SOME PHYSICAL APPLICATIONS OF VECTOR CALCULUS

1. Fundamental Theorems of Vector Calculus Let us first recall the fundamental theorems of vector calculus. They will be used many times in what follows. Theorem 1.1. Let γ be an oriented curve in R3 with initial and final points p0 and p1 , respectively. Let h(x, y, z) be a scalar function. Then (1.1)
γ

∇h · dr = h(p1 ) − h(p0 )

Theorem 1.2. Let M be a oriented surface in R3 with boundary given by the closed curve γ, with orientation induced from that of M . Let F(x, y, z) be a vector field. Then (1.2)
M

(∇ × F) · ndS =

γ

F · dr

Theorem 1.3. Let E be a bounded solid region in R3 with boundary given by the closed surface M , with the outward pointing orientation. Let F(x, y, z) be a vector field. Then (1.3)
E

(∇ · F) dV =

M

F · ndS

We also have the following two theorems which characterize conservative and solendoidal fields, respectively: Theorem 1.4. A vector field F in R3 is said to be conservative or irrotational if any of the following equivalent conditions hold: ∇×F=0
γ

at every point. is independent of the path joining the same two endpoints. for any closed path γ. for some scalar potential h.

F · dr F · dr = 0

γ

F = ∇h

In fact this theorem is true for vector fields defined in any region where all closed paths can be shrunk to a point without leaving the region.
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SOME PHYSICAL APPLICATIONS OF VECTOR CALCULUS

Theorem 1.5. A vector field F in R3 is said to be solenoidal or incompressible if any of the following equivalent conditions hold: ∇·F=0
M

at every point. is independent of the surface M having the same boundary curve. for any closed surface M . for some vector potential A.

F · ndS F · ndS = 0

M

F=∇×A

Similarly, this theorem is actually true for vector fields defined in any region where all closed surfaces can be shrunk to a point without leaving the region. The above two theorems should look very similar. Everything is shifted up by one dimension and the curl is replaced by the divergence, but the theorems are identical in form. 2. Fluid Dynamics Let v(x, y, z, t) be a time dependent vector field whose value at any point gives the velocity of a fluid at that point in space and time. Note that since fluids (liquids and gases) are not rigid like solids, different parts of the fluid can be moving at different velocities. Similarly let ρ(x, y, z, t) denote the density of the fluid, a scalar quantity. We can compute the total mass m(t) of a three dimensional bounded solid region R of the fluid by integrating the density over R: m(t) =
R

ρ(x, y, z)dxdydz

The rate of change of the mass of the fluid in the region R is given by the time derivative of this expression: d ∂ρ dm ρdxdydz = = dxdydz dt dt R R ∂t where we can differentiate under the integral sign since we are assuming that the region R in question is not changing with time. Now the mass of the fluid in the region R can change only because of fluid entering or leaving R through its boundary surface M . The rate of flow of fluid out through the surface M is given by the flux integral of ρv over M . Note that the flux of v gives the rate of volume flow, and we need to multiply by the density at each point to get a rate of mass flow. Now the mass m(t) will decrease if fluid is flowing outward, so we need a minus sign: dm =− ρv · ndS dt M Setting equal the two expressions for the rate of change of mass flow, and using the divergence theorem 1.3, we obtain: (2.1)
R

∂ρ dxdydz + ∂t

M

ρv · ndS =

R

∂ρ + ∇ · (ρv) dxdydz = 0 ∂t

Since this must hold for any region R, the integrand must be identically zero. This yields the equation of continuity: ∂ρ + ∇ · (ρv) = 0 (2.2) ∂t

SOME PHYSICAL APPLICATIONS OF VECTOR CALCULUS

3

This is the mathematical formulation of conservation of mass. If the fluid is incompressible, then the density ρ is a constant, independent of position and time, and equation 2.2 reduces to ∇ · v = 0, which is the historical reason for calling such vector fields incompressible. In this case, applying the divergence theorem to ∇ · v = 0 tells us that the flux through any closed surface M is zero. This makes sense physically because since the fluid is incompressible, it cannot be piling up inside the region, so whatever volume of fluid goes in must come out and hence the total flux must be zero. We can also use Stokes’ Theorem 1.2 to calculate the circulation of the fluid about a closed curve γ. This is just the line integral of v over γ, which we can rewrite as M (∇ × v) · ndS for any surface M which has γ as boundary. This is a measure of the fluid’s tendency to circulate around this path. If the fluid is irrotational, ∇ × v = 0, and the circulation is zero. Hence we see here the reason for calling such fields irrotational. We can also use vector calculus to determine the equation of motion for the fluid, which is governed by Newton’s second law. The time rate of change of the total momentum of the fluid must equal the total force acting on the fluid. The momentum in a solid bounded region can change due to flow of the fluid out of the region, due to the pressure exerted on the fluid inside by the rest of the fluid exterior to the region, and by various external forces such as gravity or electricity and magnetism, in the case of charged fluids. This situation occurs in the interiors of stars, for example. An analysis that is similar to that which led to equation 2.2 but somewhat more involved yields the classical equation of motion for fluids: ∂v + ρ (v · ∇) v = −∇P + ρF ∂t

(2.3)

ρ

where P is the pressure of the fluid and F is the external force density. This is the Navier-Stokes equation. This is an example of a nonlinear differential equation. Even today, we know very little about the behaviour of solutions to this equation, which is part of the reason why the weather is so difficult to predict. Phenomena like turbulence, tornadoes, and whirlpools are mathematical consequences of the nonlinearity of this equation.

3. Electricity and Magnetism We begin by stating Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. We will not concern ourselves here with the physical derivations of these equations and instead examine their mathematical consequences. Let E(x, y, z, t) and B(x, y, z, t) denote the electric and magnetic fields in space, respectively. These depend on both position and time, in general. Further, we denote by ρ(x, y, z, t) the charge density and J(x, y, z, t) the current density in space. Note the current density is a vector field, since a current is given by both a magnitude and a direction. Here are the equations:

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SOME PHYSICAL APPLICATIONS OF VECTOR CALCULUS

(3.1) (3.2) (3.3) (3.4)

ρ ǫ0 ∂B ∇×E=− ∂t ∇·B=0 ∇·E= ∇ × B = µ0 J + µo ǫ0
2

Gauss’s Law Faraday’s Law ∂E ∂t

Amp`re-Maxwell Law e
2

C Here ǫ0 = 8.85 × 10−12 N m2 is the permittivity of free space and µ0 = 4π × 10−7 N s C2 is the permeability of free space. These are just constants. In different systems of units they would have different values, and one can choose units in which they don’t appear in the equations at all. So we see in particular that the magnetic field B is always solenoidal, and can hence be written as the curl of a vector potential B = ∇ × A. Hence we know from theorem 1.5 that the magnetic flux through any closed surface is always zero. The first thing we can do is check that these equations are consistent. Remember that the divergence of any curl is always zero. We compute explicitly using Maxwell’s equations:

∇ · (∇ × E) = ∇ · − For the magnetic field we get:

∂B ∂t

=−

∂ (∇ · B) = 0 ∂t

∇ · (∇ × B) = ∇ · µ0 J + µo ǫ0 = µ0 ∇ · J + µ0 ǫ0 = µ0

∂E ∂t

∂ (∇ · E) ∂t ∂ρ ∇·J+ ∂t

Hence we see that to force consistency we require that ∇ · J + ∂ρ = 0. But this is ∂t nothing more than the statement of conservation of charge. In fact, if you follow the development that led to equation 2.2 and replace all references to mass with charge, we arrive at exactly this equation. Note that J is a charge flux density, which plays the analogous role to the mass flux density ρv of fluid dynamics. For now let us consider the case of electrostatics and magnetostatics. This means the two fields E and B are constant in time, so the two time derivatives drop out of Maxwell’s equations. In this situation, the curl of the electric field is zero, so we can write E = −∇Φ for some scalar potential function Φ(x, y, z). The minus sign is chosen for convenience, because with this choice, positive charges tend to flow from points of higher potential to points of lower potential. Note in this case theorem 1.4 tells us that the circulation of the electric field over any closed path is zero. Now we have: ρ (3.5) ∇ · E = −∇ · ∇Φ = −∇2 Φ = ǫ0
∂ ∂ ∂ The operator ∇2 = ∇ · ∇ = ∂x2 + ∂y2 + ∂z2 is called the Laplacian and is of the utmost importance in physics. It arises in many different situations, including heat
2 2 2

SOME PHYSICAL APPLICATIONS OF VECTOR CALCULUS

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diffusion, wave motion, and quantum mechanics. The equation ∇2 Φ = − ǫρ is called 0 Poisson’s equation and it is studied in courses on partial differential equations. We can use Gauss’s Law and Amp`re’s Law to calculate electric and magnetic e fields in cases where there is a high degree of symmetry. Suppose we had a uniformly charged solid sphere of some radius R. Since there is no preferred direction in this case, symmetry tells us that outside the charged sphere the electric field must be in the radial direction and depend only on the distance r from the origin. So E · n = E(r) because the electric field is parallel to the normal vector. Now we can integrate both side of Gauss’s Law over a solid sphere Br of some constant radius r > R and use the divergence theorem: ρ Q (∇ · E) dV = dV = ǫ0 ǫ0 Br Br
M

E · ndS

=
M

E(r)dS = 4πr2 E(r)

where Q is the total charge of the sphere, since ρ is constant in the charged sphere and zero outside it, and E(r) is a constant on the sphere of radius r. Thus we see Q E(r) = 4πǫ0 r2 which is the same as the electric field due to a point charge Q at the origin. Inside the charged sphere the field is slightly more complicated. We can do an analogous calculation for magnetic fields. Suppose we have an infinitely long thick wire (an infinitely long cylinder) of some radius R. Current is flowing through this cylinder with some uniform current density J. Now because the force on a moving charge due to a magnetic field is perpendicular to both the direction of motion of the charge and the direction of the field, symmetry tells us that the magnetic field due to this infinite wire must be tangential to circles perpendicular to and centred on the wire. That is, if we point the thumb of our right hand in the direction of the current, the field lines go around the wire in the direction of our fingers. By symmetry, the magnitude of the magnetic field depends only on the perpendicular distance r from the wire. Now we integrate both side of Amp`re’s Law over a solid disc Dr of some constant radius r > R and use Stokes’ e theorem:
Dr

(∇ × B) dS
γ

=
Dr

µ0 JdS = µ0 I B(r)dr = 2πrB(r)
γ

B · dr =

where I is the total current through the wire, since J is constant in the wire and zero outside it, and B(r) is a constant on the circle of radius r. Thus we see B(r) = µ0 I 2πr which is the same at the magnetic field due to an infinitely thin wire with current I. Inside the wire the field is slightly more complicated. As a final illustration of the use of vector calculus to study electromagnetic theory, let us consider the case where the fields are time varying, but we are in free space where the charge and current densities are both zero. We will need to make use of the following identity for a vector field F, which can be easily proved by writing down the definitions and checking each component: We apply this identity to both the electric and magnetic fields, and use all of Maxwell’s equations to simplify the results, remembering that both ρ and J are ∇ × (∇ × F) = ∇ (∇ · F) − ∇2 F

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SOME PHYSICAL APPLICATIONS OF VECTOR CALCULUS

assumed to be zero: ∇ × (∇ × E) = ∇ (∇ · E) − ∇2 E =∇× − and similarly: ∂E ∂ ∂2B = µ0 ǫ0 (∇ × E) = −µ0 ǫ0 2 ∂t ∂t ∂t Thus we see that each of the three components of both the electric and magnetic fields satisfy the differential equation = ∇ × µ0 ǫ0 (3.6) ∂2f = c2 ∇2 f ∂t2 1 for c = √µ0 ǫ0 . This equation represents the motion of a wave with speed c. Hence we see that in free space the electric and magnetic fields propagate as waves with speed 1 m 1 = = 2.99863 × 108 √ µ0 ǫ0 s N s2 C2 4π × 10−7 8.85 × 10−12
C2 N m2

∂B ∂t

=−

∂ (∇ × B) ∂t

= −∇2 E = −µ0 ǫ0

∂2E ∂t2

∇ × (∇ × B) = ∇ (∇ · B) − ∇2 B

= −∇2 B

which is exactly the speed of light! Maxwell did precisely this same calculation around 1880 and since the speed of light had been measured by then, he was able to deduce that light is an electromagnetic wave. There are many different kinds of electromagnetic waves: gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet rays, light, infrared rays, microwaves, radio waves. They are all propagating electric and magnetic fields, the only difference being the frequency of the wave. All travel at the same velocity. They are listed above in decreasing order from highest to lowest frequency. The energy of the wave is proportional to the frequency, which is why X-rays are far more harmful to us than radio waves, for example. Hopefully the above discussions have sufficiently aroused your curiousity, and you will take more mathematics and physics courses in the future. Vector calculus and electromagnetic theory are only the tip of a giant iceberg.

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