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On a Dynamical Top - cover

On a Dynamical Top

James Clerk Maxwell

Publisher: Balungi Francis

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Summary

To those who study the progress of exact science, the common spinning-top is a symbol of the labours and the perplexities of men who had successfully threaded the mazes of the planetary motions. The mathematicians of the last age, searching through nature for problems worthy of their analysis, found in this toy of their youth, ample occupation for their highest mathematical powers.

No illustration of astronomical precession can be devised more perfect than that presented by a properly balanced top, but yet the motion of rotation has intricacies far exceeding those of the theory of precession.

The top which I have the honour to spin before the Society, differs from that of Mr Elliot in having more adjustments, and in being designed to exhibit far more complicated phenomena.

The arrangement of these adjustments, so as to produce the desired effects, depends on the mathematical theory of rotation. The method of exhibiting the motion of the axis of rotation, by means of a coloured disc, is essential to the success of these adjustments. This optical contrivance for rendering visible the nature of the rapid motion of the top, and the practical methods of applying the theory of rotation to such an instrument as the one before us, are the grounds on which I bring my instrument and experiments before the Society as my own.

I propose, therefore, in the first place, to give a brief outline of such parts of the theory of rotation as are necessary for the explanation of the phenomena of the top.

Lastly, I shall attempt to explain the nature of a possible variation in the earth’s axis due to its figure. This variation, if it exists, must cause a periodic inequality in the latitude of every place on the earth’s surface, going through its period in about eleven months. The amount of variation must be very small, but its character gives it importance, and the necessary observations are already made, and only require reduction.

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