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  • Define position, displacement, distance, and distance traveled.
  • Explain the relationship between position and displacement.
  • Distinguish between displacement and distance traveled.
  • Calculate displacement and distance given initial position, final position, and the path between the two.
Three people cycling along a canal. The blurred buildings in the background convey a sense of motion of the cyclists.
These cyclists in Vietnam can be described by their position relative to buildings and a canal. Their motion can be described by their change in position, or displacement, in the frame of reference. (credit: Suzan Black, Fotopedia)


In order to describe the motion of an object, you must first be able to describe its position    —where it is at any particular time. More precisely, you need to specify its position relative to a convenient reference frame. Earth is often used as a reference frame, and we often describe the position of an object as it relates to stationary objects in that reference frame. For example, a rocket launch would be described in terms of the position of the rocket with respect to the Earth as a whole, while a professor’s position could be described in terms of where she is in relation to the nearby white board. (See [link] .) In other cases, we use reference frames that are not stationary but are in motion relative to the Earth. To describe the position of a person in an airplane, for example, we use the airplane, not the Earth, as the reference frame. (See [link] .)


If an object moves relative to a reference frame (for example, if a professor moves to the right relative to a white board or a passenger moves toward the rear of an airplane), then the object’s position changes. This change in position is known as displacement    . The word “displacement” implies that an object has moved, or has been displaced.


Displacement is the change in position of an object:

Δ x = x f x 0 , size 12{Δx=x rSub { size 8{f} } - x rSub { size 8{0} } } {}

where Δ x size 12{Δx} {} is displacement, x f size 12{x rSub { size 8{f} } } {} is the final position, and x 0 size 12{x rSub { size 8{0} } } {} is the initial position.

In this text the upper case Greek letter Δ size 12{Δ} {} (delta) always means “change in” whatever quantity follows it; thus, Δ x size 12{Δx} {} means change in position . Always solve for displacement by subtracting initial position x 0 size 12{x rSub { size 8{0} } } {} from final position x f size 12{x rSub { size 8{f} } } {} .

Note that the SI unit for displacement is the meter (m) (see Physical Quantities and Units ), but sometimes kilometers, miles, feet, and other units of length are used. Keep in mind that when units other than the meter are used in a problem, you may need to convert them into meters to complete the calculation.

The initial and final position of a professor as she moves to the right while writing on a whiteboard. Her initial position is 1 point 5 meters. Her final position is 3 point 5 meters. Her displacement is given by the equation delta x equals x sub f minus x sub 0 equals 2 point 0 meters.
A professor paces left and right while lecturing. Her position relative to Earth is given by x size 12{x} {} . The + 2 . 0 m size 12{+2 "." 0`m} {} displacement of the professor relative to Earth is represented by an arrow pointing to the right.

View of an airplane with an inset of the passengers sitting inside. A passenger has just moved from his seat and is now standing in the back. His initial position was 6 point 0 meters. His final position is 2 point 0 meters. His displacement is given by the equation delta x equals x sub f minus x sub 0 equals 4 point zero meters.
A passenger moves from his seat to the back of the plane. His location relative to the airplane is given by x size 12{x} {} . The 4 . 0 -m size 12{ - 4 "." 0"-m"} {} displacement of the passenger relative to the plane is represented by an arrow toward the rear of the plane. Notice that the arrow representing his displacement is twice as long as the arrow representing the displacement of the professor (he moves twice as far) in [link] .

Questions & Answers

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Two bodies P and Quarter each of mass 1000g. Moved in the same direction with speed of 10m/s and 20m/s respectively. Calculate the impulse of P and Q obeying newton's 3rd law of motion
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A disturbance that travel from one medium to another and without causing permanent change to its displacement
In physics, a wave is a disturbance that transfers energy through matter or space, with little or no associated mass transport (Mass transfer). ... There are two main types ofwaves: mechanical and electromagnetic. Mechanicalwaves propagate through a physical matter, whose substance is being deformed
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Note: LINEAR MOMENTUM Linear momentum is defined as the product of a system’s mass multiplied by its velocity: size 12{p=mv} {}
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31. Calculate the initial (from rest) acceleration of a proton in a 5.00×106 N/C electric field (such as created by a research Van de Graaff). Explicitly show how you follow the steps in the Problem-Solving Strategy for electrostatics.
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