My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Velocity

I’m happy to be back with long-form pieces. This week’s is another topic suggested by Mr Wu, of the Singapore Maths Tuition blog.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.


This is easy. The velocity is the first derivative of the position. First derivative with respect to time, if you must know. That hardly needed an extra week to write.

Yes, there’s more. There is always more. Velocity is important by itself. It’s also important for guiding us into new ideas. There are many. One idea is that it’s often the first good example of vectors. Many things can be vectors, as mathematicians see them. But the ones we think of most often are “some magnitude, in some direction”.

The position of things, in space, we describe with vectors. But somehow velocity, the changes of positions, seems more significant. I suspect we often find static things below our interest. I remember as a physics major that my Intro to Mechanics instructor skipped Statics altogether. There are many important things, like bridges and roofs and roller coaster supports, that we find interesting because they don’t move. But the real Intro to Mechanics is stuff in motion. Balls rolling down inclined planes. Pendulums. Blocks on springs. Also planets. (And bridges and roofs and roller coaster supports wouldn’t work if they didn’t move a bit. It’s not much though.)

So velocity shows us vectors. Anything could, in principle, be moving in any direction, with any speed. We can imagine a thing in motion inside a room that’s in motion, its net velocity being the sum of two vectors.

And they show us derivatives. A compelling answer to “what does differentiation mean?” is “it’s the rate at which something changes”. Properly, we can take the derivative of any quantity with respect to any variable. But there are some that make sense to do, and position with respect to time is one. Anyone who’s tried to catch a ball understands the interest in knowing.

We take derivatives with respect to time so often we have shorthands for it, by putting a ‘ mark after, or a dot above, the variable. So if x is the position (and it often is), then x' is the velocity. If we want to emphasize we think of vectors, \vec{x} is the position and \vec{x}' the velocity.

Velocity has another common shorthand. This is v , or if we want to emphasize its vector nature, \vec{v} . Why a name besides the good enough \vec{x}' ? It helps us avoid misplacing a ‘ mark in our work, for one. And giving velocity a separate symbol encourages us to think of the velocity as independent from the position. It’s not — not exactly — independent. But knowing that a thing is in the lawn outside tells us nothing about how it’s moving. Velocity affects position, in a process so familiar we rarely consider how there’s parts we don’t understand about it. But velocity is also somehow also free of the position at an instant.

Velocity also guides us into a first understanding of how to take derivatives. Thinking of the change in position over smaller and smaller time intervals gets us to the “instantaneous” velocity by doing only things we can imagine doing with a ruler and a stopwatch.

Velocity has a velocity. \vec{v}' , also known as \vec{a} . Or, if we’re sure we won’t lose a ‘ mark, \vec{x}'' . Once we are comfortable thinking of how position changes in time we can think of other changes. Velocity’s change in time we call acceleration. This is also a vector, more abstract than position or velocity. Multiply the acceleration by the mass of the thing accelerating and we have a vector called the “force”. That, we at least feel we understand, and can work with.

Acceleration has a velocity too, a rate of change in time. It’s called the “jerk” by people telling you the change in acceleration in time is called the “jerk”. (I don’t see the term used in the wild, but admit my experience is limited.) And so on. We could, in principle, keep taking derivatives of the position and keep finding new changes. But most physics problems we find interesting use just a couple of derivatives of the position. We can label them, if we need, \vec{x}^{(n)} , where n is some big enough number like 4.

We can bundle them in interesting ways, though. Come back to that mention of treating position and velocity of something as though they were independent coordinates. It’s a useful perspective. Imagine the rules about how particles interacting with one another and with their environment. These usually have explicit roles for position and velocity. (Granting this may reflect a selection bias. But these do cover enough interesting problems to fill a career.)

So we create a new vector. It’s made of the positition and the velocity. We’d write it out as (x, v)^T . The superscript-T there, “transposition”, lets us use the tools of matrix algebra. This vector describes a point in phase space. Phase space is the collection of all the physically possible positions and velocities for the system.

What’s the derivative, in time, of this point in phase space? Glad to say we can do this piece by piece. The derivative of a vector is the derivative of each component of a vector. So the derivative of (x, v)^T is (x', v')^T , or, (v, a)^T . This acceleration itself depends on, normally, the positions and velocities. So we can describe this as (v, f(x, v))^T for some function f(x, v) . You are surely impressed with this symbol-shuffling. You are less sure why this bother.

The bother is a trick of ordinary differential equations. All differential equations are about how a function-to-be-determined and its derivatives relate to one another. In ordinary differential equations, the function-to-be-determined depends on a single variable. Usually it’s called x or t. There may be many derivatives of f. This symbol-shuffling rewriting takes away those higher-order derivatives. We rewrite the equation as a vector equation of just one order. There’s some point in phase space, and we know what its velocity is. That we do because in this form many problems can be written as a matrix problem: \vec{x}' = A\vec{x} . Or approximate our problem as a matrix problem. This lets us bring in linear algebra tools, and that’s worthwhile.

It also lets us bring in numerical tools. Numerical mathematics has developed many methods to solve the ordinary differential equation x' = f(x) . Most of them extend to \vec{x}' = f(\vec{x}) . The result is a classic mathematician’s trick. We can recast a problem as one we have better tools to solve.

It calls on a more abstract idea of what a “velocity” might be. We can explain what the thing that’s “moving” and what it’s moving through are, given time. But the instincts we develop from watching ordinary things move help us in these new territories. This is also a classic mathematician’s trick. It may seem like all mathematicians do is develop tricks to extend what they already do. I can’t say this is wrong.

Thank you all for reading and for putting up with my gap week. This and all of my 2020 A-to-Z essays should be at this link. All the essays from every A-to-Z series should be at this link.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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