Vectors are essential to physics and engineering. Many fundamental physical quantities are vectors, including displacement, velocity, force, and electric and magnetic vector fields. Scalar products of vectors define other fundamental scalar physical quantities, such as energy. Vector products of vectors define still other fundamental vector physical quantities, such as torque and angular momentum. In other words, vectors are a component part of physics in much the same way as sentences are a component part of literature. In introductory physics, vectors are Euclidean quantities that have geometric representations as arrows in one dimension (in a line), in two dimensions (in a plane), or in three dimensions (in space). They can be added, subtracted, or multiplied. In this chapter, we explore elements of vector algebra for applications in mechanics and in electricity and magnetism. Vector operations also have numerous generalizations in other branches of physics.
Thumbnail: Figure 2.1 - A signpost gives information about distances and directions to towns or to other locations relative to the location of the signpost. Distance is a scalar quantity. Knowing the distance alone is not enough to get to the town; we must also know the direction from the signpost to the town. The direction, together with the distance, is a vector quantity commonly called the displacement vector. A signpost, therefore, gives information about displacement vectors from the signpost to towns. (credit: modification of work by “studio tdes”/Flickr).
Samuel J. Ling (Truman State University), Jeff Sanny (Loyola Marymount University), and Bill Moebs with many contributing authors. This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).