How Positive and Negative Acceleration Relate to Speed and Velocity
In physics, the sign of an object’s acceleration depends on its direction. If you slow down to a complete stop in a car, for example, and your original velocity was positive and your final velocity was 0, so your acceleration is negative because a positive velocity came down to 0. However, if you slow down to a complete stop in a car and your original velocity was negative and your final velocity was 0, then your acceleration would be positive because a negative velocity increased to 0.
When you hear that acceleration is going on in an everyday setting, you typically think that means the speed is increasing. However, in physics, that isn’t always the case. An acceleration can cause speed to increase, decrease, and even stay the same!
Acceleration tells you the rate at which the velocity is changing. Because the velocity is a vector, you have to consider the changes to its magnitude and direction. The acceleration can change the magnitude and/or the direction of the velocity. Speed is only the magnitude of the velocity.
Here’s a simple example that shows how a simple constant acceleration can cause the speed to increase and decrease in the course of an object’s motion. Say you take a ball, throw it straight up in the air, and then catch it again. If you throw the ball upward with a speed of 9.8 m/s, the velocity has a magnitude of 9.8 m/s in the upward direction. Now the ball is under the influence of gravity, which, on the surface of the Earth, causes all free-falling objects to undergo a vertical acceleration of –9.8 m/s2. This acceleration is negative because its direction is vertically downward.
With this acceleration, what’s the velocity of the ball after 1.0 second? Well, you know that
Rearrange this equation and plug in the numbers, and you find that the final velocity after 1.0 second is 0 meters/second:
After 1.0 second, the ball has zero velocity because it’s reached the top of its trajectory, just at the point where it’s about to fall back down again. So the acceleration has actually slowed down the ball because it was going in the direction opposite the velocity.
Now see what happens as the ball falls back down to Earth. The ball has zero velocity, but the acceleration due to gravity accelerates the ball downward at a rate of –9.8 m/s2. As the ball falls, it gathers speed before you catch it. What’s its final velocity as you catch it, given that its initial velocity at the top of its trajectory is zero?
The time for the ball to fall back down to you is just the same as the time it took to reach the top of its trajectory, which is 1.0 second, so you can find the final velocity for this part of the ball’s motion with this calculation:
So the final velocity is 9.8 meters/second directed straight downward. The magnitude of this velocity — that is, the speed of the ball — is 9.8 meters/second. The acceleration increases the speed of the ball as it falls because the acceleration is in the same direction as the velocity for this part of the ball’s trajectory.
When you work with physics problems, bear in mind that acceleration can speed up or slow down an object, depending on the direction of the acceleration and the velocity of the object. Don’t simply assume that just because something is accelerating its speed must be increasing.