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Introduction to mathematics

of general relativity

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Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 1

Introduction to mathematics of general relativity


An understanding of calculus and differential equations is necessary for the understanding of nonrelativistic physics.
In order to understand special relativity one also needs an understanding of tensor calculus. To understand the
general theory of relativity, one needs a basic introduction to the mathematics of curved spacetime that includes
a treatment of curvilinear coordinates, nontensors, curved space, parallel transport, Christoffel symbols, geodesics,
covariant differentiation, the curvature tensor, Bianchi identity, and the Ricci tensor. This article follows the basic
treatment in the lecture series on the topic, intended for advanced undergraduates, given by Paul Dirac at Florida
State University. (Dirac 1996)
All the mathematics discussed in this article were known before Einstein's general theory of relativity.
For an introduction based on the specific physical example of particles orbiting a large mass in circular orbits, see
Newtonian motivations for general relativity for a nonrelativistic treatment and Theoretical motivation for general
relativity for a fully relativistic treatment.

Mathematics of special relativity

Vectors

Interval between two points


Spacetime physics requires four coordinates for the description of a point in spacetime:

where c is the speed of light and x, y, and z are spatial coordinates.


A point very close to our original point is
.
The square of the distance, or interval, between the two points is

and is invariant under coordinate transformations. Here we are using the Minkowski metric.

Coordinate transformations

Transformation of dx
If one defines a new coordinate system such that

then

where repeated indices are summed according to the Einstein summation convention.
The comma in the subscript of the last term indicates differentiation.
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 2

Transformation of the gradient of a scalar


The gradient of a scalar quantity transforms as

Contravariant vectors
Quantities that transform in the same way as under a change of coordinates,

,
form a contravariant vector. The squared length of the vector is the invariant quantity

.
The term on the left is the notation for the inner product of A with itself.

Covariant vectors
A covariant vector is defined as

.
It transforms the same way as the gradient of a scalar:
.

Inner product
The inner product of two vectors is written
.
This quantity is also invariant under coordinate transformations.

Tensors

Definition
A rank-2 (or "order" 2) contravariant tensor can be constructed from the outer product of vectors as
.

Contravariant tensor
The components of a rank 2 contravariant tensor transform in the same way as the quantities ,

Covariant and mixed tensors


Higher rank tensors are constructed similarly as are covariant and mixed tensors. For a rank 2 covariant tensor, the
transformation is
.
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 3

Oblique axes

The interval and the metric tensor


An oblique coordinate system is one in which the axis are not necessarily orthogonal to each other. For oblique axes,
the interval is

where the coefficients , called the metric tensor depend on the system of oblique axes.

Determinant of the metric tensor


The determinant of is denoted and is always negative for any real coordinate axis.

Inner product
The inner product of any two vectors

is invariant.

Relation between covariant and contravariant tensors


Covariant tensors can be converted to and from contravariant tensors by

and

where is the cofactor of the corresponding


and

Nontensors
A nontensor is a tensor-like quantity that behaves like a tensor in the raising and lowering of indices,

and
,
but that does not transform like a tensor under a coordinate transformation.

Mathematics of general relativity

Curvilinear coordinates and curved spacetime


Curvilinear coordinates are coordinates in which the angles between axes can change from point-to-point. In other
words, the metric tensor in curvilinear coordinates is no longer a constant, but depends upon the spacetime
location of the metric tensor. The metric tensor is therefore a field quantity.
Like the surface of a ball embedded in three-dimensional space, we can imagine four-dimensional spacetime as
embedded in a flat space of a higher dimension. The coordinates on the surface of the ball are curvilinear, while the
coordinates in three-dimensional space can be rectilinear. While the coordinates of four-dimensional, curved
spacetime are curvilinear; the coordinates of four-dimensional spacetime are embedded in a larger, N-dimensional
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 4

space of rectilinear (flat) coordinates.

Parallel transport

The interval in a high dimensional


space

Imagine our four-dimensional, curved


spacetime is embedded in a larger N
dimensional flat space. Any true
physical vector lies entirely in the
curved physical space. In other words,
the vector is tangent to the curved
physical spacetime. It has no
component normal to the
four-dimensional, curved spacetime.

Example: Parallel displacement along a circle of a three-dimensional ball embedded in


two dimensions. The circle of radius r is embedded in a two-dimensional space
characterized by the coordinates z^1 and z^2. The circle itself is characterized by
coordinates y^1 and y^2 in the two dimensional space. The circle itself is
one-dimensional and can be characterized by its arc length x. The coordinate y is related
to the coordinate x through the relation y^1 = r \cos( x / r) and y^2 = r \sin( x / r) . This
gives \partial y^1 / \partial x = - \sin( x / r) and \partial y^2 / \partial x = \cos( x / r) . In
this case the metric is a scalar and is given by g = \cos^2( x / r) + \sin^2(x/r) = 1 . The
interval is then ds^2 = g dx^2 = dx^2 . The interval is just equal to the arc length as
expected.

In the N dimensional flat space with coordinates the interval between neighboring points
is

where is the metric for the flat space. We do not assume the coordinates are orthogonal, only rectilinear. ---

The relation between neighboring contravariant vectors: Christoffel symbols


The difference in for two neighboring points in the surface differing by is

where

The interval between two neighboring points in physical spacetime becomes

where
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 5

A contravariant vector at a point x in physical spacetime is related to the same contravariant vector at the same point
in N-dimensional space by the relation

The vector lies in the surface of physical spacetime.


Now shift the vector to the point keeping it parallel to itself. In other words, we hold the
components of the vector constant during the shift. The vector no longer lies in the surface because of curvature of
the surface.
The shifted vector can be split into two parts, one tangent to the surface and one normal to surface, as
.
Let be the components of in the x coordinate system. This transformation is given by:
.
The normal vector is normal to every vector in the surface including the unit vectors that define the
components of . Therefore
.
This allows us to write

or

where

is a nontensor called the Christoffel symbol of the first kind. It can be shown to be related to the metric tensor
through the relation

Since the Christoffel symbol can be written entirely in terms of the metric in physical spacetime, all reference to the
N-dimensional space has disappeared.

Christoffel symbol of the second kind


The Christoffel symbol of the second kind is defined as

.
This operation is allowed for nontensors.
This allows us to write

and
.
The minus sign in the second expression can be seen from the invariance of an inner product of two vectors
.
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 6

The constancy of the length of the parallel displaced vector


From Dirac:
The constancy of the length of the vector follows from geometrical arguments. When we split up the
vector into tangential and normal parts ... the normal part is infinitesimal and is orthogonal to the
tangential part. It follows that, to the first order, the length of the whole vector equals that of its
tangential part.

The covariant derivative


The partial derivative of a vector with respect to a spacetime coordinate is composed of two parts, the normal partial
derivative minus the change in the vector due to parallel transport

It is relatively easy to prove that the metric tensor is covariantly constant, i.e. for any choice of
.
The covariant derivative of a product is

that is, the covariant derivative satisfies the product rule (due to Gottfried Leibniz).

Geodesics
Suppose we have a point that moves along a track in physical spacetime. Suppose the track is parameterized with
the quantity . The "velocity" vector that points in the direction of motion in spacetime is

The variation of the velocity upon parallel displacement along the track is then

If there are no "forces" acting on the point, then the velocity is unchanged along the track and we have

which is called the geodesic equation.

Curvature tensor

Definition
The curvature K of a surface is simply the angle through which a vector is turned as we take it around an
infinitesimal closed path. For a two dimensional Euclidean surface we have
.
For a triangle on a spherical surface the angle is the excess (over 180 degrees) of the sum of the angles of the
triangle. For a spherical surface of radius r, the curvature is

The definition of curvature generalizes to

where is an arbitrary vector transported around a closed loop of area along the and directions.
This expression can be reduced to the commutation relation
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 7

where

.
In flat spacetime, the derivatives commute and the curvature is zero.

Symmetries of the curvature tensor


The curvature tensor is antisymmetric in the last two indices

.
Also

and
.
A consequence of the symmetries is that the curvature tensor has only 20 independent components.

Bianchi identity
The following differential relation, known as the Bianchi identity is true.

Ricci tensor and scalar curvature


The Ricci tensor is defined as the contraction

.
A second contraction yields the scalar curvature

.
It can be shown that consequence of the Bianchi identity is
.

See also
• Differentiable manifold
• Christoffel symbol
• Riemannian geometry
• Differential geometry and topology
• List of differential geometry topics
• General Relativity
• Gauge gravitation theory
Introduction to mathematics of general relativity 8

References
• P. A. M. Dirac (1996). General Theory of Relativity. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01146-X.
• Misner, Charles; Thorne, Kip S. & Wheeler, John Archibald (1973). Gravitation. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
ISBN 0-7167-0344-0.
• Landau, L. D. and Lifshitz, E. M. (1975). Classical Theory of Fields (Fourth Revised English Edition). Oxford:
Pergamon. ISBN 0-08-018176-7.
• R. P. Feynman, F. B. Moringo, and W. G. Wagner (1995). Feynman Lectures on Gravitation. Addison-Wesley.
ISBN 0-201-62734-5.
• Einstein, A. (1961). Relativity: The Special and General Theory. New York: Crown. ISBN 0-517-02961-8.
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