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Lecture 3

Kinematics: Displacement and Velocity

In this lecture we will start to study kinematics, that is the motion of objects irrespective
of the causes of such motion (forces causing accelerations and mass causing inertia,
resistance to the acceleration). When we will consider forces and mass we will then study
dynamics.

The three most important concepts in kinematics are:

Displacement, Velocity, and Acceleration.

In order to define these concepts, and to develop the study of kinematics, we need to first
define a frame of reference, that is a coordinate system. We have already seen two types
of coordinate systems: 2-dimensional Cartesian and polar. In this lecture, however, we
start with the simplest case: A 1-dimensional coordinate system. That is essentially the x-
axis with a coordinate scale:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Notice that this coordinate system is 1 dimensional because we are thinking of 1-


dimensional problems, as if our world, for the time being, were truly 1 dimensional
(meaning there is nothing –no space- outside of that line). Therefore, only motion on a
straight line is possible. But an object can move along this line at different velocities, and
can move in one direction or in the opposite one. This coordinate system allows us to
keep track of the direction toward which an object is moving, because, as an important
component of its definition, it has a well-defined positive direction, the direction of my
arrow, pointing to the right. This is crucial! When you apply equations for the motion of
bodies it is very important to keep track of the direction of motion, which can be positive
or negative, involving + and – signs in the equations, hence the chance of computational
errors.

Displacement

The displacement of an object is its change in position, Δx, from an initial position xi to a
final position xf :

Δ x = xf - xi

which is of course measured in meters (m).

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We could have defined the displacement as the difference between the initial and the final
position, but there is an advantage in the above definition: When the displacement is
towards the positive direction of the coordinate system, its sign is also positive, when it is
in the negative direction, then its sign is negative. This is a pretty reasonable convention.
You will see soon that this makes the velocity positive or negative when the motion is in
the positive or negative direction of the coordinate system as well.

Vectors and Scalar Quantities

Although it may not seem obvious now in 1 dimension, you should already start to think
of the displacement (and next the velocity) as a vector, not a scalar quantity. A vector has
both a magnitude and a direction (think of it has an arrow with length equal to the
magnitude of the vector), while a scalar quantity has only a magnitude. In 2 or 3
dimensions the difference is obvious, because a vector indicates a direction in 2 or 3
dimensions, and so it contains 2 or 3 components, each a scalar quantity. In 1 dimension
the motion is limited to one axis, and so the only freedom, in terms of directionality, is to
go to the right or to the left along the very same axis. This choice is given by a sign + or –
(for example positive displacement to the right, negative to the left), and so a vector in 1
dimension looks very much like a scalar quantity with a sign + or -. However, notice that
a scalar quantity with a + or – has a different meaning than a vector quantity with a + or a
-, even in 1 dimension.

For example, a typical scalar quantity is the temperature. You could assign a value of
temperature to every position on the x-axis (or to the 2-dimensional surface of your
desk). That is called a scalar field. If the temperature is negative, it simply means that it is
below some value of zero decided by a convention, for example below the freezing
temperature of water in the case of degrees centigrade. This negative value is still
associated to some position on the x-axis, with a positive or a negative coordinate, but
does not imply any direction of anything (it does not mean that heat is moving to the left
for example!). On the contrary, if a displacement is negative, we know it points to the
direction to the left of our x-axis.

Another scalar quantity is the coordinate itself, it just marks a position, not a direction. A
negative coordinate means that I am on the left of the origin of the coordinate system, and
does not indicate any direction. The reason why vector quantities indicate a direction, is
that they are defined as a differential quantity; their definition contains a difference
between coordinates at different positions, which is pretty obvious for the displacement
vector. Notice that the magnitude of a vector (in 1 dimension simply its value without the
sign), is a scalar quantity.

Think of a vector as an arrow (pointing to some direction), and its magnitude as the
length of the arrow (always positive, independent of the direction of the arrow).

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Vector quantities are denoted by a letter with an arrow on top, or by a boldface type, or
by both (in the textbook by both, in my notes just by a boldface type).

Velocity

We will first define the vector quantity called “average velocity” and the scalar quantity
called “average speed”. Only afterwards will we define the actual velocity, by which we
mean the “instantaneous velocity”.

The average velocity, <v>, is defined as the ratio of the displacement, Δ x, and the time
interval, Δt, during which that displacement was achieved:

<v> = Δ x / Δt = (xf – xi) / (tf – ti)

which is of course measured in meters per seconds (m/s).

Notice that the time interval, like the displacement, is also defined as final minus initial,
and not vice-versa. This guarantees that as we move forward in time, the time interval is
positive. As a result, if the displacement of an object is in the positive direction when
time is moving forward (the usual case unless you have a time machine, or a thought
experiment), then the velocity is positive, which is a sensible convention.

We can clearly view time as a second coordinate, and represent the motion of an object in
a Cartesian coordinate system where the x-axis is for the time coordinate, and the y-axis
is for the spatial coordinate. If an object is moving to the positive direction it is moving
upwards in the graph, if it is moving to the negative direction it is moving downward, and
if it is still it remains at the same height. The object is always “moving” to the right, in
the sense that time is moving forward:

x
moving forward

not moving

moving backward

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The figure above shows the graphs of three objects moving forward, backwards, and not
moving at all.

The figure below shows the graphical interpretation of the average velocity, in the case of
an object moving with a variable velocity:

x
B

Δx
A θ

Δt

The average velocity between point A and point B is clearly equal to the slope of the
straight line joining point A to point B. Notice that the magnitude of such ratio, or such
slope, is clearly given by the tangent of the angle θ.

Next we define the average speed:

The average speed, v, is defined as the total distance covered, d, divided by the total time,
t, taken to cover it:

v=d/t

Notice that this is a scalar quantity, as it gives no direction, because it is not defined
based on a displacement, or on the difference of two spatial coordinates. This quantity
may be useful to estimate the average gas consumption of your car, but not to tell you if
you were traveling north, or south, or if you first went north, and then south all the way
back home…. If you always moved in one direction, and always on a straight line (the
only option in our 1-dimensional coordinate system), the average speed would be
equivalent to the magnitude (also called modulus) of the average velocity vector.
However, if you had moved in both directions in the total time t, the two quantities would
be different. For example, if you went on for three miles and then back three miles to the
starting point, your average velocity would be zero, because the displacement would be
zero, but your average speed would be 6 miles divided by the total time taken for the trip

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forward and back. In 2 dimensions, if you went from point A to point B on a straight line,
the average speed would be equal to the magnitude of the average velocity, while if you
did it moving along a curved line you would cover a larger distance, and therefore your
average speed would be larger than the magnitude of your average velocity (because the
average velocity only knows about the displacement from point A to point B, which is a
straight segment).

Finally, we define the instantaneous velocity:

The instantaneous velocity, v, is defined as the limit of the average velocity as the time
interval becomes infinitesimally small:

v = lim Δt →0 Δ x / Δt

If you think of the graphic representation of the average velocity, you can easily see that
as the time interval (and the displacement) become infinitesimally small, the point A and
B become coincident, and the instantaneous velocity is graphically represented by the
slope of the line tangent to that single point.

Notice that the limit above is the definition of the time derivative of the displacement,
so you can see that the velocity is simply the time derivative of the displacement. So, for
example, if an object’s displacement can be described by the trajectory x(t)=t2, then its
velocity is the time derivative of that, v(t)=dx(t)/dt=2t, so it grows linearly with time. If
you have instead x(t)=3t, then v(t)=dx(t)/dt=3, a constant velocity. In other words, if the
graph of the displacement is a curve, the velocity is varying with time, if it is a straight
line, the velocity is constant in time.