Velocity has a scientific meaning that is slightly different from that of speed. Speed is the rate of an object’s motion, while velocity designates an object’s speed plus the direction of its motion.
To calculate an object’s speed, one divides the distance it traveled by the amount of time it took.
The key difference between speed and velocity is the replacement of distance with displacement.
Displacement is the distance traveled in a particular direction, or the object’s change in position. Its unit measurement can be meters. To convert a distance into a displacement, one must give a direction. “Five meters” is a distance. “Five meters east” describes a displacement.
Like displacement, velocity is directional. Velocity is the speed in a particular direction, and it is typically measured in meters per second (m/s or ms−1).
The difference between velocity and speed can be illustrated by a person walking around in a circle at a constant speed of 0.5 meters per second. When the person arrives back at the point where he started, he has traveled the distance of the circumference of the circle. His displacement is zero, however, because his position is unchanged. The person’s average speed is 0.5 meters per second, but the average velocity is zero. If someone walked from one end of a pier to the other and back, it would be another example of zero displacement of an object. If, on the other hand, the person walked 10 meters to the south on the pier and then stopped, her displacement would be 10 meters south. If it took her 5 minutes to get there, her velocity would be 2 meters per minute south.
The velocities described in the above examples are average velocities. The velocity of an object at any moment in time is known as its instantaneous velocity. The instantaneous velocity is the speed in a stated direction at a particular moment in time.
Since displacement and velocity have both magnitude (size or strength)and direction, they are called vector quantities. These quantities cannot be specified completely by a number. Another example of a vector quantity is acceleration. Speed, which has magnitude but not direction, is not a vector quantity. Like all vectors, velocity can be represented graphically by an arrow whose length is proportional to its magnitude.
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