


What’s a Vector?
A vector is a mathematical object possessing,
and fully described by, a magnitude and a direction.
It’s possible to talk about vectors simply in terms of numbers,
but it’s often a lot easier to represent them graphically as arrows.
The vector’s magnitude is equal to the length of the arrow, and
its direction corresponds to where the arrow is pointing. Physicists
commonly refer to the point of a vector as its tip and
the base as its tail.
There are a number of ways to label vectors. You may have
seen vectors labeled or A. This
book will follow the convention you’ll find on SAT II Physics: vectors
are written in boldface and vector magnitudes in plain script. For
example, vector A has
magnitude A.
Vectors vs. Scalars
In contrast to a vector quantity, a scalar quantity
does not have a direction; it is fully described by just a magnitude.
Examples of scalar quantities include the number of words in this
sentence and the mass of the Hubble Space Telescope. Vector quantities
you’ll likely come across quite frequently in physics include displacement, s;
velocity, v; acceleration, a; force, F;
momentum, p; electric
field, E; and magnetic
field, B.
When in doubt, ask yourself if a certain quantity comes
with a direction. If it does, it’s a vector. If it doesn’t, it’s
a scalar.
Example

“I used to drive a 10ton truck” deals with mass, which
is a scalar quantity. When we know that a truck weighs 10 tons,
we don’t need to ask, “in what direction?” “You’ll find a gas station
if you follow this road 20 miles due north” deals with the vector
quantity of displacement. When asking directions to a gas station,
you don’t simply want to know how far it is from where you are,
but also in what direction you need to go. “The 10volt battery is
the one on your left” is slightly tricky: volts are a scalar quantity—you
don’t ask in what direction the battery’s volts are going. However,
you might be deceived by the mention of “on your left.” However,
“on your left” is a reference to the battery, not to the volts.
The magnitude “10 volts” doesn’t have a direction, so that quantity
is a scalar. The answer is B.
