Category Archives: Physics

Basics of Tensor Calculus and General Relativity-Vectors and Introduction to Tensors (Part I: Vectors)

SOURCE FOR CONTENT: Neuenschwander D.E.,2015. Tensor Calculus for Physics. Johns Hopkins University Press. 

At some level, we all are aware of scalars and vectors, but typically we don’t think of aspects of everyday experience as being a scalar or a vector. A scalar is something that has only magnitude, that is it only has a numeric value. A typical example of a scalar would be temperature. A vector, on the other hand, is something that has both a magnitude and direction. This could be something as simple as displacement. If we wish to move a certain distance with respect to our current location we must specify how far to go and in which direction to move. Other examples, (and there are a lot of them), including velocity, force, momentum, etc. Now, tensors are something else entirely. In Neuenschwander’s “Tensor Calculus for Physics”, he recites the rather unsatisfying definition of a tensor as being

” ‘A set of quantities T_{s}^{r} associated with a point P are said to be components of a second-order tensor if, under a change of coordinates, from a set of coordinates x^{s} to x^{\prime s}, they transform according to

\displaystyle T^{\prime r}_{s}=\frac{\partial x^{\prime r}}{\partial x^{i}}\frac{\partial x^{j}}{\partial x^{\prime s}}T_{j}^{i}. (1)

where the derivatives are evaluated at the aforementioned point.’ “

Neuenschwander describes his frustration when encountered this so-called definition of a tensor. Like him, I found I had similar frustrations, and as a result, I had even more questions.

We shall start with a discussion of vectors, for an understanding of these quantities are an integral part of tensor analysis.

We define a vector as a quantity that has 3 distinct components and an angle that indicates orientation or direction. There are two types of vectors; those with coordinates and those without. I will be discussing the latter first, but I will consider Neuenschwander’s description in the context of the definition of a vector space. Then I shall move on to the former. Consider a number of arbitrary vectors \displaystyle \textbf{U}, \textbf{V}, \textbf{W},etc. If we consider further more and more vectors, we can therefore imagine a space constituted by these vectors; a vector space. To make it formal, here is the definition:

Def. Vector Space:

A vector space \mathcal{S} is the nonempty set of elements (vectors) that satisfy the following axioms

\displaystyle 1.\textbf{U}+\textbf{V}=\textbf{V}+\textbf{U};  \forall \textbf{U},\textbf{V}\in \mathcal{S},

\displaystyle 2. (\textbf{U}+\textbf{V})+\textbf{W}= \textbf{U}+(\textbf{V}+\textbf{W}); \forall \textbf{U},\textbf{V},\textbf{W}\in \mathcal{S},

\displaystyle 3. \exists  0 \in \mathcal{S}|\textbf{U}+0=\textbf{U},

\displaystyle 4. \forall \textbf{U}\in \mathcal{S}, \exists -\textbf{U}\in \mathcal{S}|\textbf{U}+(-\textbf{U})=0,

\displaystyle 5. \alpha(\textbf{U}+\textbf{V})=\alpha\textbf{U}+\alpha\textbf{V}, \forall \alpha \in \mathbb{R},  \forall \textbf{U},\textbf{V}\in \mathcal{S}.

\displaystyle 6. (\alpha+\beta) \textbf{U}= \alpha\textbf{U}+\beta\textbf{U}, \forall \alpha,\beta \in \mathbb{R},

\displaystyle 7. (\alpha\beta)\textbf{U}= \alpha(\beta\textbf{U}), \forall \alpha,\beta \in \mathbb{R},

\displaystyle 8. 1\textbf{U}=\textbf{U}, \forall \textbf{U}\in \mathcal{S},

and satisfies the following closure properties:

 1. If \textbf{U}\in \mathcal{S}, and \alpha is a scalar, then \alpha\textbf{U}\in \mathcal{S}.

2. If \textbf{U},\textbf{V}\in \mathcal{S}, then \textbf{U}+\textbf{V}\in \mathcal{S}.

The first closure property ensures closure under scalar multiplication while the second ensures closure under addition.

In rectangular coordinates, our arbitrary vector may be represented by basis vectors \hat{i}, \hat{j},\hat{k} in the following manner

\displaystyle \textbf{U}=u\hat{i}+v\hat{j}+w\hat{k}, (1)

where the basis vectors have the properties

\displaystyle \hat{i}\cdot \hat{i}=\hat{j}\cdot \hat{j}=\hat{k}\cdot \hat{k}=1, (2.1)

\displaystyle \hat{i}\cdot \hat{j}=\hat{j}\cdot \hat{k}=\hat{i}\cdot \hat{k}=0.(2.2)

The latter of which implies that these basis vectors are mutually orthogonal. We can therefore write these in a more succinct way via

\displaystyle \hat{e}_{i}\cdot \hat{e}_{j}=\delta_{ij},  (2.3)

where \displaystyle \delta_{ij} denotes the Kronecker delta:

\displaystyle \delta_{ij}=\begin{cases} 1, i=j\\ 0, i \neq j \end{cases}. (2.4)

We may redefine the scalar product by the following argument given in Neuenschwander

\displaystyle \textbf{U}\cdot  \textbf{V}=\sum_{i,j=1}^{3}(U^{i} \hat{e}_{i}) \cdot (V^{j} \hat{e}_{j})=\sum_{i,j=1}^{3}U^{i}V^{j}(\delta_{ij})=\sum_{l=1}^{3}U^{l}V^{l}. (3)

Similarly we may define the cross product to be

\displaystyle \textbf{U}\times \textbf{V}=\det\begin{pmatrix} \hat{i}  & \hat{j} & \hat{k} \\ U^{x} & U^{y} & U^{z} \\ V^{x} & V^{y} & V^{z}  \end{pmatrix}, (4)

whose i-th component is

\displaystyle (\textbf{U}\times \textbf{V})^{i}=\textbf{U}\times \textbf{V}=\sum_{i,j=1}^{3}\epsilon^{ijk}U^{j}V^{k}, (5)

where \epsilon^{ijk} denotes the Levi-Civita symbol. If these indices form an odd permutation \epsilon^{ijk}=-1, if the indices form an even permutation \epsilon^{ijk}=+1, and if any of these indices are equal \epsilon^{ijk}=0.

As a final point, we may relate vectors to relativity by means of defining the four-vector. If we consider the four coordinates x,y,z,t, they collectively describe what is referred to as an event. Formally, an event in spacetime is described by three spatial coordinates and one time coordinate. We may replace these coordinates by x^{\mu}, where \mu \in \mathbb{Z}^{\pm} in which I am defining \mathbb{Z}^{\pm}=\bigg\{x\in \mathbb{Z}|x\geq 0\bigg\}. In words, this means that the index \mu is an integer that is greater than or equal to 0.

Furthermore, the quantity x^{0} corresponds to time, x^{1,2,3} correspond to the x,y, and z coordinates respectively.  Therefore, x^{\mu}=(ct,x,y,z) is called the four-position.

In the next post, I will complete the discussion on vectors and discuss in more detail the definition of a tensor (following Neuenschwander’s approach). I will also introduce a few examples of tensors that physics students will typically encounter.






Monte Carlo Simulations of Radiative Transfer: Basics of Radiative Transfer Theory (Part IIa)


  1. Chandrasekhar, S., 1960. “Radiative Transfer”. Dover. 1.
  2. Choudhuri, A.R., 2010. “Astrophysics for Physicists”. Cambridge University Press. 2.
  3. Boyce, W.E., and DiPrima, R.C., 2005. “Elementary Differential Equations”. John Wiley & Sons. 2.1.


Recall from last time , the radiative transfer equation

\displaystyle \frac{1}{\epsilon \rho}\frac{dI_{\nu}}{ds}= M_{\nu}-N_{\nu}I_{\nu}, (1)

where M_{\nu} and N_{\nu} are the emission and absorption coefficients, respectively. We can further define the absorption coefficient to be equivalent to \epsilon \rho. Hence,

\displaystyle N_{\nu}=\frac{d\tau_{\nu}}{ds}, (2)

which upon rearrangement and substitution in Eq. (1) gives

\displaystyle \frac{dI_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})}{d\tau_{\nu}}+I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})= U_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu}). (3)

We may solve this equation by using the method of integrating factors, by which we multiply Eq.(3) by some unknown function (the integrating factor) \mu(\tau_{\nu}) yielding

\displaystyle \mu(\tau_{\nu})\frac{dI_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})}{d\tau_{\nu}}+\mu(\tau_{\nu})I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})=\mu(\tau_{\nu})U_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu}). (4)

Upon examining Eq.(4), we see that the left hand side is the product rule. It follows that

\displaystyle \frac{d}{d\tau_{\nu}}\bigg\{\mu(\tau_{\nu})I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})\bigg\}=\mu({\tau_{\nu}})U_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu}). (5)

This only works if  d(\mu(\tau_{\nu}))/d\tau_{\nu}=\mu(\tau_{\nu}). To show that this is valid, consider the equation for \mu(\tau_{\nu}) only:

\displaystyle \frac{d\mu(\tau_{\nu})}{d\tau_{\nu}}=\mu(\tau_{\nu}). (6.1)

This is a separable ordinary differential equation so we can rearrange and integrate to get

\displaystyle \int \frac{d\mu(\tau_{\nu})}{\mu(\tau_{\nu})}=\int d\tau_{\nu}\implies \ln(\mu(\tau_{\nu}))= \tau_{\nu}+C, (6.2)

where C is some constant of integration. Let us assume that the constant of integration is 0, and let us also take the exponential of (6.2). This gives us

\displaystyle \mu(\tau_{\nu})=\exp{(\tau_{\nu})}. (6.3)

This is our integrating factor. Just as a check, let us take the derivative of our integrating factor with respect to d\tau_{\nu},

\displaystyle \frac{d}{d\tau_{\nu}}\exp{(\tau_{\nu})}=\exp{(\tau_{\nu})},

Thus this requirement is satisfied. If we now return to Eq.(4) and substitute in our integrating factor we get

\displaystyle \frac{d}{d\tau_{\nu}}\bigg\{\exp{(\tau_{\nu})}I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})\bigg\}=\exp{(\tau_{\nu})}U_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu}). (7)

We can treat this as a separable differential equation so we can integrate immediately. However, we are integrating from an optical depth 0 to some optical depth \tau_{\nu}, hence we have that

\displaystyle \int_{0}^{\tau_{\nu}}d\bigg\{\exp{(\tau_{\nu})}I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})\bigg\}=\int_{0}^{\tau_{\nu}}\bigg\{\exp{(\bar{\tau}_{\nu})}U_{\nu}(\bar{\tau}_{\nu})\bigg\}d\bar{\tau}_{\nu}, (8)

We find that

\displaystyle \exp{(\tau_{\nu})}I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})-I_{\nu}(0)=\int_{0}^{\tau_{\nu}}\bigg\{\exp{(\bar{\tau}_{\nu})}U_{\nu}(\bar{\tau}_{\nu})\bigg\}d\bar{\tau}_{\nu} (9),

where if we add I_{\nu}(0) and divide by \exp{(\tau_{\nu})} we arrive at the general solution of the radiative transfer equation

\displaystyle I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu}) = I_{\nu}(0)\exp{(-\tau_{\nu})}+\int_{0}^{\tau_{\nu}}\exp{(\bar{\tau}_{\nu}-\tau_{\nu})}U_{\nu}(\bar{\tau}_{\nu})d\bar{\tau}_{\nu}. (10)

This is the mathematically formal solution to the radiative transfer equation. While mathematically sound, much of the more interesting physical phenomena require more complicated equations and therefore more sophisticated methods of solving them (an example would be the use of quadrature formulae or n-th approximation for isotropic scattering).

Recall also that in general we can write the phase function p(\theta,\phi; \theta^{\prime},\phi^{\prime}) via the following

\displaystyle p(\theta,\phi;\theta^{\prime},\phi^{\prime})=\sum_{l=0}^{\infty}\gamma_{l}P_{l}(\cos{\Theta}). (11)

Let us consider the case for which l=0 in the sum given by (11). This then would mean that the phase function is constant

p(\theta,\phi;\theta^{\prime},\phi^{\prime})=\gamma_{0}=const. (12)

Such a phase function is consistent with isotropic scattering. The term isotropic means, in this context, that radiation scattered is the same in all directions. Such a case yields a source function of the form

\displaystyle U_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})=\frac{1}{4\pi}\int_{0}^{\pi}\int_{0}^{2\pi}\gamma_{0}I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})\sin{\theta^{\prime}}d\theta^{\prime}d\phi^{\prime}, (13)

where upon use in the radiative transfer equation we get the integro-differential equation

\displaystyle \frac{dI_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})}{d\tau_{\nu}}+I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})= \frac{1}{4\pi}\int_{0}^{\pi}\int_{0}^{2\pi}\gamma_{0}I_{\nu}(\tau_{\nu})\sin{\theta^{\prime}}d\theta^{\prime}d\phi^{\prime}. (14)

Solution of this equation is beyond the scope of the project. In the next post I will discuss Rayleigh scattering and the corresponding phase function.



Basics of Tensor Calculus and General Relativity: Overview of Series

Of the many topics that I have studied in the past, one of the most confusing topics that I have encountered is the concept of a tensor. Every time that I heard the term tensor, it was mentioned for the sake of mentioning it and my professors would move on. Others simply ignored the existence of tensors, but every time they were brought up I was intrigued. So the purpose of this series is to attempt to discover how tensors work and how they relate to our understanding of the universe, specifically in the context of general relativity.

The text I will be following for this will be Dwight E. Neuenschwander’s “Tensor Calculus for Physics”.  I will be documenting my interpretation of the theory discussed in this text, and I will use the text “General Relativity: An Introduction for Physicists” by M.P. Hobson, G. Efstathiou, and A.N. Lasenby to discuss the concepts developed in the context of general relativity. I will list the corresponding chapter titles associated with each post.

Here is an approximate agenda (note that this will take some time as I am learning this as I post, so posts in this series may be irregular).

Post I: Tensor Calculus: Introduction and Vectors

Post II: Tensor Calculus: Vector Calculus and Coordinate Transformations

Post III: General Relativity: Basics of Manifolds and Coordinates

Post IV: General Relativity: Vector Calculus on Manifolds

Post V: Tensor Calculus: Introduction to Tensors and the Metric Tensor

Post VI: Tensor Calculus: Derivatives of Tensors

Post VII: General Relativity: Tensor Calculus on Manifolds

Post VIII: Tensor Calculus: Curvature

Post IX: General Relativity: Equivalence Principle and Spacetime Curvature

Post X: General Relativity: The Gravitational Field Equations

The series will end with the Einstein field equations (EFEs) since they are the crux of the general theory of relativity. The posts in this series will come in their own time as they can be quite difficult and time-consuming, but I will do my best to understand it. I welcome any feedback you may have, but please be respectful.


Simple Harmonic Oscillators (SHOs) (Part I)

We all experience or see this happening in our everyday experience: objects moving back and forth. In physics, these objects are called simple harmonic oscillators. While I was taking my undergraduate physics course, one of my favorite topics was SHOs because of the way the mathematics and physics work in tandem to explain something we see everyday. The purpose of this post is to engage followers to get them to think about this phenomenon in a more critical manner.

Every object has a position at which these objects tend to remain at rest, and if they are subjected to some perturbation, that object will oscillate about this equilibrium point until they resume their state of rest. If we pull or push an object with an applied force F_{A} we find that this force is proportional to Hooke’s law of elasticity, that is, F_{A}=-k\textbf{r}. If we consider other forces we also find that there exists a force balance between the restoring force (our applied force), a resistance force, and a forcing function, which we assume to have the form

F=F_{forcing}+F_{A}-F_{R}= -k\textbf{r}-\beta \dot{\textbf{r}}; (1)

note that we are assuming that the resistance force is proportional to the speed of an object. Suppose further that we are inducing these oscillations in a periodic manner by given by

F_{forcing}=F_{0}\cos{\omega t}. (2)

Now, to be more precise, we really should define the position vector. So, \textbf{r}=x\hat{i}+y\hat{j}+z\hat{k}. Therefore, we actually have a system of three second order linear non-homogeneous ordinary differential equations in three variables:

m\ddot{ x}+\beta \dot{x}+kx=F_{0}\cos{\omega t}, (3.1)

m\ddot{y}+\beta \dot{y}+ky=F_{0}\cos{\omega t}, (3.2)

m\ddot{z}+\beta \dot{z}+kz=F_{0}\cos{\omega t}. (3.3)

(QUICK NOTE: In the above equations, I am using the Newtonian notation for derivatives, only for convenience.)  I will just make some simplifications. I will divide both sides by the mass, and I will define the following parameters: \gamma \equiv \beta/m, \omega_{0} \equiv k/m, and \alpha \equiv F_{0}/m. Furthermore, I am only going to consider the y component of this system. Thus, the equation that we seek to solve is

\ddot{y}+\gamma \dot{y}+\omega_{0}y=\alpha\cos{\omega t}. (4)

Now, in order to solve this non-homogeneous equation, we use the method of undetermined coefficients. By this we mean to say that the general solution to the non-homogeneous equation is of the form

y = Ay_{1}(t)+By_{2}(t)+Y(t), (5)

where Y(t) is the particular solution to the non-homogeneous equation and the other two terms are the fundamental solutions of the homogeneous equation:

\ddot{y}_{h}+\gamma \dot{y}_{h}+\omega_{0} y_{h} = 0. (6)

Let y_{h}(t)=D\exp{(\lambda t)}. Taking the first and second time derivatives, we get \dot{y}_{h}(t)=\lambda D\exp{(\lambda t)} and \ddot{y}_{h}(t)=\lambda^{2}D\exp{(\lambda t)}. Therefore, Eq. (6) becomes, after factoring out the exponential term,

D\exp{(\lambda t)}[\lambda^{2}+\gamma \lambda +\omega_{0}]=0.  (7)

Since D\exp{(\lambda t)}\neq 0, it follows that

\lambda^{2}+\gamma \lambda +\omega_{0}=0. (8)

This is just a disguised form of a quadratic equation whose solution is obtained by the quadratic formula:

\lambda =\frac{-\gamma \pm \sqrt[]{\gamma^{2}-4\omega_{0}}}{2}. (9)

Part II of this post will discuss the three distinct cases for which the discriminant \sqrt[]{\gamma^{2}-4\omega_{0}} is greater than, equal to , or less than 0, and the consequent solutions. I will also obtain the solution to the non-homogeneous equation in that post as well.



Deriving the speed of light from Maxwell’s equations

We are all familiar with the concept of the speed of light. It is the speed beyond which no object may travel. Many seem to associate Einstein for the necessity of this universal constant, and while it is inherent to his theory of special and general theories of relativity, it was not necessarily something he discovered. It is, in fact, a consequence of the Maxwell equations from my first post. I will be deriving the speed of light quantity using the four field equations of electrodynamics, and I will explain how Einstein used this fact to challenge Newtonian relativity in his theory of special relativity (I am not as familiar with general relativity).  The reason for this post is just to demonstrate the origin of a well-known concept; the speed of light.

We start with Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics

\nabla \cdot \textbf{E}=\frac{\rho}{\epsilon_{0}}, (1)

\nabla \cdot \textbf{B}=0, (2)

\nabla \times \textbf{E}=-\frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}, (3)

\nabla \times \textbf{B}=\mu_{0}\textbf{j}+\mu_{0}\epsilon_{0}\frac{\partial \textbf{E}}{\partial t}. (4)

Now, we let \rho =0, which means that the charge density must be zero, and we also let the current density \textbf{j}=0. Moreover, note that the form of the wave equation as

\frac{\partial^{2} u}{\partial t^{2}}=\frac{1}{v^{2}}\nabla^{2}u. (5)

This equation describes the change in position of material in three dimensions (choose whichever coordinate system you like) propagating through some amount of time, with some velocity v.

After making these assumptions, we arrive at

\nabla \cdot \textbf{E}=0, (6)

\nabla \cdot \textbf{B}=0, (7)

\nabla \times \textbf{E}=-\frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}, (8)

\nabla \times \textbf{B}=\mu_{0}\epsilon_{0}\frac{\partial \textbf{E}}{\partial t}. (9)

Also note the vector identity\nabla \times (\nabla \times \textbf{A})=\nabla(\nabla\cdot\textbf{A})-\nabla^{2}\textbf{A}. Now, take the curl of Eqs.(8) and (9), and we get

\frac{1}{\mu_{0}\epsilon_{0}}\nabla^{2}\textbf{E}=\frac{\partial^{2}\textbf{E}}{\partial t^{2}}, (10)


\frac{1}{\mu_{0}\epsilon_{0}}\nabla^{2}\textbf{B}=\frac{\partial^{2}\textbf{B}}{\partial t^{2}}, (11)

where we have used Eqs. (6), (7), (8), and (9) to simplify the expressions. Eqs. (10) and (11) are the electromagnetic wave equations. Note the form of these equations and how they compare to Eq. (5). They are identical, and upon inspection one can see that the velocity with which light travels is

\frac{1}{c^{2}}=\frac{1}{\mu_{0}\epsilon_{0}} \implies c=\sqrt[]{\mu_{0}\epsilon_{0}}, (12)

where \mu_{0} is the permeability of free space and \epsilon_{0} is the permittivity of free space.

Most waves on Earth require a medium to travel. Sound waves, for example are actually pressure waves that move by collisions of the individual molecules in the air.  For some time, light was thought to require a medium to travel. So it was proposed that since light can travel through the vacuum of space, there must exist a universal medium dubbed “the ether”. This “ether” was sought after most notably in the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, in which an interferometer was constructed to measure the Earth’s velocity through this medium. However, when they failed to find any evidence that the “ether” existed, the new way of thinking was that it didn’t exist. It turned out that light doesn’t need a medium to travel through space. Technically-speaking, space itself acts as the medium through which light travels.

 In Newtonian relativity, it was assumed that time and space were separate constructs and were regarded as absolute. In other words, it was the speed that changed. What this meant is that even as speeds became very large, space and time remained the same. What Einstein did was that he saw the consequence of Maxwell’s equations and regarded this speed as absolute, and allowed space and time (really spacetime) to vary. In Einstein’s theory of special relativity, as one approaches the speed of light, time slows down, and objects become contracted. These phenomena are known as time dilation and length contraction:

\delta t = \frac{\delta t_{0}}{\sqrt[]{1-v^{2}/c^{2}}}, (13)

\delta l = l_{0}\sqrt[]{1-v^{2}/c^{2}}. (14)

These phenomena will be discussed in more detail in a future post. Thus, Maxwell’s formulation of the electrodynamic field equations led Einstein to change the way we perceive the fundamental concepts of space and time.