Part one of Dr. A Louro's Physics 211 notes from the University of Calgary, 2001-2.

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Part one of Dr. A Louro's Physics 211 notes from the University of Calgary, 2001-2.

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Part 1: Kinematics

A. A. Louro

Fall 2001

2

Contents

1 Introduction 1

1.1 Overview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

1.2 Preliminaries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

1.3 Some functions of interest . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

2 Kinematics in 1 dimension 5

2.1 Motion in a straight line . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

2.1.1 Position . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

2.1.2 Displacement along x . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

2.1.3 Average velocity along x . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

2.1.4 Instantaneous velocity along x . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

2.1.5 Uniform motion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

2.1.6 Acceleration along x . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

2.2 Uniformly accelerated motion (UAM) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

2.2.1 Velocity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

2.2.2 Position . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

3 Calculus concepts 11

3.1 The instantaneous velocity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

3.2 Calculating the instantaneous velocity – an example . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

3.3 Generalizing the procedure to any time t . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

3.4 Other functions x(t) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

3.5 The concept of derivative . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

3.6 The time derivatives of some special functions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

3.6.1 Rule 1: The derivative of a sum . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

3.6.2 Rule 2: The derivative of a function multiplied by a constant . . . . . . . . . 14

3.7 The connection with kinematics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15

3

4 CONTENTS

4 Oscillators 17

4.1 Oscillators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

4.2 A prototype simple harmonic oscillator . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

4.3 The velocity and acceleration of a simple harmonic oscillator . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

4.3.1 Time derivatives of trigonometric functions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

4.3.2 The velocity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

4.3.3 The acceleration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

4.4 Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

5 Free Fall 23

5.1 Free fall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24

5.2 Motion in 2 dimensions - Projectile motion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24

6 Vectors 25

6.1 Vector algebra . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26

6.1.1 Representing a 2D vector . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26

6.2 Operations with vectors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

6.2.1 Vector addition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

6.2.2 Multiplication by a scalar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

6.2.3 Time derivative of a vector . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

6.3 Using vector notation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

Chapter 1

Introduction

1

2 CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION

1.1 Overview

Physics lays claim to a vast territory. Some of the provinces of physics are

• the motion of celestial bodies, from interstellar dust grains to clusters of galaxies;

• machines;

• light;

• heat;

Underlying all these phenomena, there are some simple, general behaviours:

“Things” interact with each other, affecting each other’s state. For example, the Earth

and the Moon are interacting, forcing each other to revolve about a common centre; or

a balloon that has been vigorously rubbed may be attracted to the nearest wall. These

very different types of interaction obey the same basic rules.

Mechanics deals with how interactions affect the way things move. In the first section of this

course, we look at kinematics, a mathematical description of how things move.

Next, we ask why things move the way they do, which comes under the heading of dynamics.

There are several ways of answering this question. One approach is due to Isaac Newton, so it’s

called Newtonian mechanics. It is based on the idea that interacting objects apply forces to

each other.

An alternative approach makes use of less intuitive notions, like “energy” or “momentum”, and

we’ll reserve this to the end.

1.2 Preliminaries

From the HDOP1 :

Classical mechanics The motion of objects that are not too small – atoms are barely OK, if you

can disregard their internal structure –, or too energetic, that is, moving much more slowly

than light. Historically, the classical period in physics research ranges from the early 1600’s

to the early 1900’s.

1

Hitchhiker’s Dictionary of Physics; non-existent, yet useful!

1.3. SOME FUNCTIONS OF INTEREST 3

Particle “Particle” means more that “very small, point-like thing”. Any object that is moving

rigidly, without spinning, can be considered as a particle. This is because all points in the

object move in the same way, so one point can represent the entire object.

In this course, we will deal almost exclusively with particles. At the end, we will

discuss briefly rotational equilibrium of large objects.

Observer The motion of an object can only be described relative to an observer. Relative to

itself2 , of course, the observer is stationary.

Space In classical mechanics, an invisible framework where material objects are located. To keep

track of a moving object, we can imagine a grid extending throughout space, attached to an

observer. This is called the observer’s reference frame.

the observer.

In classical mechanics, the time interval between two events is measured the same

by all observers.

SI units An ingenious system of units, which we shall build up gradually, called “Système Interna-

tionale”. It became official in 1960, and is preferred over all other systems of units in science.

For the moment, we are only concerned with distances, measured in meters (m), and times,

measured in seconds (s).

Function A relationship between two quantities, for example air temperature and time. All the

functions we will consider here involve quantities that may be measured with real numbers.

If T stands for temperature and t stands for time, the function T (t) is a listing of the values

of T at different times t. This is best visualized with a graph. We develop this mathematical

concept more below.

Although there are infinitely many possible mathematical functions, we can do with a small set of

essential types of function for our purposes in this course. Again, using temperature as a function

of time as an example, the functions of interest are:

2

The observer need not be human, or even alive. The observer is really just particle that acts as a reference point

for measuring position and velocity.

4 CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION

1. A constant:

T (t) = C (1.3.1)

A graph of this function is a flat straight line. In this case, the temperature simply does not

vary with time.

2. : A linear function:

T (t) = A + Bt (1.3.2)

A graph of this function is also a straight line, but with a slope determined by the constant

B.

3. A quadratic function:

T (t) = A + Bt + Ct2 (1.3.3)

A graph of this function is a curve known as a parabola.

4. A sine or cosine function:

It is well known that these functions are periodic: A graph of a sine or cosine function

looks like a wave, repeating as the angle passes through a full circle. We will encounter such

functions when we study the motion of an oscillator, like a weight suspended from a spring,

as a function of time. What does time have to do with an angle?

Consider an analog clock. The pointer rotates over time, forming an angle that varies with

time relative respect to some reference direction. If the pointer rotates at a steady rate, the

angle is a linear function of time (see above):

θ = constant × t (1.3.5)

So for example, if the ambient temperature T is a sine function of time (which is not a bad

approximation to the variation of temperature throughout the day), it could be written as

follows:

T (t) = Tav + A sin(constant × t) (1.3.6)

Here, Tav is the average temperature. Some more jargon: The constant A is called the

amplitude of the oscillation. Since the sine function oscillates between +1 and −1, the

temperature T oscillates between the two extreme values of Tav + A and Tav − A.

Exercise 1.3.1 Looking up the local weather report for September 11th. 2001, I find that

the low for the day was 5.5 o C, and the high was 9.3 o C. Assuming that the temperature

as a function of time throughout the day was a simple sine function, what was the average

temperature Tav , and what was the amplitude of the temperature oscillation A?

Chapter 2

Kinematics in 1 dimension

5

6 CHAPTER 2. KINEMATICS IN 1 DIMENSION

We start our study of kinematics with 1-dimensional motion, that is, motion along a straight line.

Theis has not only the advantage of simplicity, but is also very useful for studying more general

motion in 2 or 3 dimensions: We will see later that in this case the motion can be separated into

1-D motions along independent directions.

We begin with some definitions.

2.1.1 Position

The position of an object moving only on a straight line can be measured with an infinitely long

ruler, or coordinate axis. The zero of the ruler coincides with the observer. The position of the

object is represented by the distance to the zero point, or origin, with a + or - sign to indicate on

which side of the origin the object lies. The position on a straight line is usually labelled x. For

example, if the x axis is vertical, with the origin at your eye level, and “positive” means “upwards”,

your feet might be at x = −1.60 m.

Delta notation A compact way of denoting a change in a quantity Q. It is written ∆Q, and is

read as “The change in Q”.

If the object is moving, its position will change over an interval of time ∆t from an initial value

x0 at time t0 to a final value x at time t = t0 + ∆t. The object’s displacement along x is

∆x = x − x0 .

two positions.

Notice that ∆x can be positive or negative. What does the sign of ∆x tell you?

The object’s average velocity along x is

∆x

vav,x = (2.1.1)

∆t

Because the displacement is a signed quantity, so is the average velocity. What does

the sign of the average velocity tell you?

2.1. MOTION IN A STRAIGHT LINE 7

∆x

∆t

t t

8 CHAPTER 2. KINEMATICS IN 1 DIMENSION

The average velocity along x has a simple graphic interpretation. On a graph of position versus

time, join the initial point (x0 , t0 ) and the end point (x0 + ∆x, t0 + ∆t) with a straight line. (See

Figure 2.1). The slope of this straight line is given by ∆x/∆t, which is just the average velocity of

the object along x, which is denoted simply by vx .

But how do we measure the instantaneous velocity at a particular time t? Graphically, the

procedure is a natural extension of the way we find an average velocity: Draw a straight line

tangent to the curve representing x(t) at the time of interest t. The slope of this straight line is

the object’s instantaneous velocity along x at time t. (See Figure 2.2).

Of course, the instantaneous velocity along x can change over time. If you draw several tangent

lines to the curve of Figure 2.2 at different times, you will notice that as time progresses the object

moves initially in the +x direction, slows down and comes to a full stop, and starts moving in the

−x direction with increasing speed.

In other words, in general the instantaneous velocity along x is also a function of time,

vx (t).

Uniform motion is motion with constant velocity. In this case, the average velocity along x is the

same regardless of which time interval we choose to average over. Say that the moving object is at

x0 at time t0 and at x at a later time t. The average velocity along x coincides with the constant

instantaneous velocity along x, vx , so we can write

∆x x − x0

vx = = (2.1.2)

∆t t − t0

x = x0 + vx (t − t0 ) (2.1.3)

We can now give a complete description of the motion of an object, at least in the simple case

of uniform motion. The object’s position and velocity along x may be obtained at any time t from

the following equations:

vx = constant (2.1.4)

x = x0 + vx (t − t0 ) (2.1.5)

if we are given the value of the constant vx and the initial condition x0 at time t0 .

2.1. MOTION IN A STRAIGHT LINE 9

vx

∆ vx

∆t

The term acceleration has a broader meaning in physics than in everyday language. Usually

“acceleration” means an increase in speed. In physics we use the same word “acceleration” to

mean any change in velocity.

For an object that is moving in a straight line, this implies that slowing down while

travelling in a certain direction is also an acceleration. And changing direction is also

an acceleration.

Acceleration is analogous to velocity, in that acceleration is the rate of change of velocity with time,

just as velocity is the rate of change of position with time. So, similar to the definitions of average

and instantaneous velocity we have

Average acceleration along x If an object’s velocity along x changes by ∆vx over an interval

of time ∆t, its average acceleration along x is

∆vx

aav,x = (2.1.6)

∆t

Graphically, it is found just like the average velocity. See Figure 2.3; it looks identical to

Figure 2.1, but notice this is a graph of velocity as a function of time!

Instantaneous acceleration along x is also found as the slope of a straight line tangent to the

curve representing vx (t). (See Figure 2.4).

From these definitions, we see that the SI unit of acceleration is (m/s)/s. This can also be

expressed as (m/s2 ), although some physics instructors prefer the more intuitive (m/s)/s.

10 CHAPTER 2. KINEMATICS IN 1 DIMENSION

vx

t t

2.2.1 Velocity

If ax is constant over time, then the velocity along x is a linear function of time, since

∆vx vx − v0x

ax = = (2.2.1)

∆t t − t0

from which

vx = v0x + ax (t − t0 ) (2.2.2)

2.2.2 Position

The position as a function of time in UAM is similar to the case of uniform motion (see equation

(2.1.3), with the addition of a new term because of the acceleration. We present the expression for

x(t), and postpone the discussion of the acceleration term until after we have discussed derivatives:

1

x(t) = x0 + v0x t + ax t2 (2.2.3)

2

Chapter 3

Calculus concepts

11

12 CHAPTER 3. CALCULUS CONCEPTS

We have seen that the procedure to find the instantaneous velocity of an object that’s moving along

the x axis at any desired time t is this:

• At the point on the curve corresponding to the instant t, draw a straight line tangent to the

curve;

• Then the slope of the line gives the instantaneous velocity there.

We can always draw a graph and estimate the velocity at any instant through careful measurement.

But at best we get an estimate, and it’s a tedious procedure to do many times. Instead, we’ll try

to reproduce symbolically this procedure, and arrive at a method for calculating (exactly!) the

instantaneous rate of change of any variable that changes with time.

We begin with a concrete example.

Consider the following situation: An object moves along x in a way that its position as a function

of time is

x(t) = t2

if t is measured in seconds, and x in meters. We want to know its instantaneous velocity along x

at t = 2.0 s.

We might begin by estimating the instantaneous velocity there as the average velocity between

say t = 2.0 s and t = 3.0 s. This would just be an approximation, but hopefully a reasonably good

one. Here is the calculation:

x(3.0 s) − x(2.0 s) 9.0 m − 4.0 m

vx ≈ = = 5.0 m/s

3.0 s − 2.0 s 1.0 s

Of course, if we take a smaller interval of time, we would expect the approximation to improve.

Let’s repeat the calculation for the interval between t = 2.0 s and t = 2.1 s:

vx ≈ = = 4.1 m/s

2.1 s − 2.0 s 1.0 s

In fact, let’s pick successively smaller time intervals starting at t = 2.0 s and see if the approxima-

tions approach the same value as they improve. Here is a table summarizing the results, including

the two approximations we calculated in full:

3.3. GENERALIZING THE PROCEDURE TO ANY TIME T 13

∆t (s) ∆x (m) vx ≈ ∆x

∆t

1.0 5.0 5.0

0.1 0.41 4.1

0.01 0.0401 4.01

0.001 0.004001 4.001

You get the idea. Clearly, as we make the time interval over which we calculate the average velocity

progressively smaller, the approximation to the instantaneous velocity approaches 4 m/s.

OK, so what we did is this. We have an object whose position as a function of time is x(t) = t2 (in

SI units). To find its instantaneous velocity at a time t, we calculated the average velocity over a

really tiny time interval, from t to t + , where (the Greek letter “epsilon”) stands for a very tiny

increment. Technically, it is said to be infinitesimally small, meaning it can be made as small

as we like.

So the velocity is calculated as the tiny – well, infinitesimal – displacement over the infinitesimal

time interval. In terms of this is

x(t + ) − x(t) (t + )2 − t2 t2 + 2t + 2 − t2

vx (t) ≈ = = = 2t +

(t + ) − t

Now we see that when is made vanishingly small, the instantaneous velocity becomes exactly

vx = 2t

Notice that this is nicely consistent with our first example, where we found that the velocity at

t = 2.0s was 4.0 m/s.

It will be left as an exercise to the reader to verify, using the same procedure as above that if

x(t) = t, then vx (t) = 1. And if x(t) = 1, then vx = 0, which makes perfect sense because if the

position of the object is 1 m without varying, then it’s not moving, so its instantaneous velocity is

zero.

We can summarize what we’ve done to calculate the instantaneous velocity like this: We found the

average velocity along x over a small time interval,

∆x

vx ≈

∆t

14 CHAPTER 3. CALCULUS CONCEPTS

dx

vx = (3.5.1)

dt

and pronounced “dee-x-dee-t”. The “d” stands for “differential”, and it means a vanishingly small

change in a quantity. The function dx/dt is called the time derivative of x(t).

All this time we’ve been using x(t) as a model for a function of time whose rate of change we wanted

to calculate. But now we’re ready to let go of that crutch. What we have learned applies to any

function of time. Thus, the instantaneous rate of change of the function f (t) = t2 is df /dt = 2t.

Let’s summarize the time derivatives we know so far in a table:

df

f (t) dt

t2 2t

t 1

1 0

With these, we can build many more different functions, like f (t) = 3 − 2t + 45t2 . To calculate the

time derivative of a function like that (which is not such a futile exercise as it looks), We need to

know a couple of rules about derivation:

The derivative of a sum is the sum of the derivatives. In other words,

d df dg

[f (t) + g(t)] = +

dt dt dt

Here, mathematical notation is much better than words. Call the constant const; the rule is

d df

[const · f (t)] = const · (3.6.1)

dt dt

OK, now we’re ready to stretch our muscles. Try these exercises.

Exercise 3.6.2 What is the time derivative of f (t) = 2 + 3t?

3.7. THE CONNECTION WITH KINEMATICS 15

We found before that for uniformly accelerated motion, the position as a function of time is

1

x = x0 + v0x t + ax t2

2

where the initial position x0 , the initial velocity along x v0x and the acceleration ax are all constants.

(We’ve assumed t0 = 0 for simplicity). So, the velocity as a function of time should be given by

the time derivative of x(t). Verify – and I mean that – that the time derivative of x(t) is

v0x + ax t

which is indeed the expression of the instantaneous velocity in UAM. But we can go further. The

acceleration is after all the instantaneous rate of change of the velocity with time, so we should

recover the acceleration if we take the time derivative of the velocity. Again, verify that the time

derivative of v0x + ax t is the acceleration ax .

16 CHAPTER 3. CALCULUS CONCEPTS

Chapter 4

Oscillators

17

18 CHAPTER 4. OSCILLATORS

4.1 Oscillators

Many physical systems may be described by a quantity that varies periodically with time, from the

pendulum, where the variable is the angle between the string and the vertical direction, to chemical

oscillators where the variable is the concentration of a chemical substance. If the variation follows

the simple form of a sine or a cosine function of time, the system is called a simple harmonic

oscillator. In this course, we shall concentrate on simple harmonic oscillators, partly because of

their simplicity, and also because of their wide applicability.

For a concrete example with which to develop the theory consider a mass oscillating on the end of

a spring. If the mass is pulled out and released from rest, its position x as a function of of time

might look something like Figure 4.1. The origin of x is chosen as the equilibrium point, where the

mass rests if it is not oscillating. Notice that when it is oscillating, x(t) fluctuates symmetrically

about x = 0. The position of the mass is a cosine function of time, of the form

4.3. THE VELOCITY AND ACCELERATION OF A SIMPLE HARMONIC OSCILLATOR 19

2πt

x = A cos (4.2.1)

P

The argument of a cosine function is expressed in radians, and the cosine function is periodic

with period 2π. By writing the argument of this function of time as 2πt/P , the function has the

periodicity of a cosine function, with a time period P .

The quantity 2π/P is usually written as ω, the Greek letter “omega”, and called the angular

frequency of the oscillator. Then we can rewrite equation 4.2.1 more simply as

x = A cos(ωt) (4.2.2)

The significance of the constant A is this: As the cosine function oscillates between +1 and −1, the

position of our oscillator varies between +A and −A. A is called the amplitude of the oscillation.

4.3.1 Time derivatives of trigonometric functions

To discover the form of the velocity and acceleration of a simple harmonic oscillator as functions

of time, we need to be able to calculate the time derivatives of sine and cosine functions, of the

form of the expression in equation 4.2.2. We’ll adopt a semiexperimental approach here, using the

graphical technique of drawing tangent lines to the curve in a graph of the function.

Figure 4.2 shows the position of a simple harmonic oscillator vs. time again, with time measured

in units of the period P and length measured in units of the amplitude A. Draw tangent lines to

the curve at t = 0, 0.5, ...3, and estimate their slopes, making a note of the values in a table. With

this exercise we are estimating the time derivative of x(t) for some values of t. Notice from your

table that dx/dt is itself an oscillating function of time. Next, verify that your values are consistent

with the following expression:

dx

= −ω sin(ωt) (4.3.1)

dt

Now we need to repeat the exercise for a sine function of time. Figure 4.3 shows the function

using the same units as in Figure 4.2. Once again, draw tangent lines to the curve at t = 0, 0.5, ...3,

estimate their slopes, and tabulate the values. Your values should be consistent with

dx

= ω cos(ωt) (4.3.3)

dt

20 CHAPTER 4. OSCILLATORS

0.5

x in units of A

-0.5

-1

t in units of P

4.3. THE VELOCITY AND ACCELERATION OF A SIMPLE HARMONIC OSCILLATOR 21

0.5

x in units of A

-0.5

-1

t in units of P

22 CHAPTER 4. OSCILLATORS

As we saw in the previous section, if the position of a simple harmonic oscillator is given by

dx

vx (t) = = −ωAsin(ωt) (4.3.5)

dt

The acceleration in turn is the time derivative of the velocity:

dvx d

ax (t) = = −ωA [sin(ωt)] (4.3.6)

dt dt

and using the result of equation (4.3.3) we find

4.4 Summary

Let us summarize what we have learned about the simple harmonic oscillator. If the position as a

function of time is given by

x(t) = A cos(ωt) (4.4.1)

the velocity along x is

vx (t) = −ωA sin(ωt) (4.4.2)

and the acceleration along x is

ax (t) = −ω 2 A cos(ωt) (4.4.3)

One final remark: Notice that the acceleration, like the position itself, is a cosine function of time.

In fact,

ax (t) = −ω 2 x (4.4.4)

This will gain significance later when we study the forces driving the simple harmonic oscillator.

Chapter 5

Free Fall

23

24 CHAPTER 5. FREE FALL

An important case of UAM is that of objects moving near the surface of the Earth, or any similar

large body, like Jupiter, or the Moon. The acceleration of any object is constant; in the case of the

Earth it is approximately g = 9.8 (m/s)/s1 . In this case the object is said to be in free fall (even

though it may be going up!); if y is its vertical coordinate, measured positive upwards, its position

as a function of time is

1

y(t) = y0 + v0 yt − gt2 (5.1.1)

2

A projectile (like a shotput, for example) moves in two dimensions, both vertically and horizontally

at the same time. However, the motion along each direction is independent of the other, so we

can treat the horizontal motion and the vertical motion separately as 1-D problems. (See this

animation). Since the acceleration is entirely in the vertical direction, the object moves with

constant velocity along the horizontal. Let x and y be the horizontal and vertica coordinates

respectively; then the position and velocity of the projectile are given by

1

y(t) = y0 + v0y t − gt2 (5.2.2)

2

vx (t) = v0x (5.2.3)

vy (t) = v0y − gt (5.2.4)

Notice that it becomes important now to distinguish between motion along x and along

y, so the subscripts are important! We must keep separate, for instance, vx from vy .

1

g varies slightly with latitude, from about 9.79 (m/s)/s at the equator to 9.81 (m/s)/s at the poles.

Chapter 6

Vectors

25

26 CHAPTER 6. VECTORS

By now we have seen that in describing how something moves, the position, velocity, and accelera-

tion are measured along independent directions. We speak of “the velocity along x’ and “velocity

along y”, for instance. It is convenient to combine the information, and speak simply of “the

velocity”. Similarly, we would say “position” and “acceleration”.

However, it is clear that these are not like other physical quantities like length or time, which

can be specified by a single number. Instead, to specify a velocity we would have to give two

numbers, if the object is moving on a two-dimensional surface1 . Such a quantity is called a vector,

as opposed to a scalar, like length or time.

Cartesian representation

We’ll use velocity as an example. A velocity vector would be written

~v = (vx , vy ) (6.1.1)

Notice the arrow on top, indicating that this is a vector quantity. Here, x and y are two perpen-

dicular directions. The numbers vx and vy are called the x and y components of ~v .

Polar representation

One can also specify a vector by giving its size, or magnitude, and its direction. (The magnitude

of a velocity is the speed). The direction may be given as an angle between the direction of the

vector and some reference axis. Conventionally, a positive angle means that the direction of the

vector is counterclockwise from the reference axis.

The magnitude of a vector ~v is written |~v |.

For the visually oriented, a very good way of representing a vector graphically is by means of an

arrow. If the drawing is made to scale, the length of the arrow may be made proportional to the

magnitude of the vector. The direction of the arrow is of course the same as the direction of the

vector.

1. Given the components vx and vy of a vector, what are its magnitude and direction? Refer to

figure 6.1. From the shaded triangle in the figure, Phythagoras’ theorem gives right away

1

Throughout this course we will only consider at most 2D situations.

6.1. VECTOR ALGEBRA 27

|v|

θ

v_y

x

v_x

q

|~v | = vx2 + vy2

vy

θ = arctan

vx

A word of caution about calculators: An equation of the type φ = arctan(z) has two possible

solutions (like a quadratic equation has two possible solutions). If you use a calculator to find

the direction of a vector, you will get one of the two possible values, but you have to check

the signs of the components vx and vy to see if your calculator gave you the right answer; you

might have to add 180o .

2. Given the magnitude and direction, what are the components vx and vy ? Again, refer to

Figure 6.1. The x and y components are given by

vx = |~v | cos θ

vy = |~v | sin θ

28 CHAPTER 6. VECTORS

~a + ~b = (ax + bx , ay + by )

Graphically, two vectors may be added by the parallelogram method illustrated in Figure

6.2, or by the tip-to-tail method illustrated in Figure 6.3.

a+b

b_y

a_y a

b_x a_x x

Scalar multiplication involves multiplying each component of a vector by the same scalar:

This operation is equivalent to stretching the vector, and if C is negative, flipping it.

If the components of a vector change over time, it is legitimate to find the time derivative of

the vector, by taking the time derivatives of each component. Thus for example, the velocity

6.3. USING VECTOR NOTATION 29

a+b

b

a

d~r

~v =

dt

which means simply that

dx

vx =

dt

dy

vy =

dt

Consider for example, the equations for the x and y components of the position of an object

in free fall:

x = x0 + v0x t

1

y = y0 + v0y t − gt2

2

(As usual, x is horizontal, and y is vertical, positive upwards). We can convey the same

information with a single vector equation:

1

~r = ~r0 + ~v0 t + ~at2

2

30 CHAPTER 6. VECTORS

where ~r is the position vector at a time t, ~r0 is the initial position vector, and ~a = (0, − g)

is the acceleration vector.

It is comforting to see that the time derivative d~r/dt does indeed give the velocity vector

~v0 − ~g t. (Verify this!)

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