What is a Gyroscope? What is the point of a gyroscope? Why do gyroscopes behave in such unnatural and freaky ways that disturb right thinking individuals and physicists? The answer is all to do with defying gravity!

Just The Facts

  1. Gyroscopes help planes, motorcycles and spacecraft from falling and killing you and your loved ones. For now.
  2. A spinning top is a simple and yet undeniably tedious form of gyroscope

Basic Gyroscopy

So why do gyroscopes behave as they do in full public view when other unnatural, freaky things, such as Oscar Wilde, are locked away to protect society and its pale, young lordlings with their ripe, luminescent buttocks?

The fact is, humans and other things made of meat are much more likely to move in straight lines most of the time and arrogantly believe that this is the correct mode of behaviour. This is easy to see if you push someone off a cliff - very few people are rude enough to not go hurtling into the rocks below.

On the other hand, humans were not designed to spin around in circles very fast and tend to fail when forced to do so. Astronauts are often spun very fast by centrifuges during training and even these top-notch human specimans wind up covered in their own spew. You can perform a simple experiment to demonstrate this for yourself. Spin around in a circle very fast a number of times. Eventually you will fall over - this is because you are gravity's bitch. QED.

It seems like a great idea, until the third day of the road trip

Not so with things made out of spinning circles. Gravity just doesn't know what to do with them. They've got all this crazy momentum going on, pulling them in completely different directions. They raise a middle finger to gravity and say "Suck harder, G. Oh right. You can't suck any harder"" Circles can be cruel.

Do gyroscopes break the laws of physics, then?

The short answer is no - though some scientist types, believing gyroscopes to be important components in anti-gravity devices, reactionless propulsion drives and other magical items*, have argued the point. Generally this causes a response in the scientific community similar to someone wetting themselves while performing in your school play when you were six - you can vaguely understand why it might happen, but you never want to stand next to that person again.

3 gyroscopes failing to break the laws of physics

These gyroscopes received high scored in aesthetics and difficulty, but were ultimately marked down for failing to break the laws of physics.

The particular law that Gyroscopes are failing to break is the law of Conservation of Angular Momentum - or, to put it more simply, what goes around keeps going around. A bit like flu, or your sister.

This is why when you place an UNspinning top on its point it falls over at its most overbalanced point. But, contrariwise, if you put a spinning top on its point, it falls over ON EVERY SIDE AT ONCE, and in doing so, utterly fails to fall over at all. Gravity is forced to reach its invisible tendrils all over the place and just when it thinks it has a firm grasp - zzzip - the spot it thought it had is now elsewhere and gravity is left looking foolish and confused.

Similarly, when you push a parked motorbike, it tends to fall over and then large hairy men in leather jackets and handlebar moustaches emasculate you with broken beer bottles. But if you lean to the side while on a moving motorbike, the forces generated by the spinning circular wheels keep you upright, and an effect known as precession even gives you a gentle turn.

*Professor E R Laithwaite presented a lecture to the Royal Institute in the 70s on gyroscopes and anti-gravity. It was the only invited lecture delivered to that body that has remained unpublished. Another of Prof Laithwaite's papers was titled "The multiplication of bananas by umbrellas" in which he also failed to invent anti-gravity.

That's all very tricksy, but what's the point?

The point is: things turning in exactly the same way all the time is fantastically useful. Compasses, for example, only point to magnetic north. Big whoop. What's in that direction? Ice caps and polar bears, and they're either melting or dying out and having to get it on with other types of bear just to survive.

North sucks!

A polar bear sums up today's north.

You can calibrate a gyroscope, however, to point to whatever you like. Magnetic south. The grave of Ed McMahon. The Pointer Sisters. Just place it in some gimbals which allow it to do it's own thing, and it will keep on keeping on even if you throw it in the spin-dry. Two gyroscopes at right angles and you've got a guidance system. Not only that, but you can measure any differences in rotation experienced by measuring the changes of force on the gimbals as they rotate around the gyroscope and Hey Presto: Wii MotionPlus. Also, cruise control for aircraft and some other stuff probably.

Many people thought Coco from Fame!, with her energetic spinning moves, was a human gyroscope, but actually her real name just looked a bit like gimbal