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## Summary of the Lagrangian method

1 Motivation
Lagrangian formulation provides a framework for solving equations of motion. Its use is motivated by:
scalar variables dont need to mess with vectors in Newtons equations
generalized coordinates pick any set of coordinates that suits the problem
constraints accounts nicely for constraints without needing to determine constraint forces
economy quickly solves even complex problems, especially for conservative systems (probably
better to use Newtonian method otherwise)
philosophical distinctions:
emphasizes intrinsic property (energy) rather than extrinsic (force)
relies on integral rather than differential formulation i.e. provides a global rather than local view
arises fromvariation principle of extremumpath in conguration space rather than force-acceleration
(cause-effect) principle of Newtons laws.
Lagrangian formulation nds analogues in quantum mechanics (Richard Feynmans path integrals);
its cousin, Hamiltonian formulation, provides quantum mechanics with a powerful energy operator.
2 Other formulations
Lagrangian formulation is an example of a non-Newtonian approach to mechanics and dates back to New-
tons times and his debate with Leibnitz. Other non-Newtonian formulations include:
dAlembertian
Hamiltonian
variational.
All can be shown to be equivalent to Newtonian formulation.
3 Euler-Lagrange equation in 1D
We assume motion is in 1D and describe it using Cartesian coordinate x. Then, Euler
1
-Lagrange
2
(or just
Lagrange) equation is given by
d
dt
_
L
x
_
=
L
x
(1)
where the Lagrangian L = L(x, x, t) is dened as the difference between the kinetic energy T and the poten-
tial energy V,
L

= T V. (2)
1
Leonhard Euler (170383), a Swiss mathematician and physicist, who spent most of his professional life in St. Petersburg and
Berlin. Innovative and prolic, he left many lasting contributions, including the modern mathematical notation, the most beautiful
mathematical formula ever (e
i
+1 = 0), Eulers number e, and a formulation of innitesimal calculus.
2
Joseph Louis Lagrange (17631813) born Giuseppe Lodovico Lagrangia in Turin, a mathematician and physicist, who worked
in Paris and in Berlin where he succeeded Euler in the chair of mathematics, and in Paris. His text on analytical mechanics became
a long-lasting classic.
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Example: Falling point mass
L =
1
2
m y
2
mgy.
We note that L/ y = m y and its time derivative is m y whereas L/y =mg. Hence
m y =mg,
as expected (Lagrangian formulation is equivalent to Newtons equation of motion).
Example: Point mass at the end of a 1D spring
L =
1
2
m x
2

1
2
kx
2
.
As before, the LHS of E-L equation becomes m x. The RHS becomes L/x =kx. Hence
m x =kx,
which is Newtons equation of motion under inuence of Hookes force.
Example: Conservative force eld
In a conservative force eld, force is given as the negative gradient of the scalar potential V. In 1D, the force
is
F =
dV
dx
,
where the scalar potential is a function of x only. The Lagrangian, this time, expressed in terms of the scalar
potential, is
L =
1
2
m x
2
V(x).
The LHS of E-L equation becomes, once again,
d
dt
L
x
=
d
dt
(m x) = m x
whereas the RHS becomes
L
x
=
d
dx
_
F dx = F.
Hence we have
m x = F,
as expected. Note that this result applies to any conservative force eld. In 3D, the Newtons equation of
motion in a conservative scalar eld V can be written as
m r =V(r),
where the gradient operator is dened as

=

x
x+

y
y+

z
z. (3)
2
4 Hamiltons variational principle
This is the starting point for deriving E-L equations. We dene the action,
S

=
_
t
2
t
1
L(x, x, t)dt. (4)
The action has units of joule-second.
The Lagrangian is the rate of change of action with time.
In quantum mechanics, action represents the phase change of the wave function.
Introduce conguration space as the space of all positions a physical system can attain. Note the
system may be made up of multiple particles, each with its own position.
The action integral is evaluated along some path (world line) between two endpoints in the cong-
uration space.
Example: Free fall
Consider a particle falling under gravity from height y
0
at time t
0
. The plots of vertical position and velocity
are shown below.
The solid line represents the true functional relationship and the dashed line denotes an arbitrary functional
variation from the true function. There are innitely many such possible paths between the two endpoints
in the conguration space. Let us dene an arbitrary alternative path as
y(, t) = y(0, t) + f (t), (5)
where y(0, t) = y
1

1
2
gt
2
is the true path, y
1
= y(0, t
1
) and is a parameter that controls the weight given
to the variation from the true path f (t). It can be readily shown that
S

=0
= 0, (6)
that is, action along the true path ( =0) is an extremum(or stationary point), whether minimum, maximum,
This leads to Hamiltons variational principle:
Of all possible paths between two endpoint in conguration space, the actual motion occurs
along a path for which action is an extremum (S = 0).
5 From Hamiltons principle to Lagrange equation
If, for a given path x(t), the action is extremal, then the Euler-Lagrange equation is satised,
d
dt
_
L
x
_
=
L
x
The Lagrangian formulation is built on the variational principle, which is independent of Newtons equa-
tions. Nevertheless, Lagrangian formulation does reduce to Newtons equations, as seen in examples shown
previously.
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6 Generalized coordinates
So far, expressed E-L equations in Cartesian coordinates.
Sometimes, other orthogonal coordinate systems are more appropriate due to the symmetry of the
problem. These may be:
spherical (r, , )
cylindrical (, , z).
More generally, we may prefer to use other coordinates that are pertinent to the problem at hand. Two
examples are shown below:
1. Pendulum.
One could describe the position of the bob with Cartesian coordinates, r = x x+y y+z z. How-
ever, this approach would be unwieldy and cumbersome. The simplest set of coordinates would
consist of just one coordinate: either the angular deection from the vertical or the path length
r. That way, we have a single scalar coordinate rather than multiple vector components.
2. Table with a hole: two masses joined by a string, one moving horizontally, the other vertically.
Suppose we have a point mass m
1
moving on the horizontal surface of a table. The mass is
connected to another mass m
2
by a string that passes through a hole in the table. Thus m
1
moves
in the horizontal plane and m
2
moves along the vertical axis. The Cartesian description would
have the coordinates for each point mass and there would need to be constraint equations dened
to reduce the number of equations. By contrast, the simplest choice of coordinates would be
(the angular position of m
1
) and h (the depth below table top of mass m
2
).
Generalized coordinates make up any set (q
1
, q
2
, . . . , q
N
) sufcient to fully describe the system con-
guration:
q
i
s are independent (none are linked by equations of constraint)
Cartesian coordinates must be expressed in terms of generalized coordinates
x = x(q
1
, q
2
, . . . , q
N
; t)
y = y(q
1
, q
2
, . . . , q
N
; t)
z = z(q
1
, q
2
, . . . , q
N
; t)
How many generalized coordinates should there be?
Rephrase: how many degrees of freedom (d.f.) does the system possess?
A single point particle, free to move anywhere, has 3 d.f., and therefore three coordinates
(q
1
, q
2
, q
3
).
A single particle conned to a plane has 2 d.f.: (q
1
, q
2
).
A single particle conned to move along a wire of (almost) arbitrary shape has 1 d.f.: (q).
A system of N free point particles has 3N d.f.
A system of N point particles with C constraints has 3NC d.f.
Examples
1. Simple pendulum (see above 1).
The constraints are z = 0 (conned to a plane) and r = l (xed length). Hence, there are 32 =
1 d.f. (either or r).
2. Table with a hole: two masses joined by a string, one moving horizontally, the other vertically
(see above 2).
There are 4 constraints (subscript 1 refers to top mass, subscript 2 to bottom mass):
z
1
= 0
r
1
= l h
x
2
= 0
y
2
= 0.
So there are 234 = 2 d.f. for example, (h, ).
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3. A particle on a spherical surface (e.g. Earth).
There is one constraint:
x
2
+y
2
+z
2
R
2
= 0.
Hence there are 31 = 2 d.f. Examples of coordinates are latitude and longitude, or polar and
azimuthal angles.
7 Euler-Lagrange equations in generalized coordinates
d
dt
_
L
q
i
_
=
L
q
i
, i = 1, . . . , N. (7)
The E-L equations apply for holonomic coordinates, that is, coordinates that are independent of one another
after holonomic constraints have been accounted for.
The holonomic constraint takes the form:
f (q
1
, q
2
, . . . , q
N
; t) = 0. (8)
It depends on q
i
only and perhaps on t and it is an equality. Thus a constraint such as
x
2
+y
2
+z
2
R
2
> 0,
which connes a particle to the exterior of a sphere of radius R, is a nonholonomic constraint.
8 Noethers theorem
The essence of the theorem proposed by Noether
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can be expressed as:
For each continuous symmetry of the Lagrangian, there is a conserved quantity.
The term continuous symmetry means that a small change in coordinates does not lead to a (rst order)
change in the Lagrangian.
The term conserved quantity means a quantity that does not vary with time.
Cyclic coordinate
An example of the application of Noethers theorem is the cyclic coordinate.
Suppose L does not depend explicitly on a generalized coordinate q
k
. Such a coordinate is referred to as the
cyclic coordinate (or ignorable coordinate). We can express it succinctly as
L
q
k
= 0. (9)
If we substitute this condition into the E-L equation (7) for q
k
, we obtain
d
dt
_
L
q
k
_
=
L
q
k
= 0. (10)
Thus L/

(q)
k
is a constant of motion (is time invariant).
3
Emmy Noether (18821935), a German mathematician, whose work on symmetries and invariants has offered a rich lode for
research in physics. On her death, Einstein described her as the most signicant creative mathematical genius thus far produced
since the higher education of women began.
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Example: projectile motion under inuence of gravity
Assume the motion is conned to the xy plane. The Lagrangian will be
L =
1
2
m
_
x
2
+ y
2
_
mgy.
As L has no explicit dependence on x,
L
x
= m x
is a constant of motion. What is conserved is the linear momentum so Noethers theorem led us to the
principle of the conservation of linear momentum.
Example: particle in a vertical plane under inuence of central force eld
Select generalized coordinates q
1
= r and q
2
= . The translation into Cartesian coordinates gives us:
x = r cos
y = r sin.
The Cartesian components of velocity can thus be expressed in generalized coordinates as follows:
x = (cos) r (r sin)

## y = (sin) r +(r cos)

.
Hence kinetic energy is:
T =
1
2
m
_
x
2
+ y
2
_
=
1
2
m
_
r
2
+r
2

2
_
and the potential energy is V =V(r). Hence the Lagrangian,
L =
1
2
m
_
r
2
+r
2

2
_
V(r),
does not have an explicit dependence on . Therefore,
L

= mr
2

is a constant of motion. This expression is the magnitude of the angular momentum (l = r p), where pr
so l =rmv =rmr =mr
2
. This therefore expresses the conservation of angular momentum in the absence
of torque.
Energy conservation
The cyclic (ignorable) coordinate is now time. It turns out that when the Lagrangian has no explicit depen-
dence on time, the energy of the system is conserved. In Lagrange formulation, the total energy of the
system is the generalized energy, expressed as the Hamiltonian:
E =
_
N

i=1
q
i
L
q
i
_
L, (11)
where, as usual, the sum is carried over the number of degrees of freedom. Differentiating with respect to
time, with multiple use of the chain rule, gives
dE
dt
=
L
t
. (12)
It then follows that:
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If the Lagrangian has no explicit time dependence, then E is conserved.
Consider projectile motion under the inuence of gravity. We choose Cartesian coordinates. Then the
Lagrangian can be written as
L =
1
2
m
_
x
2
+ y
2
_
mgy.
Substituting into the expression for the Hamiltonian (Eq. 12), we have,
E = xm x + ym y
_
1
2
m
_
x
2
+ y
2
_
mgy

=
1
2
m
_
x
2
+ y
2
_
+mgy,
which is the total energy of the system. However, in some other systems, the Hamiltonian will not be the
familiar energy.
9 Solving problems using Euler-Lagrange equations
1. Select generalized coordinates
Need to establish the number of degrees of freedom, choose coordinates and (most probably) express
the Cartesian coordinates in terms of the generalized coordinates.
2. Find kinetic energy T(q, q, t).
3. Find potential energy V(q, t).
If systemis not conservative, need to dene a generalized force that has a non-conservative component
or revert to Newtonian approach.
4. Differentiate Lagrangian and substitute into E-L equations.
Example: N free particles in a conservative 3D system
There are 3N d.f. This is trivial if we assume Cartesian coordinates. The coordinates of the rst particle may
be:
q
1
= x
1
q
2
= y
1
q
3
= z
1
.
Then q
4
= x
2
and so on. The x coordinate of the ith particle will be q
3(i1)+1
= q
3i2
= x
i
so the three
coordinates of the ith particle will be
q
3i2
= x
i
q
3i1
= y
i
q
3i
= z
i
.
The kinetic and potential energies for the ith particle are:
T =
1
2
m
_
x
2
i
+ y
2
i
+ z
2
i
_
V =V(x
i
, y
i
, z
i
).
Hence L/ x
i
= m
i
x
i
and its time derivative becomes m
i
x
i
. The RHS of E-L equation is
L
x
i
=
V
x
i
= F
xi
.
Substitution into E-L equations yields
m
i
x
i
= F
xi
,
which is the correct Newtonian formulation for this problem. The same format will apply in the y and z
directions.
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References
 D. Morin, Chap. 6, Introduction to Classical Mechanics, Cambridge University Press 2008.
 G.R. Fowles, Analytical Mechanics, Brooks/Cole 2005.
 R.D. Gregory, Classical Mechanics: An Undergraduate Text, Cambridge University Press 2006.
 V. Barger and M. Olsson, Classical Mechanics: A Modern Perspective, McGraw-Hill 1995.
 J.L. Meriam and L.G. Kraige, Engineering Mechanics, vol. 2, 3rd ed. (SI version), Wiley 1993.
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