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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: May 2018

1 - Vectors and Kinematics



Mechanics is at the heart of physics; its concepts are essential for understanding the world around us and phenomena on scales from atomic to cosmic. Concepts such as momentum, angular momentum, and energy play roles in practically every area of physics. The goal of this book is to help you acquire a deep understanding of the principles of mechanics.

The reason we start by discussing vectors and kinematics rather than plunging into dynamics is that we want to use these tools freely in discussing physical principles. Rather than interrupt the flow of discussion later, we are taking time now to ensure they are on hand when required.


The topic of vectors provides a natural introduction to the role of mathematics in physics. By using vector notation, physical laws can often be written in compact and simple form. Modern vector notation was invented by a physicist, Willard Gibbs of Yale University, primarily to simplify the appearance of equations. For example, here is how Newton's second law appears in nineteenth century notation:

Fx = max

Fy = may

Fz = maz .

In vector notation, one simply writes

F = ma,

where the bold face symbols F and a stand for vectors.

Our principal motivation for introducing vectors is to simplify the form of equations. However, as we shall see in Chapter 14, vectors have a much deeper significance. Vectors are closely related to the fundamental ideas of symmetry and their use can lead to valuable insights into the possible forms of unknown laws.

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