1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is Time a vector quantity?

  1. Jun 10, 2014 #1
    Ok I am not serious here. I was just wondering - as for us, time always moves forward; doesn't that mean time have a direction? So why not call it a vector? :-)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 10, 2014 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Mathematically, time is a vector (it can go forwards and backwards). You will hear the term "arrow of time". Yes, for US time always moves forward but math doesn't have to describe reality.
  4. Jun 10, 2014 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Mathematically even the number zero alone forms a (trivial) vector space, but in physics we mean at least a two-dimensional object when we talk about vectors.
  5. Jun 10, 2014 #4
    how to multiply then?

    Hmm, so time IS a vector. But what happens when we multiply time with a vector quantity like velocity? Will it be a cross or dot? (cross maybe? because displacement is a vector...) And what will be the angle between? I am confused.
  6. Jun 10, 2014 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    You can calculate the cross product only for two 3-dimensional vectors and the dot product is defined for two vectors of same dimensionality. Multiplying with a 1D vector (like time) is called scalar multiplication.
  7. Jun 10, 2014 #6
    If we multiply velocity with time, we get displacement. How can we multiply two vector and get a vector? (I thought it is possible only under cross multiplication, but you reminded me that cross multiplication is only for 3D.) So how do we multiply the 'vector' time with any other vector?
    Sorry if I am missing something.
  8. Jun 10, 2014 #7
    Time is not a vector, not in the basic physics sense. It is a component of the 4-vector space-time, but that is not what you asked about. The fact that time can be positive or negative does not make it a vector.
  9. Jun 10, 2014 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    Do you think there is a difference between a 1D vector and a scalar? If so, what is the difference? If not, why bother?
  10. Jun 10, 2014 #9
    I am beginner intro physics student. So I might be lacking in concept. That said; when we study 1D kinematics don't we consider 1D quantity like 1D velocity. 1D acceleration as vectors?
  11. Jun 10, 2014 #10

    D H

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Mathematically, time is a scalar. Scalars can go forwards and backwards. Since a 1D vector is equivalent to a scalar, one could also say that time is a vector. That's a bit tautological, though.

    That's not what I think the OP was asking. I suspect it was more along the lines of "can time be multidimensional?"
  12. Jun 10, 2014 #11
    Sorry, but I dont understand this. For example: the unit vector along x axis is a 1D vector. Did you mean to say that its actually a scalar? And also,
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2014
  13. Jun 10, 2014 #12
    The important fact to learn is that scalarity, vectoriality and, more general, tensoriality of a physical quantity isn't a property of quantity itself but it has to be defined with the respect of what transformation we are acting, e. g. Velocity is a vector with the respect of rotation ( that is a particular kind of transformation) or mass of particle is scalar with the respect of rotations but also with the respect of Lorentz trasformations, and so on. They are very important topics for example for quantum field theory, Standard model of particle, and other subject. To learn more you can read about this on any book of Group Theory and Their Representation especially if they are written for physicists!
  14. Jun 10, 2014 #13
    In basic, intro physics (which is where you are at, right?) think of a vector as needing two or more number to describe. A scalar only needs one number to describe. The unit vector along the x-axis is a vector. In two dimensions you describe it by <1,0> where the first number is the x component and the second number is the y component. In three dimensions its described by <1,0,0> where we have a 1 in the x component and 0 in the y and z component. But if we were not considering two or three dimensions, if we are just considering one dimensional motion then there is no y or z component to be considered at all. In that case the unit "vector" lies along the only axis there is (no need to call it the x axis since its the only axis). And in this case we can just describe it with one lone number, 1 - a scalar.

    I would guess that is done for convenience and/or as an aid into moving into 2 and 3 dimensions. Velocity in one dimension is not really a vector since it only needs one number to describe. You might as well cause it positive or negative speed (a scalar). Same with acceleration.
  15. Jun 10, 2014 #14


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I don't think it's productive to confuse the OP by giving him the mathematical definition of a vector space, or more abstract definitions of vectors in terms of coordinate transformations, etc., at this point. It seems to me that the OP is a beginner in physics who's simple concept of physical vector at this point is "a quantity with both magnitude and direction (in space as is usually implied)" whereas a scalar is something "only with magnitude (usually implied to be positive, like speed, or distance)".

    In terms of those definitions, time is a scalar, it obviously doesn't have a direction in space. The passage of time we measure by the clocks that tick, and the number of ticks between two events is the "time between two events". As there is no absolute synchronization of time, we can specify time=0 arbitrarily, and really it is only the difference in time between two events that matters (and in fact this is all we can ever measure). As such, time is very much like distance. Between any two events, there is one unique number corresponding to time between events(I am working here only in the Newtonian framework of course, in special relativity there would be an infinity of different numbers), not an arrow that points from one event to the next.

    What one should realize, though, OP, is that definitions are just that, definitions. They are useful only in so far as they help us conceptually or quantitatively. We should not allow the baggage of such definitions to hinder us. Given the definition you have learned, time is a scalar. But in this instance, it doesn't really help us all that much to pigeonhole ourselves and classify time into a "scalar". Really, we know what time physically is (that which is ticked off by clocks) and that should be enough for us.
  16. Jun 10, 2014 #15
    Isn't correct! There are quantity which have three, but also quantity that have four or more ( also infinite) number of component but still remain scalar. There are quantities which have four components and are (called) spinor under Lorentz trasformations. For example the spinor field that describes particles called DIRAC FERMIONS (the electrons for example) with quantum spin 1/2, has four components and it is a spinor not a vector under rotations, under Lorentz trasformations, and under Poincaré transformations.
  17. Jun 10, 2014 #16
    Hey, thanks a lot. :-)

    But I wonder why while writing intro physics books they never clarify this. I started this thread just for kicks but in the end I have learned something important.
  18. Jun 10, 2014 #17

    D H

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    No! You have to look at the space of which that vector is a member. Aside: "Space" here does not mean three dimensional space. It means the set of all possible vectors. There are many different vector spaces. The Euclidean plane, the three dimensional space you learn about in physics, and abstract spaces invented by mathematicians.

    If the space is the number line, then yes, your unit vector along the x axis is a 1D vector. However, there is only one axis here, so why label it? By labeling it you are presumably talking about a higher dimensioned space such as the Euclidean plane or 3D space. If the mathematical space is the Euclidean plane, then your unit vector along the x axis is a 2D vector. You need two parameters to characterize that unit vector. If it's three dimensional space of classical physics, you need three parameters to characterize that unit vector. And so on.
  19. Jun 10, 2014 #18
    Is very important to understand that the notions of scalar, vector, tensor are meaningless whiteout specifying under which tradformation
  20. Jun 10, 2014 #19
    Well, well... I think I should take a break. :-)
  21. Jun 10, 2014 #20
    That post clarifies a lot.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook