College PhysicsScience and Technology
Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
Problem-solving skills are obviously essential to success in a quantitative course in physics. More importantly, the ability to apply broad physical principles, usually represented by equations, to specific situations is a very powerful form of knowledge. It is much more powerful than memorizing a list of facts. Analytical skills and problem-solving abilities can be applied to new situations, whereas a list of facts cannot be made long enough to contain every possible circumstance. Such analytical skills are useful both for solving problems in this text and for applying physics in everyday and professional life.
While there is no simple step-by-step method that works for every problem, the following general procedures facilitate problem solving and make it more meaningful. A certain amount of creativity and insight is required as well.
Examine the situation to determine which physical principles are involved. It often helps to draw a simple sketch at the outset. You will also need to decide which direction is positive and note that on your sketch. Once you have identified the physical principles, it is much easier to find and apply the equations representing those principles. Although finding the correct equation is essential, keep in mind that equations represent physical principles, laws of nature, and relationships among physical quantities. Without a conceptual understanding of a problem, a numerical solution is meaningless.
Make a list of what is given or can be inferred from the problem as stated (identify the knowns). Many problems are stated very succinctly and require some inspection to determine what is known. A sketch can also be very useful at this point. Formally identifying the knowns is of particular importance in applying physics to real-world situations. Remember, “stopped” means velocity is zero, and we often can take initial time and position as zero.
Identify exactly what needs to be determined in the problem (identify the unknowns). In complex problems, especially, it is not always obvious what needs to be found or in what sequence. Making a list can help.
Find an equation or set of equations that can help you solve the problem. Your list of knowns and unknowns can help here. It is easiest if you can find equations that contain only one unknown—that is, all of the other variables are known, so you can easily solve for the unknown. If the equation contains more than one unknown, then an additional equation is needed to solve the problem. In some problems, several unknowns must be determined to get at the one needed most. In such problems it is especially important to keep physical principles in mind to avoid going astray in a sea of equations. You may have to use two (or more) different equations to get the final answer.
Substitute the knowns along with their units into the appropriate equation, and obtain numerical solutions complete with units. This step produces the numerical answer; it also provides a check on units that can help you find errors. If the units of the answer are incorrect, then an error has been made. However, be warned that correct units do not guarantee that the numerical part of the answer is also correct.
Check the answer to see if it is reasonable: Does it make sense? This final step is extremely important—the goal of physics is to accurately describe nature. To see if the answer is reasonable, check both its magnitude and its sign, in addition to its units. Your judgment will improve as you solve more and more physics problems, and it will become possible for you to make finer and finer judgments regarding whether nature is adequately described by the answer to a problem. This step brings the problem back to its conceptual meaning. If you can judge whether the answer is reasonable, you have a deeper understanding of physics than just being able to mechanically solve a problem.
When solving problems, we often perform these steps in different order, and we also tend to do several steps simultaneously. There is no rigid procedure that will work every time. Creativity and insight grow with experience, and the basics of problem solving become almost automatic. One way to get practice is to work out the text’s examples for yourself as you read. Another is to work as many end-of-section problems as possible, starting with the easiest to build confidence and progressing to the more difficult. Once you become involved in physics, you will see it all around you, and you can begin to apply it to situations you encounter outside the classroom, just as is done in many of the applications in this text.
Physics must describe nature accurately. Some problems have results that are unreasonable because one premise is unreasonable or because certain premises are inconsistent with one another. The physical principle applied correctly then produces an unreasonable result. For example, if a person starting a foot race accelerates at for 100 s, his final speed will be 40 m/s (about 150 km/h)—clearly unreasonable because the time of 100 s is an unreasonable premise. The physics is correct in a sense, but there is more to describing nature than just manipulating equations correctly. Checking the result of a problem to see if it is reasonable does more than help uncover errors in problem solving—it also builds intuition in judging whether nature is being accurately described.
Use the following strategies to determine whether an answer is reasonable and, if it is not, to determine what is the cause.
Solve the problem using strategies as outlined and in the format followed in the worked examples in the text. In the example given in the preceding paragraph, you would identify the givens as the acceleration and time and use the equation below to find the unknown final velocity. That is,
Check to see if the answer is reasonable. Is it too large or too small, or does it have the wrong sign, improper units, …? In this case, you may need to convert meters per second into a more familiar unit, such as miles per hour.
This velocity is about four times greater than a person can run—so it is too large.
If the answer is unreasonable, look for what specifically could cause the identified difficulty. In the example of the runner, there are only two assumptions that are suspect. The acceleration could be too great or the time too long. First look at the acceleration and think about what the number means. If someone accelerates at , their velocity is increasing by 0.4 m/s each second. Does this seem reasonable? If so, the time must be too long. It is not possible for someone to accelerate at a constant rate of for 100 s (almost two minutes).
- The six basic problem solving steps for physics are:
Step 1. Examine the situation to determine which physical principles are involved.
Step 2. Make a list of what is given or can be inferred from the problem as stated (identify the knowns).
Step 3. Identify exactly what needs to be determined in the problem (identify the unknowns).
Step 4. Find an equation or set of equations that can help you solve the problem.
Step 5. Substitute the knowns along with their units into the appropriate equation, and obtain numerical solutions complete with units.
Step 6. Check the answer to see if it is reasonable: Does it make sense?
What information do you need in order to choose which equation or equations to use to solve a problem? Explain.
What is the last thing you should do when solving a problem? Explain.
- College Physics
- Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
- Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
- Time, Velocity, and Speed
- Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
- Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Falling Objects
- Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion
- Two-Dimensional Kinematics
- Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
- Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Development of Force Concept
- Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
- Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
- Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
- Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
- Problem-Solving Strategies
- Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction
- Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
- Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
- Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
- Linear Momentum and Collisions
- Statics and Torque
- Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Angular Acceleration
- Kinematics of Rotational Motion
- Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
- Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
- Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
- Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
- Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum
- Fluid Statics
- Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
- Bernoulli’s Equation
- The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
- Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
- The Onset of Turbulence
- Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
- Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes
- Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
- Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
- Introduction to Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
- Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
- Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
- Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
- Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
- Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation
- Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
- Period and Frequency in Oscillations
- Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
- The Simple Pendulum
- Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
- Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
- Damped Harmonic Motion
- Forced Oscillations and Resonance
- Superposition and Interference
- Energy in Waves: Intensity
- Physics of Hearing
- Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
- Conductors and Insulators
- Coulomb’s Law
- Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
- Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
- Electric Forces in Biology
- Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
- Applications of Electrostatics
- Electric Potential and Electric Field
- Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
- Circuits, Bioelectricity, and DC Instruments
- Introduction to Magnetism
- Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
- Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
- Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
- Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
- The Hall Effect
- Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
- Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
- Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
- Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
- More Applications of Magnetism
- Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
- Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
- Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
- Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
- Motional Emf
- Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
- Electric Generators
- Back Emf
- Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
- RL Circuits
- Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
- RLC Series AC Circuits
- Electromagnetic Waves
- Geometric Optics
- Vision and Optical Instruments
- Wave Optics
- Introduction to Wave Optics
- The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
- Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
- Young’s Double Slit Experiment
- Multiple Slit Diffraction
- Single Slit Diffraction
- Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
- Thin Film Interference
- *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light
- Special Relativity
- Introduction to Quantum Physics
- Atomic Physics
- Introduction to Atomic Physics
- Discovery of the Atom
- Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
- Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
- X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
- Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
- The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
- Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
- Quantum Numbers and Rules
- The Pauli Exclusion Principle
- Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
- Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
- Particle Physics
- Frontiers of Physics
- Atomic Masses
- Selected Radioactive Isotopes
- Useful Information
- Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation