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Generalized coordinates

The position of a particle in space is defined by a radius vector r; its velocity and acceleration are respectively 2 v = dr and a = ddtr . The number of independent quantities that must be specified to determine the position dt of a system is called its number of degrees of freedom; a system of n particles in 3-space requires 3n coordinates. Any set of s quantities q1 , q2 , · · · , qs that completely defines the position of a system is a set of generalized coordinates for the system; the time derivatives qi of the generalized coordinates are the ˙ generalized velocities. The generalized coordinates and velocities, along with the equations of motion for the system, completely determine the mechanical state of the system.


The Euler-Lagrange equations

There is a function of the generalized coordinates and velocities of a system, and time, known as the Lagrangian, L(q, q, t), that characterizes a mechanical system. Suppose that the system occupies defined ˙ positions at times t1 and t2 ; then the action S of the system is defined as


L(q, q, t)dt. ˙


Hamilton’s principle states that the system evolves in such a way that S is minimized; formally, it takes the path such that δS = 0. There are particular equations that solve the problem of minimizing the action. δq To derive these equations, consider first the case of a system with one degree of freedom. Let the function q = q(t) minimize S; it follows that S is larger when q(t) is replaced by q(t) + δq(t), where δq(t) is a variation on q(t), and is everywhere small. All variations of the path q(t) must take the same values at the endpoints of the time interval, so δq(t1 ) = δq(t2 ) = 0. When q(t) is varied, the change in S is
t2 t2

δS =

L(q + δq, q + δ q, t)dt − ˙ ˙

L(q, q, t)dt, ˙


and δS = 0 for small variations. Expanding the first integrand in powers of δq and δ q and neglecting terms ˙ of higher than first order shows that L(q + δq, q + δ q, t) = L(q, q, t) + ∂L δq + ∂L δ q, resulting in ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ ∂q ∂q ˙
t2 t1

∂L ∂L δq + δ q dt = 0. ˙ ∂q ∂q ˙


Noting that δ q = ˙

dδq dt

and integrating by parts yields ∂L δq ∂q ˙
t2 t2

t1 t1

d ∂L ∂L − ∂q dt ∂ q ˙

δq dt = 0.


Since the endpoints are set, the integrated term is 0, so the integrated term vanishes for all values of δq; for this to be so, the integrand is identically zero. This condition is achieved by the Euler-Lagrange equation d dt ∂L ∂q ˙ − ∂L = 0. ∂q (5)

It is trivial to extend this derivation to systems of more than one degree of freedom; in general, the number of Euler-Lagrange equations necessary to describe a system is equal the number of degrees of freedom. The Euler-Lagrange equations provide equations of motion for a given Lagrangian; these equations of motion are second-order differential equations. Thus far, the concept of a Lagrangian has been employed without defining what it actually is; it remains to be done to deduce the form of the Lagrangian. 1


The form of the Lagrangian

The Lagrangian of a system of particles is generally not precisely the sum of the Lagrangians of the individual particles; this would neglect the effect of interactions between the particles. However, this is indeed the case in the limit where the particles are infinitely far from each other, and therefore do not interact. The additivity of the Lagrangian implies that a Lagrangian may be multiplied by a constant only if the Lagrangians for all systems in consideration are multiplied by constants. Also important to note is that the Lagrangian is only d unique up to an added total time derivative; for the Lagrangian L (q, q, t) = L(q, q, t) + dt f (q, t), ˙ ˙
t2 t2 t2

S =

L (q, q, t)dt = ˙

L(q, q, t)dt + ˙

df dt = S + f (q2 , t2 ) − f (q1 , t1 ), dt


differing from the initial action by a quantity that gives zero on variation. Consider first the example of a free particle in space, and choose an inertial reference frame. An inertial reference frame is one in which space is homogeneous and isotropic, and time is homogeneous. The homogeneity of space and time means that the Lagrangian cannot depend explicitly on coordinates or time, and the isotropy of space means that the direction of the velocity vector is irrelevant. From these facts it is possible to crudely approximate the Lagrangian as dependent on the square of the velocity. Discovering the form of this dependence relies on Galileo’s relativity principle, which states that the laws of motion are identical in all inertial reference frames. Suppose there is an inertial reference frame at rest, and another inertial reference frame moving with infinitesimal velocity relative to the rest frame. For a velocity v in the rest frame, the corresponding velocity in the moving frame is v = v + ; therefore, the initial Lagrangian L(v 2 ) is converted to L = L(v 2 ) = L(v 2 + 2v · + 2 ). Expanding and neglecting terms of higher than first order, ∂L (7) L(v 2 ) = L(v 2 ) + 2 2v · . ∂v The form of the Lagrangian for a free particle is thus L = Galilean transformation for a finite velocity V: L =
1 2 2 mv ;

this is shown to be invariant under a

1 d(mr · V + 2 mV 2 t) 1 1 1 1 mv 2 = m(v + V)2 = mv 2 + mv · V + mV 2 = L + . 2 2 2 2 dt


1 2 The Lagrangian for a system of interacting particles is thus L = 2 ma va − U (r1 , r2 , · · · ), where T = is the kinetic energy and U is the potential energy, or the energy derived from the interactions between particles. Applying the Euler-Lagrange equation to this Lagrangian produces 1 2 2 ma va

d ∂L ∂L dva ∂U − = 0 → ma =− , dt ∂va ∂ra dt ∂ra


where it turns out that the negative of the derivative of potential energy is the force of Newtonian mechanics; the Lagrangian and the Newtonian formulations of mechanics are equivalent.


The Hamiltonian formulation

Lagrangian mechanics provides a powerful tool for analysis of classical systems; however, it is not easy to apply Lagrangian mechanics directly to quantum mechanics, where the concept of velocity is not welldefined. Hamiltonian mechanics focuses on momentum (the product of mass and velocity, and a quantity that is well-defined in quantum mechanics) instead of velocity; while it does not typically offer improved solution methods for problems in classical mechanics, it is very revealing as to the structure of mechanical theory. The Hamiltonian formulation is actually derived directly from Lagrangian mechanics, and naturally these two systems are equivalent. It is necessary to transform the Lagrangian L(q, q, t) into the Hamiltonian ˙


H(p, q, t) without losing any information. This is accomplished by a Legendre transform, which encodes the information of a function in another function of the original function’s derivative. Let F (x) be a smooth, convex function, and define s(x) = dF (x) ; by the convexity condition, s(x) is strictly monotonic, so the s(x) dx corresponding to each x is unique, and vice versa. Then, the Legendre transform of a function F (x) is G(s) = s · x(s) − F (x(s)). (10)

Apply the Legendre transform to the Lagrangian. The total differential for an arbitrary Lagrangian is dL = since
∂L ∂ qi ˙

∂L dqi + ∂qi
∂L ∂qi

∂L dqi ; ˙ ∂ qi ˙


are the generalized momenta and therefore dL =

= pi , the differential is rewritten as ˙ pi dqi . ˙ pi qi ) − ˙ (12) qi dpi ; this allows the expression for the ˙

pi dqi + ˙

Take the term pi dqi and render it equivalently as d( ˙ differential to be rearranged as d( pi qi − L) = − ˙

pi dqi + ˙

qi dpi . ˙


The argument of this new differential is the total energy of the system, and the Hamiltonian. A final manipulation yields Hamilton’s equations, or the canonical equations qi = ˙ ∂H ∂H , pi = − ˙ . ∂pi ∂qi (14)