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# Solving a Physics Problem

Step 1: Be confident. Dont be intimidated by any MCAT question. Remember that the
MCAT only tests basic physics.
Step 2: Draw a well-labeled diagram. A good diagram takes the question out of the
MCAT en!ironment" and puts it on your terms. Also" the act of dra#ing a diagram
allo#s you to think about the problem in different #ays.
Step 3: Narrow your focus to only the system of bodies in which youre interested.
This may be the most ob!ious step in physics but it is the one most often forgotten. \$ou
must learn to concentrate upon only the body or bodies about #hich the question asks"
and ignore all e%traneous information.
Step 4: Find a formula that uses the variables in your diagram. &rite do#n se!eral
formulas" and then eliminate until you find the useful one. Actually #rite your formulas
out on the test booklet. 't doesnt take much time and it increases accuracy.
Step 5: Plug in values and calculate the answer. (ote: this last step is often
unnecessary on the MCAT.
Vectors and Scalars
A vector has both direction and magnitude )si*e+. 't can be represented by an arro#. The
direction of the arro# re!eals the direction of the !ector, the length of the arro# re!eals
the magnitude of the !ector. The direction for a vector must specify a straight line at
a specific point. -o #e couldnt dra# an arro# to represent a circle lets say.
A scalar can be completely specified by its magnitude #ith appropriate units, it has no
direction.
&hen t#o or more !ectors are added" they must all ha!e the same units. .or e%ample" it
doesnt make sense to add a !elocity !ector" carrying units of meters per second" to a
displacement !ector" carrying units of meters. -calars obey the same rule.
'n order to add !ectors" place the head of the first !ector to the tail of the second !ector"
and dra# an arro# from the tail of the first to the head of the second. The resulting arro#
is the !ector sum of the other t#o !ectors.
Notice that the magnitude of the sum of two vectors must be smaller than, or eual
to, the sum of their magnitudes, and greater than, or eual to, the difference of their
magnitudes! 'n other #ords" the sum of t#o !elocity !ectors that are /0 m1s and 2 m1s
#ill be greater than or equal to the !elocity !ector of 3 m1s" but smaller than or equal to a
!ector !elocity of /2 m1s.
To subtract !ectors place the heads of the t#o !ectors together and dra# an arro# from
the tail of the first to the tail of the second" or add the negati!e of the !ectors to be
subtracted. The ne# !ector is the !ector difference bet#een the t#o !ectors.
Multiplying Vectors:
"ectors cant be added to, nor subtracted from, scalars or vice versa. 4o#e!er"
!ectors can be multiplied or di!ided by scalars. # vector divided or multiplied by a
scalar is a vector! &hen a !ector is multiplied or di!ided by a scalar the direction of the
original !ector is retained but the magnitude changes in proportion to the scalar.
5%. 'f !ector A is multiplied by the scalar number 3" the result" #ritten 3A" is a
!ector #ith a magnitude three times that of A and pointing in the same
direction. 'f #e multiply the !ector A by the scalar 63" the result is
63A" a !ector #ith a magnitude three times that of A and pointing in the
opposite direction.
&hen multiplying t#o !ectors" first check to see if the resulting physical quantity is a
scalar or a !ector. 'f a !ector" then the !ector must point perpendicularly to both the
original t#o !ectors and the magnitude of the ne# !ector is the product of the magnitude
of the original !ectors times the sine of the angle bet#een them.
)7product 8 7/79sin) ++
'f a scalar" the magnitude of the scalar is equal to the product of the magnitude of the
original !ectors times the sine of the angle bet#een them.
)7product 8 7/79cos) ++
omponent Vectors
The #ord components" in the follo#ing conte%t" means parts. -o" to talk about the
components of a !ector" #e mean the parts of a !ector.
.or a great amount of situations the important parts of a !ector are its %6part and its y6
part" or its %6component and its y6component. 4ere #e #ill see ho# to find the %6
component and the y6component of a !ector.
The !ector #e #ill use in the follo#ing discussion is a force !ector. The methods sho#n
here" though" are true for any !ector" such as a displacement" !elocity" or acceleration
!ector.
4ere on the )%" y+ set of a%es is the force !ector that #e #ill be dealing #ith:
'f you drop a line from the tip of the original !ector straight do#n to the %6a%is and dra#
a !ector along the %6a%is from the origin to #here this line hits the %6a%is" then this ne#ly
dra#n !ector is the %6component of the original !ector. 'n the diagram the line that #as
dropped do#n is sho#n as a thin black line and the %6component is sho#n as a red
!ector:
The tip of the %6component !ector is directly belo# the tip of the original !ector.
'n the follo#ing diagram the thin black hori*ontal line marks ho# high up the original
!ector rises. A !ertical !ector" )parallel to the y6a%is+" #hich rises to this height is called
the y6component of the original !ector. The y6component is sho#n belo# in green:
&hen both the %6component and the y6component are dra#n" a right triangle is formed
#ith the original !ector being the hypotenuse:
This right triangle #ill allo# us to do right triangle trigonometry using \$%&-'#&-T%#:
&e should remember this as #ell:
# ( &cos) *
% ( &sin) *
&e are also able to use the Pythagorean Theorem+
a,- . b,- ( c,-
(ote: Remember the common 36:6; and ;6/96/3 triangles
!istance"!isplacement# Speed"Velocity# Acceleration
Distance and displacement are scalar and !ector counterparts" as are speed and !elocity.
'n other #ords" displacement is distance #ith the added dimension of direction" and
!elocity is speed #ith the added dimension of direction.
Distance and displacement are t#o quantities #hich may seem to mean the same thing
yet ha!e distinctly different definitions and meanings.
Distance is a scalar quantity #hich refers to < how much ground an ob/ect
has covered < during its motion.
Displacement is a !ector quantity #hich refers to < ho# far out of place an ob=ect
is <, it is the ob/ect0s overall change in position!
1 ( x
f
- 1
i
(ote: -o for displacement if #e #ind back up at the same position #e started )i.e.
making a circle" so to say" the displacement is 0. 2t is independent of the
path ta3en
To test your understanding of this distinction" consider the motion depicted in the
diagram belo#. A physics teacher #alks : meters 5ast" 9 meters -outh" : meters &est"
and finally 9 meters (orth.
5!en though the physics teacher has #alked a total distance of /9 meters" her
displacement is 0 meters. During the course of her motion" she has <co!ered /9 meters of
ground< )distance 8 /9 m+. \$et #hen she is finished #alking" she is not <out of place< 6
i.e." there is no displacement for her motion )displacement 8 0 m+. Displacement" being a
!ector quantity" must gi!e attention to direction. The : meters east is canceled by the :
meters #est, and the 9 meters south is canceled by the 9 meters north. 7ector quantities
such as displacement are direction a\$are. -calar quantities such as distance are ignorant
of direction. 'n determining the o!erall distance tra!eled by the physics teachers" the
!arious directions of motion can be ignored.
The definitions of speed" a scalar" and velocity" a !ector" are gi!en by the follo#ing
formulae:
\$peed ( )distance* 4 )time*
"elocity )v* ( )displacement* 4 )time*
-' >nit: m1s
(ote: Notice that the average velocity is independent of the path chosen55
(ote: \$o if the displacement is 6 velocity will also be 6, but as long as the
ob/ect moves )distance 7 6*, regardless if it returns bac3 to
where it started, speed will be greater than 6
#cceleration is a !ector" and is defined as the rate of change in !elocity:
#cceleration ( "elocity 4 time
-' >nit: m1s?9
Any change in !elocity" in either magnitude or direction" is acceleration. This means
that a particle must accelerate in order to change the direction of its
motion555 An ob=ect tra!eling at /0 m1s north one moment and /0 m1s eat the ne%t
moment has accelerated e!en though it is mo!ing at the same speed. Another good
e%ample is an ob=ect orbiting something" i.e. the earth re!ol!ing around the sun or a
satellite orbiting the earth because they must constantly change direction so they dont
=ust go in a straight line.
(ote: # particle moving at constant velocity )and no change in
direction* has N% acceleration55
(ote: 8any problems can be solved /ust by noticing that an ob/ect is
e1periencing '%N\$T#NT velocity or a N9T force!
"elocity and acceleration do N%T have to be in the same direction555 A particle can
be mo!ing to the left #hile accelerating to the right" or mo!ing up #hile accelerating
do#n. .or instance" a ball thro#n up#ards is accelerating do#n#ards e!en #hile
mo!ing up#ards. 2n fact it is even accelerating the moment it reaches its ma1imum
height where its velocity is :ero!
&hen an ob=ects !elocity and acceleration are in the same direction" the !elocity of the
ob=ect increases #ith time. &hen the ob=ects !elocity and acceleration are in opposite
directions" the !elocity of the ob=ect decreases #ith time.
%ni&ormly Accelerated Motion and 'inear Motion
;niformly accelerated motion is motion with constant acceleration. -ince
acceleration is a !ector" constant acceleration means that both direction and magnitude of
acceleration must remain constant! # particle in uniformly accelerated motion will
accelerate at a constant rate regardless of the path travelled by the particle.
.or a particle in uniformly accelerated motion on a linear path" there are four basic
!ariables that #ill describe its motion completely: displacement )%+" !elocity )!+"
acceleration )a+ and time )t+.
"
f
( "
6
. at
1 ( "
6
t . 6!<at,-
"
f
,- ( "
6
,- .-a 1
"
avg
( 6!<)"
f
. "
6
*
(ote: To use these euations, there must be constant acceleration and linear
motion
(raphs o& 'inear Motion
There are t#o types of linear motion graphs #e need to kno# for the MCAT:
/+ position !s. time graph
9+ !elocity !s. time graph
The shapes of the position versus time graphs for these t#o basic types of motion 6
constant !elocity motion and accelerated motion )i.e." changing !elocity+ 6 re!eal an
important principle. The principle is that the slope of the line on a position-time
graph reveals useful information about the velocity of the ob/ect. 't is often said" <As
the slope goes" so goes the !elocity.< &hate!er characteristics the !elocity has" the slope
#ill e%hibit the same )and !ice !ersa+. This !ery principle can be e%tended to any motion
concei!able. The position !s. time graphs for the t#o types of motion 6 constant !elocity
and changing !elocity )acceleration+ 6 are depicted as follo#s.
- 2f the velocity is constant )no acceleration*, then the slope is constant )i!e!, a
straight line*!
(ote: The linear motion euations can be used on any of the straight line
sections of the position graph, because the acceleration for
those sections is a constant :ero!
- 2f the velocity is changing, then the slope is changing )i!e!, a curved line*! 2f
the velocity is positive, then the slope is positive )i!e!, moving
upwards and to the right*!
'onstant "elocity
Positive "elocity
Positive "elocity
'hanging "elocity )acceleration*
Consider the graphs belo# as e%ample applications of this principle concerning the slope
of the line on a position !ersus time graph. The graph on the left is representati!e of an
ob=ect #hich is mo!ing #ith a positi!e !elocity )as denoted by the positi!e slope+" a
constant !elocity )as denoted by the constant slope+ and a small !elocity )as denoted by
the small slope+. The graph on the right has similar features 6 there is a constant" positi!e
!elocity )as denoted by the constant" positi!e slope+. 4o#e!er" the slope of the graph on
the right is larger than that on the left. This larger slope is indicati!e of a larger !elocity.
The ob=ect represented by the graph on the right is tra!eling faster than the ob=ect
represented by the graph on the left. The principle of slope can be used to e%tract rele!ant
motion characteristics from a position !s. time graph. As the slope goes" so goes the
!elocity.
\$low, =ightward ).*
'onstant "elocity
Fast, =ightward ).*
'onstant "elocity

Consider the graphs belo# as another application of this principle of slope. The graph on
the left is representati!e of an ob=ect #hich is mo!ing #ith a negati!e !elocity )as
denoted by the negati!e slope+" a constant !elocity )as denoted by the constant slope+ and
a small !elocity )as denoted by the small slope+. The graph on the right has similar
features 6 there is a constant" negative velocity )as denoted by the constant" negati!e
slope+. 4o#e!er" the slope of the graph on the right is larger than that on the left. @nce
more" this larger slope is indicati!e of a larger !elocity. The ob=ect represented by the
graph on the right is tra!eling faster than the ob=ect represented by the graph on the left.

\$low, >eftward )-*
'onstant "elocity
Fast, >eftward )-*
'onstant "elocity
2f we cross over the ? a1is in a position vs! time graph then we have crossed over our
initial point of origin and are now moving in the opposite direction.
The #ay ' like to think of it is as this:
6 'f #e are abo!e the A a%is #e are right from the point of origin
a+ if the slope is positi!e then #e are mo!ing a#ay from point of origin
b+ if the slope is negati!e #e are mo!ing back to#ards the point of origin
6 'f #e are belo# the A a%is #e are left from the point of origin
a+ if the slope is negati!e then #e are mo!ing a#ay from point of origin
b+ if the slope is positi!e #e are mo!ing back to#ards the point of origin
(ote: The area underneath the curve in position versus time graphs doesnt
pertain to any meaning
(ote+ %nly at the points where velocity changes in the position graph does
acceleration or deceleration occur555

The shapes of the velocity vs! time graphs for these t#o basic types of motion 6 constant
!elocity motion and accelerated motion )i.e." changing !elocity+ 6 re!eal an important
principle. The principle is that the slope of the line on a velocity-time graph reveals
useful information about the acceleration of the ob/ect.
2f the acceleration is :ero, then the slope is :ero )i!e!, a hori:ontal line*!
2f the acceleration is positive, then the slope is positive )i!e!, an upward sloping line*!
2f the acceleration is negative, then the slope is negative )i!e!, a downward sloping
line*!
# curved slope indicates a changing slope and thus non-constant acceleration!
The !elocity !s. time graphs for the t#o types of motion 6 constant !elocity and changing
!elocity )acceleration+ 6 can be summari*ed as follo#s.
Positive "elocity
@ero #cceleration
Positive "elocity
Positive #cceleration
The slope of a !elocity6time graph re!eals information about an ob=ectBs acceleration. Cut
ho# can one tell #hether the ob=ect is mo!ing in the positi!e direction )i.e." positi!e
!elocity+ or in the negati!e direction )i.e." negati!e !elocity+D And ho# can one tell if the
ob=ect is speeding up or slo#ing do#nD
The ans#ers to these questions hinge on oneBs ability to read a graph. -ince the graph is a
!elocity6time graph" the velocity would be positive whenever the line lies in the
positive region )above the 1-a1is* of the graph. \$imilarly, the velocity would be
negative whenever the line lies in the negative region )below the 1-a1is* of the graph.
A positi!e !elocity means the ob=ect is mo!ing in the positi!e direction, and a negati!e
!elocity means the ob=ect is mo!ing in the negati!e direction!
\$o one 3nows an ob/ect is moving in the positive direction if the line is located in the
positive region of the graph )whether it is sloping up or sloping down*.
#nd one 3nows that an ob/ect is moving in the negative direction if the line is
located in the negative region of the graph )whether it is sloping up or sloping
down*!
#nd finally, if a line crosses over the 1-a1is from the positive region to the negative
region of the graph )or vice versa*, then the ob/ect has changed directions!
(o# ho# can one tell if the ob=ect is speeding up or slo#ing do#nD -peeding up means
that the magnitude )or numerical !alue+ of the !elocity is getting large. .or instance" an
ob=ect #ith a !elocity changing from E3 m1s to E F m1s is speeding up. -imilarly" an
ob=ect #ith a !elocity changing from 63 m1s to 6F m1s is also speeding up. 'n each case"
the magnitude of the !elocity )the number itself" not the sign or direction+ is increasing,
the speed is getting bigger. Gi!en this fact" one #ould belie!e that an ob=ect is speeding
up if the line on a !elocity6time graph is changing from near the 06!elocity point to a
location further a#ay from the 06!elocity point. That is" if the line is getting further a#ay
from the %6a%is )the 06!elocity point+" then the ob=ect is speeding up. And con!ersely" if
the line is approaching the %6a%is" then the ob=ect is slo#ing do#n.

(ote: The area under the curve on the velocity versus time graph can
represent distance or displacement. 'f #e label all the area
bet#een the cur!e and *ero !elocity as positi!e" the area represents
distance. 'f #e label the area belo# *ero !elocity as negati!e" the
total area represents displacement.
(ote: The linear motion equations can be used on any of the straight line
sections of the !elocity graph" because the acceleration for those
sections is a constant.
Pro)ectile Motion
Pro/ectile 6 a body pro=ected by an e%ternal force and continuing in motion by its o#n
inertia.
(ote: 2nertia is the resistance of mass" i.e. any physical ob=ect" to a change in its
state of motion
Cecause pro=ectile motion is not linear motion" #e cannot apply the linear motion
equations directly. 4o#e!er" #e can separate pro=ectile motion into perpendicular
components and analy*e it as t#o distinct linear motion problems.
\$eparate the motion into vertical and hori:ontal components. .or the !ertical
motion" acceleration is constant and due to gra!ity )/0 m1s?9+. .or ideal situations #ith
no air resistance )as on most MCAT problems+ the hori*ontal acceleration is a constant
*ero.
(ote: \$ince there is no acceleration in the hori:ontal direction there is no
change in the hori:ontal velocity throughout the flight555
>sing -@4 CA4 T@A #e find that the !ertical !elocity is al#ays vsin) * and the
hori*ontal !elocity is vcos) *.
#t its pea3 height )h*, the pro/ectile has no vertical velocity but is still accelerating
downwards at A6 m4s,-!
"
6
sin) * ( srt)-gh*
g 8 /0 m1s?9
This equation can be deri!ed from the third linear motion equation and" by doing so" #e
can see #hy positi!e g is used. Cy substituting 70 sin) + for 7 sin) + #e are able to get
the final !elocity" !" of a pro=ectile #hen dropped from a height h.
&e should also kno# that !ertical !elocity alone dictates the time of flight for a
pro=ectile. 2f two pro/ectiles leave the earth with the same vertical
velocity, they will land at the same time, regardless of their hori:ontal
velocities )this is of course if we ignore air resistance*555
(ote: 2n the absence of air resistance, mass doesnt affect pro/ectile motion55
For e1ample, a bullet shot hori:ontally from a gun and a bowling ball dropped from
the same height will both land at the same time! They will have the same y
component velocities on the way down!
The range )hori*ontal distance+ is the hori*ontal !elocity times the time in flight, thus the
range is dictated by both hori:ontal and vertical velocities.
=ange of ob/ect ( "
6
cos) * 1 )time* B )"
6
,-4g* 1 sin)-1 *
Finally, a pro/ectile e1hibits symmetryB its path upward is the mirror
image to its path downward!
(ote+ The time it ta3es to reach the pea3 height is the same time it ta3es to
come bac3 down from the pea3 height5555
(ote+ The initial speed is eual to the final speed as well555
A free6falling ob=ect achie!es its terminal velocity )cant go any faster* #hen the
do#n#ard force of gra!ity )*g+ equals the up#ard force of drag )*d+. This causes the net
force on the ob/ect to be :ero, resulting in an acceleration of :ero )dynamic
euilibrium*
Air +esistance
Air resistance is created #hen a pro=ectile collides #ith air molecules. Air resistance is a
type of friction. Air resistance takes a#ay energy and slo#s a pro=ectile. 't doesnt affect
the initial !elocity ho#e!er. .or the MCAT" you need to understand air resistance only
qualitati!ely. 'n other #ords" you dont need to memori*e or be familiar #ith any
formulae.
>arger surface area increases air resistance because it allo#s more collisions #ith air
molecules.
\$hape also affects air resistance. -treamlined ob=ects #ith smooth surfaces e%perience
less air resistance than irregularly shaped ob=ects.
Cenerally spea3ing, the higher the velocity, the greater the air resistance555
8ass doesnt change the force of air resistance, but it does change the
path of the pro/ectile e1periencing the air resistance. -ince the force of air
resistance remains constant for any mass" then" from .8ma" #e see an in!erse
relationship bet#een mass and acceleration, acceleration must decrease as mass
increases. This acceleration is not g, it is only the deceleration due to air resistance.
Thus" larger masses e1perience less deceleration due to air resistance because
they are less affected by the same force of air resistance and thus have a
greater velocity.
(ote: #ir resistance has less effect on a more massive ob/ect555
#ir resistance also increases with air density55
6 it also decreases the trip upward but increases the trip downward, the
trip upward is decreased by more than the trip downward is increased