How to Calculate Displacement in a Physics Problem - dummies

How to Calculate Displacement in a Physics Problem

By Steven Holzner

Displacement is the distance between an object’s initial position and its final position and is usually measured or defined along a straight line. Since this is a calculation that measures distance, the standard unit is the meter (m).

How to find displacement

In physics, you find displacement by calculating the distance between an object’s initial position and its final position.

In physics terms, you often see displacement referred to as the variable s.

The official displacement formula is as follows:

s = sf – si

  • s = displacement
  • si = initial position
  • sf = final position

Calculating displacement example

Say, for example, that you have a fine new golf ball that’s prone to rolling around. This particular golf ball likes to roll around on top of a large measuring stick and you want to know how to calculate displacement when the ball moves. You place the golf ball at the 0 position on the measuring stick, as shown in the below figure, diagram A.

displacement with a golf ball example
Examining displacement with a golf ball.

The golf ball rolls over to a new point, 3 meters to the right, as you see in the figure, diagram B. The golf ball has moved, so displacement has taken place. In this case, the displacement is just 3 meters to the right. Its initial position was 0 meters, and its final position is at +3 meters. The displacement is 3 meters.

Scientists, being who they are, like to go into even more detail. You often see the term si, which describes initial position, (the i stands for initial). And you may see the term sf used to describe final position.

In these terms, moving from diagram A to diagram B in the figure, si is at the 0-meter mark and sf is at +3 meters. The displacement, s, equals the final position minus the initial position:


Displacements don’t have to be positive; they can be zero or negative as well. If the positive direction is to the right, then a negative displacement means that the object has moved to the left.

In diagram C, the restless golf ball has moved to a new location, which is measured as –4 meters on the measuring stick. The displacement is given by the difference between the initial and final position. If you want to know the displacement of the ball from its position in diagram B, take the initial position of the ball to be si = 3 meters; then the displacement is given by


When working on physics problems, you can choose to place the origin of your position-measuring system wherever is convenient. The measurement of the position of an object depends on where you choose to place your origin; however, displacement from an initial position si to a final position sf does not depend on the position of the origin because the displacement depends only on the difference between the positions, not the positions themselves.