Center of gravity
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: January 9, 2020.
What goes up must come down—that's one way of understanding gravity.
We think of gravity as a force that pulls things downward (toward
Earth's center), but it doesn't always work like that.
Sometimes gravity can make things turn and topple over, especially if
they are high up and unbalanced. Tightrope walkers understand this
better than anyone. Tiptoeing over the high wire, they often teeter
and wobble from side to side just to entertain us, yet they hardly
ever fall off. Instinctively understanding the physics of forces
helps them staying firmly on the wire. If, like them, you understand
a simple concept called center of gravity, you'll find
balancing is child's play!
Photo: A tightrope walker has an instinctive command of physics. You might think the fan
she's carrying is just a funny little touch, but it's more important than it looks: it gives the walker an easy way to redistribute her weight and quickly correct any wobbles that could send her to the ground.
Photo of Eoreum (also called Jultagi), Korean tightrope dancing, courtesy of United States Army Garrison Public Affairs.
What is "center of gravity"?
Throw a ball in the air and gravity pulls it straight back down. Not
everything moves like this when gravity acts on it. Most objects are
not nice, neat shapes like balls. That means gravity acts on them in
more complex ways. Even so, all objects behave as though their mass
(the stuff they're made from) is concentrated at a point called their center of
gravity. A simple object like a ball has its center of gravity in
a very obvious place: right at its center. But in a more complex
object, like your body, the center of gravity is slightly higher than your waist because
there's more weight in the top half of your body than in the bottom
Photo: Why does center of gravity matter? If you want to fly an aircraft safely, having a balanced load is important. 1) This giant C-5 Aircraft is having its center of gravity calculated in a special weight and balance hangar at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Photo by Derek Lawrence. 2) A helicopter carrying a side load has its center of gravity shifted to the left, as we look at the picture. The pilot has to adjust the pitch of the rotors
so they create more down-force on the left to compensate. Photographer unknown. Both photos courtesy of Defense Imagery.
Why do tall things topple over?
Thinking about center of gravity helps us answer questions like this. Stand up straight,
then try leaning over to one side. Very quickly you'll reach a point
where your whole body feels like it's about to topple over. You're
not actually moving but turning about your ankles. Your head
moves faster than your knees. In fact, your whole body turns around
your ankles like a wheel. You might think gravity is something that
pulls things downward, but here it's making you turn in a circle! The
taller you are, the more you'll turn because your whole body is
acting like a lever, helping the force of gravity to turn you
To see how that works, try opening a door by pushing the handle with one
finger. Easy, isn't it? When a force pushes something that can freely
pivot (like a door on its hinges), that thing will turn instead of
moving. Now try opening the same door by pushing with one finger near
the hinge. This time it's much harder. The shorter the
distance between the force and the pivot point, the harder it is for
the force to make something turn. Wider doors are easier to open than
narrower ones because the entire door acts like a lever, multiplying
the force you use when you push on the handle. In exactly the same way,
it's much easier to make something tall topple over than to
topple something that's close to the ground.
Artwork: How to find an object's center of gravity: 1) Hang the object from a point on its edge and it will rotate until its center of gravity is directly under that point. Hang a plumbline (a weight on a string) from the same point. Draw a line parallel to the string (yellow). 2) Now pick a different point on the edge and repeat the process. Draw another line parallel to the string (green). 3) The object's center of gravity is the point where the two lines meet.
Why does gravity make your body tip over?
Imagine your body is not a single, solid mass but a huge sack of
potatoes standing upright. Gravity pulls on the whole sack, but it
also acts on each potato separately, pulling each one downward. When
you lean over to one side, the "potatoes" at the top of your body
work like a lever, making your top half turn and topple about your
ankles. The more you lean, the bigger the lever effect at the top of
your body—and the more likely you are to topple.
There's another way of thinking about your weight. Yes, your body is a bit
like a sack of potatoes. But it's also a bit like one giant potato,
weighing as much as you do and concentrated in an infinitely tiny
point, somewhere in your middle—roughly where your stomach is. This
is your own, personal center of gravity. As long as your center of
gravity is more or less above your feet, your body will always be
balanced and you won't tip over. But start leaning to the side, and
everything changes. Your head is one of the heaviest parts of your
body—like a giant potato perched right on top. If you lean to your
left, your center of gravity is no longer directly above the midpoint of your feet.
The more you lean, the more torque
(turning force) this creates and the more likely you are to topple
over. Gravity makes your whole body rotate about your ankles like a
finger pushing on a door handle.
Artwork: As long as your center of gravity (yellow star) remains roughly above the midpoint between your feet, you stay upright even during complex movements like walking and dancing. But if you move the top of your body too much in one direction, you'll
create a turning force (green) that will tend to make you rotate. To stay upright, you'll need to
move another part of your body and create a balancing force (yellow arrow) to cancel out the original turning force.
What's the best way to balance?
The lower your center of gravity, the easier it is to keep your balance.
If you're sitting on a chair, you can lean over more than if you're
standing up. With your center of gravity low, you can lean further to
one side or the other without creating enough turning force to tip
you over. That's why racing cars (and military vehicles like Humvees)
are designed with very low centers of gravity: the lower they are to
the ground, the less risk there is that they'll tip over, no matter
how fast they go.
Photo: 1: The US Army's Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle or HMMWV)
has a low center of gravity, so it can corner at high speed, in difficult terrain, with much less risk of toppling over.
2: Even so, soldiers are trained to escape from a tipped-over Hummer using this
hydraulically powered simulator called HEAT (HMMWV Egress Assistance Trainer).
It rotates a mock-up of the Hummer's passenger compartment so soldiers can practice
getting out in a variety of challenging conditions, including underwater.
Hummer photo by Sgt. Alex Snyder,
HEAT photo by Sgt. Travis Zielinski, both courtesy of US Army.
Tightrope walkers use a slightly different trick to master their center of
gravity. If you've ever watched a tightrope walker, you'll have
noticed they never simply walk across the rope. Some stretch their
arms out or carry a long stick or an umbrella. Others crouch down or
bend their knees. Still others ride bicycles with weights dangling
some way beneath them. These balancing aids help to give tightrope
walkers more control over their center of gravity. If they can keep
their center of gravity directly above the rope at all times, they
will never fall off. If they start moving to one side, a turning
force will start to topple them in that direction. So they have to
quickly move part of their body to the other side to make a turning
force in the opposite direction and restore their balance.
Inertia (the tendency still objects have
to stay still and moving objects to keep moving) helps too. A tightrope walker weighs quite a lot. That means they
have a certain amount of inertia and it takes quite a bit of time for
their body to move to one side or the other. If they feel themselves
tipping, they have enough time to move another part of their body (or
a stick or umbrella they're carrying) to the other side. That
produces a tipping force in the opposite direction that keeps them
balanced. Looking at a tightrope walker who's momentarily stationary,
you might think no forces are acting—but you'd be wrong. Gravity
acting on a walker's left arm will try to make him tip to the left,
while the weight of his right arm will tip him to the right. The
walker stays perfectly upright, perfectly motionless when all the
different turning forces are exactly balanced and canceling one
How does it help to know about center of gravity?
Photo: Bears do sometimes walk on their back legs, but it's quicker, easier, and safer to
walk on all fours—because they have a lower center of gravity and can't topple over.
Picture by Erich Regehr courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service.
If you're a skeptic, you might think science is full of useless bits of information
you never really need to know, but center of gravity isn't one of them. Last winter,
the lane where I live froze over completely and turned to a sheet of ice. What's the
best way to walk down a frozen street? Assuming you don't have mountaineering boots, the safest way
to do it is to get down on all fours and crawl along, like a polar bear, on your hands and knees. You might get
wet or dirty but you won't tumble over and break your neck. If you make your center of gravity very low, it's
impossible to fall.
Photo: Low center of gravity: the high-jumping technique called
Fosbury Flop, shown here, works by keeping your center of gravity so low that it goes underneath the bar. Photo by Matthew L. Romano courtesy of US Navy
Thinking about center of gravity is also key to playing many sports effectively. Anything that
involves balance—pretty much every sport from figure skating to
about where your weight is and how to move it quickly without using too much energy or losing control. You've noticed
how tennis players plant their feet wide apart? And how high jumpers do weird things curling
their bodies up and round the pole? All that kind of thing is based on understanding center of gravity—and putting it to practical use!