particle,
r is the position of the particle expressed as a displacement vector from the origin,
p is the linear momentum of the particle, and
is the cross product.

Because of the cross product, L is a pseudovector perpendicular to both the radial vector r and the momentum vector p.

If a system consists of several particles, the total angular momentum about an origin can be obtained by adding (or integrating) all the angular momenta of the constituent particles. Angular momentum can also be calculated by multiplying the square of the displacement 'r',the mass of the particle and the angular velocity.

For many applications where one is only concerned about rotation around one axis, it is sufficient to discard the pseudovector nature of angular momentum, and treat it like a scalar where it is positive when it corresponds to a counter-clockwise rotations, and negative clockwise. To do this, just take the definition of the cross product and discard the unit vector, so that angular momentum becomes:

where θr,p is the angle between r and p measured from r to p; an important distinction because without it, the sign of the cross product would be meaningless. From the above, it is possible to reformulate the definition to either of the following:

where rperpendicular is called the lever arm distance to p.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is to consider the lever arm distance to be the distance from the origin to the line that p travels along. With this definition, it is necessary to consider the direction of p (pointed clockwise or counter-clockwise) to figure out the sign of L. Equivalently:

where pperpendicular is the component of p that is perpendicular to r. As above, the sign is decided base on the sense of rotation.

For an object with a fixed mass that is rotating about a fixed symmetry axis, the angular momentum is expressed as the product of the moment of inertia of the object and its angular velocity vector:


I is the moment of inertia of the object

ω is the angular velocity.

Conservation of angular momentum

In analogy to Newton's second law for linear momentum, we have the following law about angular momentum:

where τ is the net torque about the origin.

This implies that angular momentum is a conserved quantity as long as there is no net torque applied to the particle. What's more, this conservation can be generalized to a system of particles under most conditions so that:

where τexternal is any torque applied to the system of particles.

In orbits, the angular momentum is distributed within the spin of the planet itself, and the angular momentum of its orbit:

If a planet is found to rotate slower than expected, then astronomers suspect that the planet is accompanied by a satellite, because the total angular momentum is shared amongst the planet and its satellite in order to be conserved.

The conservation of angular momentum is used extensively in analyzing what is called central force motion. In central force motion, two bodies form an isolated system not influenced by outside forces, and the origin is placed somewhere on the line between the two bodies. Since any force the bodies exert on each other must be directed along this line, there can be no net torque, with respect to the aforementioned origin, on either body. Thus, angular momentum is conserved. Constant angular momentum is extremely useful when dealing with the orbits of planets and satellites, and also when analyzing the Bohr model of the atom!

Angular momentum in relativistic mechanics

In modern (late 20th century) theoretical physics, angular momentum is described using a different formalism. Under this formalism, angular momentum is the 2-form Noether charge associated with rotational invariance (As a result, angular momentum isn't conserved for general curved spacetimes, unless it happens to be asymptotically rotationally invariant). For a system of point particles without any intrinsic angular momentum, it turns out to be

(Here, the wedge product is used.).

Angular momentum in quantum mechanics

In quantum mechanics, angular momentum is defined like momentum - not as a quantity but as an operator on the wave function:

where r and p are the position and momentum operators respectively. In particular, for a single particle with no electric charge and no spin, the angular momentum operator can be written in the position basis as

where File:Del.gif is the gradient operator. This is a commonly encountered form of the angular momentum operator, though not the most general one. It has the following properties


and even more importantly commutes with the hamiltonian of such a chargeless and spinless particle


Angular Momentum operators usually occur when solving a problem with spherical symmetry in spherical coordinates. Then, the angular momentum in space representation is:

When solving to find eigenstates of this operator, we obtain the following


are the spherical harmonics.

See also


  • E. U. Condon and G. H. Shortley, The Theory of Atomic Spectra, (1970) Cambridge at the University Press, ISBN 521-09209-4 See chapter 3.
  • Edmonds, A.R., Angular Momentum in Quantum Mechanics, (1957) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-07912-9.
  • Serway, Raymond A.; Jewett, John W. (2004). Physics for Scientists and Engineers (6th ed.), Brooks/Cole. ISBN 0534408427.
  • Tipler, Paul (2004). Physics for Scientists and Engineers: Mechanics, Oscillations and Waves, Thermodynamics (5th ed.), W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0716708094.

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