In mathematics and physics, vector is a term that refers informally to some quantities that cannot be expressed by a single number (a scalar), or to elements of some vector spaces.

Historically, vectors were introduced in geometry and physics (typically in mechanics) for quantities that have both a magnitude and a direction, such as displacements, forces and velocity. Such quantities are represented by geometric vectors in the same way as distances, masses and time are represented by real numbers.

The term vector is also used, in some contexts, for tuples, which are finite sequences (of numbers or other objects) of a fixed length.

Both geometric vectors and tuples can be added and scaled, and these vector operations led to the concept of a vector space, which is a set equipped with a vector addition and a scalar multiplication that satisfy some axioms generalizing the main properties of operations on the above sorts of vectors. A vector space formed by geometric vectors is called a Euclidean vector space, and a vector space formed by tuples is called a coordinate vector space.

Many vector spaces are considered in mathematics, such as extension fields, polynomial rings, algebras and function spaces. The term vector is generally not used for elements of these vector spaces, and is generally reserved for geometric vectors, tuples, and elements of unspecified vector spaces (for example, when discussing general properties of vector spaces).

Vectors in Euclidean geometry

Main article: Euclidean vector

A vector pointing from A to B

In mathematics, physics, and engineering, a Euclidean vector or simply a vector (sometimes called a geometric vector[1] or spatial vector[2]) is a geometric object that has magnitude (or length) and direction. Vectors can be added to other vectors according to vector algebra. A Euclidean vector is frequently represented by a directed line segment, or graphically as an arrow connecting an initial point A with a terminal point B,[3] and denoted by

A vector is what is needed to "carry" the point A to the point B; the Latin word vector means "carrier".[4] It was first used by 18th century astronomers investigating planetary revolution around the Sun.[5] The magnitude of the vector is the distance between the two points, and the direction refers to the direction of displacement from A to B. Many algebraic operations on real numbers such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and negation have close analogues for vectors,[6] operations which obey the familiar algebraic laws of commutativity, associativity, and distributivity. These operations and associated laws qualify Euclidean vectors as an example of the more generalized concept of vectors defined simply as elements of a vector space.

Vectors play an important role in physics: the velocity and acceleration of a moving object and the forces acting on it can all be described with vectors.[7] Many other physical quantities can be usefully thought of as vectors. Although most of them do not represent distances (except, for example, position or displacement), their magnitude and direction can still be represented by the length and direction of an arrow. The mathematical representation of a physical vector depends on the coordinate system used to describe it. Other vector-like objects that describe physical quantities and transform in a similar way under changes of the coordinate system include pseudovectors and tensors.[8]

Vector spaces

Main article: Vector space

Vector addition and scalar multiplication: a vector v (blue) is added to another vector w (red, upper illustration). Below, w is stretched by a factor of 2, yielding the sum v + 2w.

In mathematics and physics, a vector space (also called a linear space) is a set whose elements, often called vectors, may be added together and multiplied ("scaled") by numbers called scalars. Scalars are often real numbers, but can be complex numbers or, more generally, elements of any field. The operations of vector addition and scalar multiplication must satisfy certain requirements, called vector axioms. Real vector space and complex vector space are kinds of vector spaces based on different kinds of scalars: real coordinate space or complex coordinate space.

Vector spaces generalize Euclidean vectors, which allow modeling of physical quantities, such as forces and velocity, that have not only a magnitude, but also a direction. The concept of vector spaces is fundamental for linear algebra, together with the concept of matrices, which allows computing in vector spaces. This provides a concise and synthetic way for manipulating and studying systems of linear equations.

Vector spaces are characterized by their dimension, which, roughly speaking, specifies the number of independent directions in the space. This means that, for two vector spaces over a given field and with the same dimension, the properties that depend only on the vector-space structure are exactly the same (technically the vector spaces are isomorphic). A vector space is finite-dimensional if its dimension is a natural number. Otherwise, it is infinite-dimensional, and its dimension is an infinite cardinal. Finite-dimensional vector spaces occur naturally in geometry and related areas. Infinite-dimensional vector spaces occur in many areas of mathematics. For example, polynomial rings are countably infinite-dimensional vector spaces, and many function spaces have the cardinality of the continuum as a dimension.

Many vector spaces that are considered in mathematics are also endowed with other structures. This is the case of algebras, which include field extensions, polynomial rings, associative algebras and Lie algebras. This is also the case of topological vector spaces, which include function spaces, inner product spaces, normed spaces, Hilbert spaces and Banach spaces.

Vectors in algebra

Every algebra over a field is a vector space, but elements of an algebra are generally not called vectors. However, in some cases, they are called vectors, mainly due to historical reasons.

Data represented by vectors

See also: Vector (data type)

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The set of tuples of n real numbers has a natural structure of vector space defined by component-wise addition and scalar multiplication. It is common to call these tuples vectors, even in contexts where vector-space operations do not apply. More generally, when some data can be represented naturally by vectors, they are often called vectors even when addition and scalar multiplication of vectors are not valid operations on these data.[disputed ] Here are some examples.

Vectors in calculus

Calculus serves as a foundational mathematical tool in the realm of vectors, offering a framework for the analysis and manipulation of vector quantities in diverse scientific disciplines, notably physics and engineering. Vector-valued functions, where the output is a vector, are scrutinized using calculus to derive essential insights into motion within three-dimensional space. Vector calculus extends traditional calculus principles to vector fields, introducing operations like gradient, divergence, and curl, which find applications in physics and engineering contexts. Line integrals, crucial for calculating work along a path within force fields, and surface integrals, employed to determine quantities like flux, illustrate the practical utility of calculus in vector analysis. Volume integrals, essential for computations involving scalar or vector fields over three-dimensional regions, contribute to understanding mass distribution, charge density, and fluid flow rates.[citation needed]

See also

Vector spaces with more structure

Vector fields

A vector field is a vector-valued function that, generally, has a domain of the same dimension (as a manifold) as its codomain,



  1. ^ Ivanov 2001
  2. ^ Heinbockel 2001
  3. ^ Itô 1993, p. 1678; Pedoe 1988
  4. ^ Latin: vectus, perfect participle of vehere, "to carry"/ veho = "I carry". For historical development of the word vector, see "vector n.". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.) and Jeff Miller. "Earliest Known Uses of Some of the Words of Mathematics". Retrieved 2007-05-25.
  5. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd. ed.). London: Clarendon Press. 2001. ISBN 9780195219425.
  6. ^ "vector | Definition & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-08-19.
  7. ^ "Vectors". Retrieved 2020-08-19.
  8. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Vector". Retrieved 2020-08-19.