Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion

Read this text for an introduction on graphical position, velocity, and acceleration with regards to one another. As you read, pay attention to Figure 2.46 which is an example of a linear graph is the graph of position versus time when acceleration is zero.

See an example of this type of graph in Figure 2.47. In this graph, we can determine the slope by picking two different points on the line, taking the change in y-value, and dividing it by the change in x-value between those two points. In this case, the unit for slope is m/s, which is the unit for velocity. Therefore, the slope for a graph of position versus time with zero acceleration is the average velocity of that object. See how to calculate the average velocity of an object from this type of graph in Example 2.17.

When acceleration is a non-zero constant, the graph of position versus time is no longer linear. You can see an example of this type of graph in Figure 2.48. Note that while the position versus time graph is not linear, the velocity versus time graph is linear. In the position versus time graph, the slope at any given point is the instantaneous velocity of the object. The instantaneous slope can be determined by drawing a tangent line at the desired point along the graph and determining slope. Pay attention to the tangent lines drawn in Figure 2.48 (a).

To determine instantaneous velocity at a given time when acceleration is a non-zero constant, take a look at Example 2.18. We can determine instantaneous velocities at multiple points along a position-time graph with constant non-zero acceleration and make a table relating these instantaneous velocities to the specified time along the x-axis where we found them. Then, we can use that table to plot velocity versus time. This process is demonstrated in Figure 2.48 (a) and (b). The slope of this linear graph has units  m/s^{2} , which are acceleration units. Therefore, the slope of the velocity versus time graph is acceleration.


A graph, like a picture, is worth a thousand words. Graphs not only contain numerical information; they also reveal relationships between physical quantities. This section uses graphs of position, velocity, and acceleration versus time to illustrate one-dimensional kinematics.

Slopes and General Relationships

First note that graphs in this text have perpendicular axes, one horizontal and the other vertical. When two physical quantities are plotted against one another in such a graph, the horizontal axis is usually considered to be an independent variable and the vertical axis a dependent variable. If we call the horizontal axis the x-axis and the vertical axis the y-axis, as in Figure 2.46, a straight-line graph has the general form

y=m x+b.

Here m is the slope, defined to be the rise divided by the run (as seen in the figure) of the straight line. The letter b is used for the y-intercept, which is the point at which the line crosses the vertical axis.

Graph of a straight-line sloping up at about 40 degrees.

Figure 2.46 A straight-line graph. The equation for a straight line is y=mx+b.

Graph of Position vs. Time (a = 0, so v is constant)

Time is usually an independent variable that other quantities, such as position, depend upon. A graph of position versus time would, thus, have x on the vertical axis and t on the horizontal axis. Figure 2.47 is just such a straight-line graph. It shows a graph of position versus time for a jet-powered car on a very flat dry lake bed in Nevada.

Line graph of jet car displacement in meters versus time in seconds. The line is straight with a positive slope. The y intercept is four hundred meters. The total change in time is eight point zero seconds. The initial position is four hundred meters. The final position is two thousand meters.

Figure 2.47 Graph of position versus time for a jet-powered car on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Using the relationship between dependent and independent variables, we see that the slope in the graph above is average velocity \bar{v} and the intercept is position at time zero-that is, x_{0}. Substituting these symbols into y=m x+b gives

x=\bar{v} t+x_{0}


x=x_{0}+\bar{v} t.

Thus a graph of position versus time gives a general relationship among displacement(change in position), velocity, and time, as well as giving detailed numerical information about a specific situation.

The Slope of X VS. T

The slope of the graph of position x vs. time t is velocity v.

\text { slope }=\frac{\Delta x}{\Delta t}=v

Notice that this equation is the same as that derived algebraically from other motion equations in Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension.

From the figure we can see that the car has a position of 525 m at 0.50 s and 2000 m at 6.40 s. Its position at other times can be read from the graph; furthermore, information about its velocity and acceleration can also be obtained from the graph.


Source: Rice University,
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