Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

  • Define and distinguish between scalar and vector quantities
  • Assign a coordinate system for a scenario involving one-dimensional motion

The information presented in this section supports the following AP® learning objectives and science practices:

  • 3.A.1.2 The student is able to design an experimental investigation of the motion of an object.
A small jet airplane flying toward the left.
Figure 2.6 The motion of this jet can be described in terms of the distance it has traveled (a scalar quantity) or its displacement in a specific direction (a vector quantity). In order to specify the direction of motion, its displacement must be described based on a coordinate system. In this case, it may be convenient to choose motion toward the left as positive motion—it is the forward direction for the plane—although, in many cases, the x-x- size 12{x} {}coordinate runs from left to right, with motion to the right as positive and motion to the left as negative. (Credit: Armchair Aviator, Flickr)

What is the difference between distance and displacement? Whereas displacement is defined by both direction and magnitude, distance is defined only by magnitude. Displacement is an example of a vector quantity. Distance is an example of a scalar quantity. A vector is any quantity with both magnitude and direction. Other examples of vectors include a velocity of 90 km/h east and a force of 500 newtons straight down.

The direction of a vector in one-dimensional motion is given simply by a plus ( + ) ( + ) size 12{ \( + \) } {} or minus ()() size 12{ \( - \) } {} sign. Vectors are represented graphically by arrows. An arrow that is used to represent a vector has a length proportional to the vector's magnitude, for example, the larger the magnitude, the longer the length of the vector, and points in the same direction as the vector.

Some physical quantities, like distance, either have no direction or none is specified. A scalar is any quantity that has a magnitude but no direction. For example, a 20 ºC20 ºC temperature, the 250 kilocalories (250 Calories) of energy in a candy bar, a 90 km/h speed limit, a person's 1.8 m height, and a distance of 2.0 m are all scalars—quantities with no specified direction. Note, however, that a scalar can be negative, such as a 20 ºC20 ºC temperature. In this case, the minus sign indicates a point on a scale rather than a direction. Scalars are never represented by arrows.

Coordinate Systems for One-Dimensional Motion

Coordinate Systems for One-Dimensional Motion

In order to describe the direction of a vector quantity, you must designate a coordinate system within the reference frame. For one-dimensional motion, this is a simple coordinate system consisting of a one-dimensional coordinate line. In general, when describing horizontal motion, motion to the right is usually considered positive, and motion to the left is considered negative. With vertical motion, motion up is usually positive and motion down is negative. In some cases, however, as with the jet in Figure 2.6, it can be more convenient to switch the positive and negative directions. For example, if you are analyzing the motion of falling objects, it can be useful to define downwards as the positive direction. If people in a race are running to the left, it is useful to define left as the positive direction. It does not matter as long as the system is clear and consistent. Once you assign a positive direction and start solving a problem, you cannot change it.

An x y coordinate system. An arrow pointing toward the right shows the positive x direction. Negative x is toward the left. An arrow pointing up shows the positive y direction. Negative y points downward.
Figure 2.7 It is usually convenient to consider motion upward or to the right as positive ( + ) ( + ) size 12{ \( + \) } {} and motion downward or to the left as negative ().().

Check Your Understanding

A person's speed can stay the same as he or she rounds a corner and changes direction. Given this information, is speed a scalar or a vector quantity? Explain.


Speed is a scalar quantity. It does not change at all with directional changes; therefore, it has magnitude only. If it were a vector quantity, it would change as direction changes—even if its magnitude remained constant.

Switching Reference Frames

A fundamental tenet of physics is that information about an event can be gathered from a variety of reference frames. For example, imagine that you are a passenger walking toward the front of a bus. As you walk, your motion is observed by a fellow bus passenger and by an observer standing on the sidewalk.

Both the bus passenger and sidewalk observer will be able to collect information about you. They can determine how far you moved and how much time it took you to do so. However, while you moved at a consistent pace, both observers will get different results. To the passenger sitting on the bus, you moved forward at what one would consider a normal pace, something similar to how quickly you would walk outside on a sunny day. To the sidewalk observer, though, you will have moved much quicker. Because the bus is also moving forward, the distance you move forward against the sidewalk each second increases, and the sidewalk observer must conclude that you are moving at a greater pace.

To show that you understand this concept, you will need to create an event and think of a way to view this event from two different frames of reference. In order to ensure that the event is being observed simultaneously from both frames, you will need an assistant to help out. An example of a possible event is to have a friend ride on a skateboard while tossing a ball. How will your friend observe the ball toss, and how will those observations be different from your own?

Your task is to describe your event and the observations of your event from both frames of reference. Answer the following questions below to demonstrate your understanding. For assistance, you can review the information given in the Position paragraph at the start of Section 2.1.

  1. What is your event? What object are both you and your assistant observing?
  2. What do you see as the event takes place?
  3. What does your assistant see as the event takes place?
  4. How do your reference frames cause you and your assistant to have two different sets of observations?