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© W. F. Long, 1992

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CONSTRUCTION OF A SOLID ANGLE

Before going on to a discussion of light sources it's necessary to make a

mathematical detour in order to discuss a geometric entity, the solid

angle.

First let's review, with the help of figure 1, the radian measure of angles

in two dimensions. To find the angle subtended in radians by a line

segment C

1

C

2

at a point P, construct a circle of radius 1, a unit circle,

around P. Next measure the length of the circular arc A

1

A

2

of the unit

circle cut off by the straight lines C

1

P and C

2

P. The length of the arc

A

1

A

2

equals the number of radians subtended by C

1

C

2

. It is important

that the arc length A

1

A

2

be measured in the same units as the radius of

the unit circle. For example, if the circle has a radius of one meter and

the arc length is 0.l meters, the angle is 0.1 radians. If an arc completely

surrounds P it subtends 2π radians, the circumference of the unit circle.

Note that the radian, being the quotient of two lengths, is a unitless

quanti ty.

Figure 1. In radian measure the subtense of the arc C

1

C

2

at point P is

the length of arc A

1

A

2

on the unit circle.

1

P

unit circle

A

1

A

2

C

2

C

1

solid angle, page 2

© W. F. Long, 1992

Now let's go to the three dimensional case. Consider a point P and a

surface of area A somewhere in space. We want a measure of the

subtense of the area at P. Taking our cue from the two dimensional case,

construct a unit sphere, a sphere of radius 1, around P. The subtense of A

is measured by the area it cuts out of the unit sphere, as illustrated in

figure 2. This is the area which would be cut out by lines drawn from P to

every point on the periphery of A. This area is the solid angle subtended

by A. The unit of measurement of the solid angle is the steradian,

abbreviated str, the three dimensional analog of the radian. For example,

if the unit sphere has a one meter radius and A cuts out an area of 6 m

2

on

the unit sphere, A subtends a solid angle of 6 steradians. The usual

symbol for solid angle is ω.

Figure 2. The solid angle subtended by area A at point P is measured

by the area ω on the surface of the unit sphere centered at

P.

1

P

ω

A unit sphere

solid angle, page 3

© W. F. Long, 1992

CALCULATION OF SOLID ANGLE

Figure 3. An infinitesimal area dA subtends an angle dω at point P.

(The scale is much exaggerated!)

Let's calculate the solid angle dω subtended by an infinitesimal area dA at

a point P. Since the area is infinitesimal, all points on A are essentially

equidistant from P. Designate the distance from P to dA by r. Because the

surface is so small, it may be considered essentially flat and a single

angle will suffice to specify the orientation of dA. Let that angle be φ,

the angle between the normal to the surface and the line connecting the

surface and point P. This situation is shown in figure 3. First let's

project dA onto the sphere of radius r centered at P. The area of that

projection is cosφdA≡dW.

The areas dW and dω have the same general shape, so if we take a typical

dimension of each area, say the distance along one edge, dW∝s

2

and dω∝σ

2

,

where s and σ are the lengths of the typical dimension on dW and dω,

respectively. Hence we have the proportionality

dW/dω=s

2

/σ

2.

Looking at similar triangles in figure 3 in the plane containing r we arrive at

P

φ

dA

dW

1

r

σ

s

dω

solid angle, page 4

© W. F. Long, 1992

the ratio,

s/σ=r/ 1

since 1 is, of course, the radius of the unit sphere. Combining these last

two equations we get

dW/dω=(r/1)

2

=r

2

,

or simply

dω=dW/r

2

.

But since dW=cosφdA, we obtain our final result,

dω=(cosφ/r

2

)dA.

(1)

To find the solid angle subtended by a surface of finite size we have to

integrate (1), obtaining

ω=∫dω=∫(cosφ/r

2

)dA.

A A

We'll perform the integral for three cases.

Figure 4. Subtense of a small area at a point.

The first case is that of a small, flat area with linear dimensions<<r. In

this case the distance from P to any part of the area is about the same so

r is effectively constant over the area. Likewise φ is effectively constant

over the area, so

ω=∫dω=∫(cosφ/r

2

)dA=(cosφ/r

2

)∫dA

or

ω=Acosφ/r

2

… for a small area.

φ

r

P

A

solid angle, page 5

© W. F. Long, 1992

Another important case is the angle subtended by an area on a sphere of

radius R at the center of the sphere (figure 5). In this case φ=0 for any

point on the surface and r equals the radius of the sphere for any point on

the surface, hence the integral reduces to

ω=∫dω=∫(cos0/R

2

)dA=(1/R

2

)∫dA

or simply

ω=A/R

2

… for an area on a sphere.

Figure 5. Subtense of an area on a sphere at its center.

R

A

P

.

solid angle, page 6

© W. F. Long, 1992

Figure 6. A disk of radius a subtending half angle α at a point P.

The final, and most complex case is that of the solid angle subtended by a

disk at a point P on its axis, as shown in figure 6.

Figure 7. To calculate the subtense of a disk at point P, break the

disk up into infinitesimally thin rings.

To apply (1), first break the circle up into a series of concentric ring

shaped areas as in figure 7. The inside radius of each of these areas is ρ

and the outside radius is (ρ+dρ) so that the area of each ring is

dA=π(ρ+dρ)

2

-πρ

2

=2πρdρ,

where higher order terms in dρ have been dropped since dρ is

infinitesimally small.

P

a

α

R

P

α

R

ρ+dρ

ρ

a

r

solid angle, page 7

© W. F. Long, 1992

Any point on the ring is a distance

r=√(R

2

+ρ

2

)

from P and makes an angle

φ=cos

-1

(R/r) .

Substituting these relationships into (1) and integrating over the radius

of the circle we get

Evaluating the integral (how?) and simplifying,

(2)

If we write (2) in terms of α, the half angle subtended by the circle at P,

it takes the simple form

ω=2π(1-cosα) … for a disk.

(3)

For a remote object α is small and so

cosα≅1-α

2

/ 2,

hence

ω≅πα

2 …

for a small disk.

(4)

Note that α must be given in radians. (Why?)

ω · dω

∫

·

cos φ

r

2

dA

∫

·

(R / r )

r

2

]

]

] 2πρdρ

∫

· 2πR

ρ

R

2

+ ρ

2 |

.

`

,

3 / 2

dρ.

0

a

∫

ω · 2π 1−

R

R

2

+ a

2

]

]

]

]

… for a disk.

The unit of measurement of the solid angle is the steradian. the three dimensional analog of the radian.Now let's go to the three dimensional case. This is the area which would be cut out by lines drawn from P to every point on the periphery of A . We want a measure of the subtense of the area at P. construct a unit sphere. 1992 . around P. Long. This area is the solid angle subtended by A . as illustrated in figure 2. For example. abbreviated str. if the unit sphere has a one meter radius and A cuts out an area of 6 m2 on the unit sphere. a sphere of radius 1. A subtends a solid angle of 6 steradians. solid angle. 1 P ω unit sphere Figure 2. The usual symbol for solid angle is ω . The subtense of A is measured by the area it cuts out of the unit sphere. F. Consider a point P and a surface of area A somewhere in space. Taking our cue from the two dimensional case. page 2 © W. A The solid angle subtended by area A at point P is measured by the area ω on the surface of the unit sphere centered at P.

dW ∝ s 2 and dω∝σ 2 . Because the surface is so small. 1992 . say the distance along one edge. Hence we have the proportionality d W /d ω = s 2 / σ 2 . respectively. (The scale is much exaggerated!) Let's calculate the solid angle dω subtended by an infinitesimal area dA at a point P. This situation is shown in figure 3. so if we take a typical dimension of each area. Let that angle be φ . Long. it may be considered essentially flat and a single angle will suffice to specify the orientation of dA . Since the area is infinitesimal.CALCULATION OF SOLID ANGLE r dω 1 σ dA φ P s dW Figure 3. all points on A are essentially equidistant from P. First let's project dA onto the sphere of radius r centered at P. the angle between the normal to the surface and the line connecting the surface and point P. Looking at similar triangles in figure 3 in the plane containing r we arrive at solid angle. page 3 © W. The area of that projection is cosφ d A ≡ d W. The areas dW and dω have the same general shape. An infinitesimal area dA subtends an angle dω at point P. F. where s and σ are the lengths of the typical dimension on dW and dω . Designate the distance from P to dA by r .

In this case the distance from P to any part of the area is about the same so r is effectively constant over the area. or simply d ω =d W / r 2 . obtaining ω = ∫ d ω = ∫ (cos φ / r 2 )d A. Combining these last two equations we get d W /d ω =( r /1) 2 = r 2 . A A We'll perform the integral for three cases. Likewise φ is effectively constant over the area. page 4 © W. (1) To find the solid angle subtended by a surface of finite size we have to integrate (1). so ω = ∫ d ω = ∫ (cos φ / r 2 )d A =(cos φ / r 2 ) ∫ d A or ω = A cos φ / r 2 … for a small area. Long. φ A r P Figure 4.the ratio. The first case is that of a small. 1992 . s /σ = r/ 1 since 1 is. we obtain our final result. Subtense of a small area at a point. d ω =(cos φ / r 2 )d A . solid angle. of course. the radius of the unit sphere. But since dW =cos φ d A . F. flat area with linear dimensions<<r .

solid angle. page 5 © W. Subtense of an area on a sphere at its center. A P .Another important case is the angle subtended by an area on a sphere of radius R at the center of the sphere (figure 5). 1992 . Long. In this case φ =0 for any point on the surface and r equals the radius of the sphere for any point on the surface. F. hence the integral reduces to ω = ∫ d ω = ∫ (cos0/ R 2 )d A =(1/ R 2 ) ∫ d A or simply ω = A / R 2 … for an area on a sphere. R Figure 5.

To calculate the subtense of a disk at point P. The inside radius of each of these areas is ρ and the outside radius is (ρ +d ρ ) so that the area of each ring is d A = π ( ρ +d ρ ) 2 . 1992 . first break the circle up into a series of concentric ring shaped areas as in figure 7. as shown in figure 6.a α R P Figure 6. solid angle. The final. A disk of radius a subtending half angle α at a point P. F. and most complex case is that of the solid angle subtended by a disk at a point P on its axis. a ρ α R ρ +d ρ P r Figure 7.πρ 2 =2 πρ d ρ . break the disk up into infinitesimally thin rings. page 6 © W. To apply (1). Long. where higher order terms in dρ have been dropped since dρ is infinitesimally small.

(3) For a remote object α is small and so cos α≅ 1.α 2 /2. the half angle subtended by the circle at P.Any point on the ring is a distance r= √ ( R 2 + ρ 2 ) from P and makes an angle φ = c o s -1 ( R / r ) . Substituting these relationships into (1) and integrating over the radius of the circle we get (R / r ) a dA = 2 πρ d ρ = 2πR 0 r2 ω= ∫ dω = ∫ cos φ r2 ∫ ∫ ρ 2 3/ 2 R + ρ2 dρ. (2) If we write (2) in terms of α . hence ω≅πα 2 … for a small disk. (4) Note that α must be given in radians. (Why?) solid angle. Evaluating the integral (how?) and simplifying. Long. R 1 − ω = 2π 2 2 R +a … for a disk. F. it takes the simple form ω =2 π (1-cos α ) … for a disk. 1992 . page 7 © W.

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