Why Don’t We Feel the Earth Move? Acceleration and Perceived Motion

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Earth both rotates on its axis and revolves around the Sun. Why don't we feel the motion? Image Credit: NASA

The Question:  If the Earth is rotating on its axis and also revolving around the Sun, why don’t we feel any motion?

When Do We Perceive Motion?

Don’t try this when you are the driver, but next time you are the passenger in a car, try a little experiment: on a straight stretch of road, ask the driver to drive at a constant speed. Roll up the windows to block any wind, and close your eyes to avoid seeing the scenery whiz by. As long as the driver is keeping the car at a constant velocity, you will not perceive any motion. If you throw a ball straight up it will fall back down into your hand. This effect is the same whether the car is traveling at 30 miles per hour, or 60 miles per hour – it even works in a jet traveling at ten times that speed.

Now, if the driver pushes down on the gas pedal so that the car accelerates, you will feel pushed back into the seat and perceive the effect of motion. The ball will not fall back into your hand, because the car is accelerating. If the driver either steps on the brake, or goes around a curve, you will also feel the same effects.

Acceleration, which includes increasing speed, decreasing speed, and changing direction, causes the perception of motion. We do not, however, perceive constant velocity motion unless we are in some way looking out at our surroundings to see the motion.

What are Velocity and Acceleration?

In everyday life the words velocity and speed are used interchangeably. In physics, however, they have distinct meanings. Velocity includes direction; speed does not. For example, a car might have a speed of 50 miles per hour and a velocity of 50 miles per hour towards the east.

In everyday life, acceleration often denotes an increase in speed. In physics, however, an acceleration is any change in velocity; an acceleration can be an increase in velocity, a decrease in velocity, or a change in direction.

In the example above, we perceive motion because the car has an acceleration – not because the car has a velocity. Even with the much faster speed of a jet airliner, we only perceive motion when the jet is accelerating. We do not even feel the much faster constant velocity motion of the jet.

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