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What is Vector Physics?

Article Details
• Written By: John Kinsellagh
• Edited By: C. Wilborn
• Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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A vector is a visual representation of a physical quantity that has both magnitude and direction. Vector physics is the study of the various forces that act to change the direction and speed of a body in motion. The mathematical tools of vector analysis provide a useful means by which to observe the interplay of natural forces in the physical universe and to predict the impact these forces will have on matter in motion.

Vectors are symbolized by arrows of varying lengths. The relative length of each arrow represents its magnitude, which can be velocity or any other force that is capable of measurement. Each arrow has a certain direction, which is denoted on a Cartesian plane using the geographic axes of North, South, East, and West. The tail of each vector starts from the Cartesian coordinates of (0,0) and the position of the head or arrow denotes its respective direction.

The tools of vector analysis provide a means by which to predict the resultant changes in both the magnitude and direction of a body impacted by external forces. For example, a plane heading due North at a speed of 100 mph (160.93 kph) will ultimately undergo a change in both velocity and direction if it encounters a 25 mph (40.23 kph) wind from the West. The resultant direction and velocity of the plane can be computed by using vectors drawn to scale.

Vector analysis and resolution is commonly plotted on an XY axis chart so that each vector can be easily accorded a direction and assigned an appropriate magnitude. Vector analysis is conducted to determine the resultant, or net effect on a body from one or more forces that act to change its motion and direction. Resolution of vector physics problems can be calculated by using various methods.

Simple vector physics problems can be resolved by constructing a parallelogram from each of the two distinct line segments plotted on a Cartesian plane. Similar dotted lines replicated from each of the separate vectors are added and a line is drawn at the opposite end of the constructed parallelogram. The line drawn symbolizes the resultant direction and magnitude of the body upon which the other forces have acted to change its direction and velocity.

Vector physics is concerned with the relationship between forces acting upon each other whether they are large bodies in motion or particles interacting with each other at the sub-atomic level. Resolution of more complex vector problems can be solved by using algebraic or trigonometric mathematical equations that compute the addition or product of the various vectors. One of the earliest applications of vector analysis was its use to accurately describe the relationship between emanating electrical and magnetic forces, a central component to the theory of electromagnetism, first discovered by Scottish physicist James Maxwell Clerk in the 19th century.

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