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Velocity is a vector. Really?

Sthitadhi Roy
We have always known that velocity is a vector. So, it should satisfy all the properties that a vector should. Most naively it does as well, however there is something denitely subtle, precisely why I am writing this. In this text we will rst see, how naively speaking velocity does not satisfy a particular property of a vector and then how the issue is resolved.



If we write them down in the dierential forms we have dx = dt = dx V dt 1 (V 2 /c2 ) dt (V /c2 )dx 1 (V 2 /c2 ) (6) (7)

Long since we have been studying that a vector is something which transforms exactly like the coordinates under any general coordinate transformation and even longer since we have known that velocity is a vector, so it should also satisfy the just said property. Does it? Let us take the simplest case that comes to mind, one space and one time dimension, and a Galilean transformation. We have two frames S and S , with S moving with a constant velocity V with respect to S along the common x-axis. For a Galilean transformation, the rules are very simple, x =x+Vt t =t (1) (2)

Dividing equation(6) by equation(7) we get v = vV 1 (vV /c2 ) (8)

Now, let us dierentiate both sides of equation(2) with t and since t = t, we dierentiate the LHS of the equation with t . So we have dx dx = +V dt dt which gives us v =v+V (3)

Again comparing this equation(4) tells us that velocity transforms dierently compared to the coordinates, so obviously the velocity dened this way is not a vector. Since we have, in the dierential form dx as a vector from equation(6), if we are to have the velocity vector transforming like the coordinates we have to take the derivative of x with a scalar. In relativity, such a scalar is the interval ds given by (ds)2 = c2 (dt)2 (dx)2 , which we can simplify as ds = c(dt) 1 V2 c2

A comparison with equation(2) immediately tells us that the transormations are not alike, so isnt velocity a vector? Let us see where we have gone wrong.



Now, if we take the derivative of each of the coordinates with this ds we get what we dene as the velocity which has two components, one for the time dimension and the other for the space dimension. We call it v and we write the two components as u = 1 1 (V
2 /c2 )

The reason I am introducing relativity in this text is the idea of resolving the issue came to me through the theory of relativity. One big change, once we come into relativistic domains is that now time no loner remains a mere parameter but it becomes a coordinate on the same footing as the space coordinates. As before let us write the transformation rules for a Lorentz transformation x = t = xVt 1 (V 2 /c2 ) t (V /c2 )x 1 (V 2 /c2 ) (4) (5)

vx 1 (V 2 /c2 )


If we have three space and one time dimension it becomes u = 1 1 (V 2 /c2 ) , v 1 (V 2 /c2 ) (10)

We call this the four-velocity. With this denition, if we look at the transformation of the velocity we see that it gives us u1 = = dx ds u1 V u0 1 (V 2 /c2 ) (11) (12)

2 So this means that to dene the velocity correctly as a vector we always need to take the time dimension into account, and then we can always have the velocity vector transforming in the same way as the coordinates do. Now let us take this understanding to the non-relativistic realm and see whether the velocity vector dened this way matches the tranformation rules of a Galilean tranformation. which carefully observed, tells us that u 1 = vx (V 1) = u1 V u0 (16)

which is exactly the transformation rule given by equation(2) with x1 = x and x0 = t. So in three space and one time dimesion we should dene the proper velocity vector as u = (1, v) (17)



As before let us just take one space and one time dimension. Then according to what we did above we should have two components of the velocity. As before we need to take a scalar with which we will dierentiate the coordinates. Since in non-relativistic cases time does not change under a coordinate transformation we can take it to be the scalar. Then we will have the velocities time component u0 = and the space component u1 = dx = vx dt (14) dt =1 dt (13)

and this is the object that follows the same transformation as the coordinates under any general transformation. Similarly if we are to dene the accelaration in the proper sense we should always dene it as the vector a = (0, a)



In the text we saw that unless and until we include the time dimension as coordinate we dont really get the vector in the most complete sense. Whether the case may be relativistic or non-relativistic, the vector should be dened with the time as one component of the vector and then only we get the vector to be transforming in exactly the same way as the coordinates do.

So we will write the proper velocity vector as u = (1, vx ) and in three space dimensions and one time dimension u = (1, v). Now, if we try to write the proper velocity in the transformed coordinate system u1 = dx dx = = vx V dt dt (15)