The Physics
Opus in profectus

Speed & Velocity

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What's the difference between two identical objects traveling at different speeds? Nearly everyone knows that the one moving faster (the one with the greater speed) will go farther than the one moving slower in the same amount of time. Either that or they'll tell you that the one moving faster will get where it's going sooner than the slower one. Whatever speed is, it involves both distance and time. "Faster" means either "farther" (greater distance) or "sooner" (less time).

Doubling one's speed would mean doubling one's distance traveled in a given amount of time. Doubling one's speed would also mean halving the time required to travel a given distance. If you know a little about mathematics, these statements are meaningful and useful. (The symbol v is used for speed because of the association between speed and velocity, which will be discussed shortly.)

Combining these two rules together gives the definition of speed in symbolic form.

v =  s   (Note: this is not the final definition.)

Don't like symbols? Well then, here's another way to define speed. Speed is the rate of change of distance with time.

In order to calculate the speed of an object we must know how far it's gone and how long it took to get there. "Farther" and "sooner" correspond to "faster". Let's say you drove a car from New York to Boston. The distance by road is roughly 300 km (200 miles). If the trip takes four hours, what was your speed? Applying the formula above gives…

v =  s  ≈  300 km  = 75 km/h
t 4 hour

This is the answer the equation gives us, but how right is it? Was 75 kph the speed of the car? Yes, of course it was… Well, maybe, I guess… No, it couldn't have been the speed. Unless you live in a world where cars have some kind of exceptional cruise control and traffic flows in some ideal manner, your speed during this hypothetical journey must certainly have varied. Thus, the number calculated above is not the speed of the car, it's the average speed for the entire journey. In order to emphasize this point, the equation is sometimes modified as follows…

 = Δs

The bar over the v indicates an average or a mean and the Δ (delta) symbols indicate a change. Read it as " vee bar is delta vee over delta tee". This is the quantity we calculated for our hypothetical trip.

In contrast, a car's speedometer shows its instantaneous speed, that is, the speed determined over a very small interval of time — an instant. Ideally this interval should be as close to zero as possible, but in reality we are limited by the sensitivity of our measuring devices. Mentally, however, it is possible imagine calculating average speed over ever smaller time intervals until we have effectively calculated instantaneous speed. This idea is written symbolically as…

v =  lim Δs  =  ds
Δt → 0 Δt dt

…or, in the language of calculus speed is the first derivative of distance with respect to time.

If you haven't dealt with calculus, don't sweat this definition too much. There are other, simpler ways to find the instantaneous speed of a moving object. On a distance-time graph, speed corresponds to slope and thus the instantaneous speed of an object with non-constant speed can be found from the slope of a line tangent to its curve. We'll deal with this later in this book.


In order to calculate the speed of an object we need to know how far it's gone and how long it took to get there. A wise person would then ask…

What do you mean by how far? Do you want the distance or the displacement?

A wise person, Once upon a time

Your choice of answer to this question determines what you calculate — speed or velocity.

And for the calculus people out there…

Speed and velocity are related in much the same way that distance and displacement are related. Speed is a scalar and velocity is a vector. Speed gets the symbol v (italic) and velocity gets the symbol v (boldface).

 =  Δs
v =  lim Δs  =  ds
Δt → 0 Δt dt
 =  Δr
v =  lim Δr  =  dr
Δt → 0 Δt dt

Displacement is measured along the shortest path between two points and its magnitude is always less than or equal to the distance. The magnitude of displacement approaches distance as distance approaches zero. That is, distance and displacement are effectively the same (have the same magnitude) when the interval examined is "small". Since speed is based on distance and velocity is based on displacement, these two quantities are effectively the same (have the same magnitude) when the time interval is "small" or, in the language of calculus, the magnitude of an object's average velocity approaches its average speed as the time interval approaches zero.

Δt → 0  ⇒   → ||

The instantaneous speed of an object is the magnitude of its instantaneous velocity.

v = |v|

Speed tells you how fast. Velocity tells you how fast and in what direction.


Speed and velocity are both measured using the same units. The SI unit of distance and displacement is the meter. The SI unit of time is the second. The SI unit of speed and velocity is the ratio of two — the meter per second.

m  =  m
s s

This unit is only rarely used outside scientific and academic circles. Most people on this planet measure speeds in kilometer per hour (km/h or sometimes kph). The United States is an exception in that we use the older mile per hour (mi/h or mph). Let's determine the conversion factors so that we can relate speeds measured in m/s with the more familiar units.

1 kph =  1 km   1,000 m   1 hour  
1 hour 1 km 3,600 s  
1 kph =  0.2777… m/s ≈ ¼ m/s  
1 mph =  1 mile   1,609 m   1 hour  
1 hour 1 mile 3,600 s  
1 mph =  0.4469… m/s ≈ ½ m/s  

The decimal values are accurate to four significant digits, but the fractional values should only be considered rules of thumb (1 mph is really more like 410 m/s than ½ m/s).

The ratio of any unit of distance to any unit of time is a unit of speed.

Sometimes, the speed of an object is described relative to the speed of something else; preferably some physical phenomena.

Selected speeds (slowest to fastest)
m/s km/h device, event, phenomena, process
10−9 ~ 10−8   continental plates, hair growth, fingernail growth
10−4   human sperm cells
10−3   snails
0.013 0.045 ketchup pouring from a bottle
10−1   sloths, tortoises, turtles
0.5–1.3 1.9–4.6 cockroaches
1 3.6 nerve impulses, unmyelinated cells
1 3.6 ocean currents
1.14 4.10 manatees
1.3 4.8 human, typical walking pace
2.391 8.608 fastest human: swimming (César Cielo)
8 30 maximum comfortable elevator speed
10 40 dolphins, porpoises, whales
10 40 falling raindrops
10.453 37.631 fastest human: running (Usain Bolt)
12 43 stadium wave
14.693 52.894 fastest human: ice skating (Jeremy Wotherspoon)
12 44 champagne cork
20 70 rabbits, hares, horses, greyhounds, tuna, sharks
30 100 typical freeway speed limit
33 118 cheetahs
37.161 133.78 fastest human: cycling (Sebastiaan Bowier)
40 140 falling hailstones
33–83 120–300 hurricane, maximum sustained wind speed
30–90 105–330 tornado, maximum sustained wind speed
46.98 169.1 fastest human: baseball pitch (Aroldis Chapman)
55 200 typical terminal velocity of a skydiver
69.8325 251.397 fastest human: skiing (Simone Origone)
73.06 263 fastest human: tennis serve (Sam Groth)
80 290 peregrine falcon in a dive
83 295 very fast golf ball
100 360 nerve impulses, myelinated cells
113.2 407.5 maximum surface wind gust (Barrow Island, Australia)
120.92 435.31 fastest street-legal car (Hennessey Venom GT)
142.89 511.11 fastest ship (Spirit of Australia)
159.7 574.8 fastest train (Train à Grande Vitesse)
168.249 605.697 fastest motorcycle (Top Oil/Ack Attack)
180–1200 650–4,400 bullets
200 700 tsunami
250 900 commercial jet airplane
331 1,190 speed of sound in air, STP
340 1,225 speed of sound in air, sea level
341.4031 1,229.051 fastest experimental car (Thrust SSC)
343 1,235 speed of sound in air, room temperature
377.1 1,357.6 fastest human: sydiving (Felix Baumgartner)
980.433 3,529.56 fastest airplane (SR-71 Blackbird)
1,500 5,400 speed of sound in water
2,000 6,000 seismic waves
6,900 25,000 detonation velocity of TNT
8,000 29,000 space shuttle in orbit
11,171 40,216 fastest manned spacecraft (Apollo 10)
11,180 40,250 escape velocity
14,740 53,064 New Horizons space probe
15,497 55,789 Voyager 2 space probe
17,027 61,297 Voyager 1 space probe
29,790 107,200 earth in orbit
67,042 241,350 fastest unmanned spacecraft (Helios 2)
220,000 790,000 sun moving through the milky way
400,000 1,440,000 solar wind near earth
600,000 2,200,000 milky way through the local super group
124,000,000 446,000,000 speed of light in diamond
225,000,000 810,000,000 speed of light in water
299,792,369 1,079,252,530 protons and antiprotons in the Tevatron, Fermilab
299,792,455 1,079,252,840 protons in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)
299,792,458 1,079,252,850 speed of light in a vacuum