The Tau of SUVAT

The Mathematical Ninja twiddled absent-mindedly with the nunchaku he used as a stress toy.

"Do you use SUVAT?" asked the student, timidly.

The Mathematical Ninja shrugged. "Yeah, I suppose that's one way."

He giggled. "I don't know the SUVAT equations, though... I've been meaning to learn them."

"I wouldn't bother," said the Mathematical Ninja, "you can work them out on the fly."

"Is that easier?"

Another shrug. "You know about velocity-time graphs, right?"

The student nodded, enthusiastically. "The area underneath is the distance! And the gradient is the... acceleration."

"Good. So you agree with me that $ a = \frac{dv}{dt}$ at any given instant, and $s = \int_0^t v d\tau$?"

"Why $\tau$?"

"Just good manners1," said the Mathematical Ninja. "Don't worry about it. So, if $a = \frac{dv}{dt}$, that means $[v]_0^t = \int_0^t a d\tau$ - and if $a$ is a constant, that means $v - u = at$."

"Again with the $\tau$! I suppose $u$ is just $v$ evaluated at $t=0$. But that sounds sort of familiar... $v=u+at$?"

"If you like," said the Ninja. "It's all the same."

"Oo, I have an idea!" said the student. If $s = \int_0^t v d\tau$, we can substitute in for $v$!"


"So... $s = \int_0^t (u + at) d\tau$?"

"A $\tau$ in the bracket, but otherwise fine."

"Dagnabbit. Let's see... $s = \left[ u\tau + \frac12 a\tau^2\right]_0^t$, which is... $ut + \frac12 at^2$! It works! But aren't there five equations?"

"There are," said the Mathematical Ninja, "although the other two need a little thought. There's area of a trapezium, which gives you $\frac{u + v}{2}t = s$."

"... or $u+v = \frac{2s}t$... and you can use difference of two squares to get $(u+v)(v-u) = \frac{2s}{t} \times at$ - which means $v^2 - u^2 = 2as$!"

The Mathematical Ninja looked, begrudgingly, impressed.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. Technically: you don't want to have two $t$s meaning different things, so the limit needs to be a $t$ and the integration variable something else - $\tau$. []


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