Degrees of freedom

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In various scientific fields, the word freedom is used to describe the limits to which physical movement or other physical processes are possible. This relates to the philosophical concept to the extent that people may be considered to have as much freedom as they are physically able to exercise. The number of independent variables or parameters for a system is described as its number of degrees of freedom. For example the movement of a vehicle along a road has two degrees of freedom; to go fast or slow, or to change direction by turning left or right. The movement of a ship sailing on the waves has four degrees of freedom since it can also pitch nose-to-tail and roll side-to-side. An aeroplane can also climb and sideslip, giving it six degrees of freedom.

Degrees of freedom in mechanics describes the number of independent motions that are allowed to a body, or, in case of a mechanism made of several bodies, the number of possible independent relative motions between the pieces of the mechanism. In the study of complex motor control, there may be so many degrees of freedom that a given action can be achieved in different ways by combining movements with different degrees of freedom. This issue is sometimes called the degrees of freedom problem.

In mathematics, this notion is formalized as the dimension of a manifold or an algebraic variety. When degrees of freedom is used instead of dimension, this usually means that the manifold or variety that models the system is only implicitly defined.

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