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Mathematics LibreTexts

12: Vectors in Space

A quantity that has magnitude and direction is called a vector. Vectors have many real-life applications, including situations involving force or velocity. For example, consider the forces acting on a boat crossing a river. The boat’s motor generates a force in one direction, and the current of the river generates a force in another direction. Both forces are vectors. We must take both the magnitude and direction of each force into account if we want to know where the boat will go.

  • 12.0: Prelude to Vectors in Space
  • 12.1: Vectors in the Plane
    When measuring a force, such as the thrust of the plane’s engines, it is important to describe not only the strength of that force, but also the direction in which it is applied. Some quantities, such as or force, are defined in terms of both size (also called magnitude) and direction. A quantity that has magnitude and direction is called a vector.
  • 12.2: Vectors in Three Dimensions
    To expand the use of vectors to more realistic applications, it is necessary to create a framework for describing three-dimensional space. This section presents a natural extension of the two-dimensional Cartesian coordinate plane into three dimensions.
  • 12.3: The Dot Product
    In this section, we develop an operation called the dot product, which allows us to calculate work in the case when the force vector and the motion vector have different directions. The dot product essentially tells us how much of the force vector is applied in the direction of the motion vector. The dot product can also help us measure the angle formed by a pair of vectors and the position of a vector relative to the coordinate axes.
  • 12.4: The Cross Product
    In this section, we develop an operation called the cross product, which allows us to find a vector orthogonal to two given vectors. Calculating torque is an important application of cross products, and we examine torque in more detail later in the section.
  • 12.5: Equations of Lines and Planes in Space
    To write an equation for a line, we must know two points on the line, or we must know the direction of the line and at least one point through which the line passes. In two dimensions, we use the concept of slope to describe the orientation, or direction, of a line. In three dimensions, we describe the direction of a line using a vector parallel to the line. In this section, we examine how to use equations to describe lines and planes in space.
  • 12.6: Quadric Surfaces
    We have been exploring vectors and vector operations in three-dimensional space, and we have developed equations to describe lines, planes, and spheres. In this section, we use our knowledge of planes and spheres, which are examples of three-dimensional figures called surfaces, to explore a variety of other surfaces that can be graphed in a three-dimensional coordinate system.
  • 12.7: Cylindrical and Spherical Coordinates
    In this section, we look at two different ways of describing the location of points in space, both of them based on extensions of polar coordinates. As the name suggests, cylindrical coordinates are useful for dealing with problems involving cylinders, such as calculating the volume of a round water tank or the amount of oil flowing through a pipe. Similarly, spherical coordinates are useful for dealing with problems involving spheres, such as finding the volume of domed structures.
  • 12.E: Vectors in Space (Exercises)
    These are homework exercises to accompany Chapter 12 of OpenStax's "Calculus" Textmap.


Gilbert Strang (MIT) and Edwin “Jed” Herman (Harvey Mudd) with many contributing authors. This content by OpenStax is licensed with a CC-BY 3/0 license. Download for free at