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PHYSICAL INTERPRETATIONS OF CURL AND DIVERGENCE 1. Physical Interpretation of the Curl Let F(x, y, z) = (P (x, y, z), Q(x, y, z), R(x, y, z)) be a vector ﬁeld. We can think of F as representing the velocity ﬁeld of some ﬂuid in space. We want to give a physical meaning to the curl ∇ × F of this vector ﬁeld at a point. Choose coordinates so that our point of interest is the origin. Consider a small circle γ of radius h centred at the origin, in the x-y plane, oriented counterclockwise. We can parametrize this curve as: γ : r(t) = (h cos(t), h sin(t), 0) 0 ≤ t ≤ 2π The line integral of the vector ﬁeld F over this path γ measures the circulation of the vector ﬁeld along this path, or the tendency of the ﬁeld to follow the path. A positive circulation means that as we traverse the path γ, we tend to move in the direction of the vector ﬁeld F, while a negative circulation means we tend to move in the opposite direction of F. Since we assume the circle to be very small, and F is assumed to be diﬀerentiable, we will take the ﬁrst order (linear) approximation of the vector ﬁeld near the origin 0 = (0, 0, 0) : P (x, y, z) = P (0) + Px (0)x + Py (0)y + Pz (0)z Q(x, y, z) = Q(0) + Qx (0)x + Qy (0)y + Qz (0)z R(x, y, z) = R(0) + Rx (0)x + Ry (0)y + Rz (0)z Since we are computing a line integral of F over the curve γ, we substitute x = h cos(t), y = h sin(t), and z = 0 in the above to obtain: P (r(t)) = P (0) + Px (0)h cos(t) + Py (0)h sin(t) Q(r(t)) = Q(0) + Qx (0)h cos(t) + Qy (0)h sin(t) R(r(t)) = R(0) + Rx (0)h cos(t) + Ry (0)h sin(t) Note that if we were taking quadratic or higher order approximations the extra terms would all have at least an h2 factor in them. The velocity vector ﬁeld of the curve γ is (1.1) r′ (t) = (−h sin(t), h cos(t), 0) So the integrand in the line integral becomes (after some rearranging): F (r(t)) · r′ (t) = h (Q(0) cos(t) − P (0) sin(t)) + h2 Qx (0) cos2 (t) − Py (0) sin2 (t) + (Qy (0) − Px (0)) sin(t) cos(t) + h3 (· · · ) 1 2 PHYSICAL INTERPRETATIONS OF CURL AND DIVERGENCE The term (· · · ) represents all the leftover parts from a higher order approxima- tion. Now we integrate this from 0 to 2π in t, and use the fact that: 2π 2π 2π sin(t)dt = cos(t)dt = sin(t) cos(t)dt = 0 0 0 0 2π 2π sin2 (t)dt = cos2 (t)dt = π 0 0 Hence we obtain the circulation of F around γ: 2π F · dr = F (r(t)) · r′ (t)dt = πh2 (Qx (0) − Py (0)) + h3 (· · · ) γ 0 If we divide the circulation around this path by the area πh2 of the circle, and take the limit as h → 0, we obtain: 1 (1.2) lim F · dr = Qx (0) − Py (0) h→0 πh2 γ which is the z-component of the curl ∇ × F of F. If we had performed the same calculation using a small circular path in the y-z or z-x planes, then we would have obtained the x- and y- components of the curl, respectively. Thus we see that the component of the curl of a vector ﬁeld at a point, in a given direction, is equal to the inﬁnitesmal circulation of the ﬁeld per unit area around a circular path centred at that point, in a plane whose normal vector points in the given direction, with orientation given by the right hand rule. This is why we say the curl measures the tendency of the vector ﬁeld to ‘curl’ around a given point in a direction given by the right hand rule. 2. Physical Interpretation of the Divergence Let F(x, y, z) = (P (x, y, z), Q(x, y, z), R(x, y, z)) be a vector ﬁeld. Again F should be thought of as the velocity ﬁeld of some ﬂuid in space. We want to give a physical meaning to the divergence ∇ · F of this vector ﬁeld at a point. Choose coordinates so that our point of interest is the origin. Consider a small sphere M of radius h centred at the origin, with the outward pointing unit normal vector ﬁeld n. We can parametrize this sphere using spherical coordinates: M : X(u, v) = (h sin(u) cos(v), h sin(u) sin(v), h cos(u)) 0 ≤ u ≤ π, 0 ≤ v ≤ 2π The ﬂux integral of the vector ﬁeld F through this surface S measures the net amount of ﬂuid moving out of the sphere per unit time. Since we assume the sphere to be very small, and F is assumed to be diﬀerentiable, we again take the ﬁrst order (linear) approximation of the vector ﬁeld near the origin 0 = (0, 0, 0) : P (x, y, z) = P (0) + Px (0)x + Py (0)y + Pz (0)z Q(x, y, z) = Q(0) + Qx (0)x + Qy (0)y + Qz (0)z R(x, y, z) = R(0) + Rx (0)x + Ry (0)y + Rz (0)z PHYSICAL INTERPRETATIONS OF CURL AND DIVERGENCE 3 Since we are computing a ﬂux integral of F through the surface S, we substitute x = h sin(u) cos(v), y = h sin(u) sin(v), and z = h cos(u) in the above to obtain: P (X(u, v)) = P (0) + Px (0)h sin(u) cos(v) + Py (0)h sin(u) sin(v) + Pz (0)h cos(u) Q(X(u, v)) = Q(0) + Qx (0)h sin(u) cos(v) + Qy (0)h sin(u) sin(v) + Qz (0)h cos(u) R(X(u, v)) = R(0) + Rx (0)h sin(u) cos(v) + Ry (0)h sin(u) sin(v) + Rz (0)h cos(u) Note that if we were taking quadratic or higher order approximations the extra terms would all have at least an h2 factor in them. The normal vector ﬁeld Xu × Xv of the surface M can be computed to be: (2.1) Xu × Xv = h2 sin2 (u) cos(v), h2 sin2 (u) sin(v), h2 sin(u) cos(u) So the integrand in the line integral becomes (after some rearranging): F (X(u, v)) · (Xu × Xv ) = h2 P (0) sin2 (u) cos(v) + Q(0) sin2 (u) sin(v) + R(0) sin(u) cos(u) + h3 Px (0) sin3 (u) cos2 (v) + Py (0) sin3 (u) sin(v) cos(v) + Pz (0) sin2 (u) cos(u) cos(v) + Qx (0) sin3 (u) sin(v) cos(v) + Qy (0) sin3 (u) sin2 (v) + Qz (0) sin2 (u) cos(u) sin(v) + Rx (0) sin2 (u) cos(u) cos(v) + Ry (0) sin2 (u) cos(u) sin(v) + Rz (0) sin(u) cos2 (u) + h4 (· · · ) The term (· · · ) represents all the leftover parts from a higher order approxima- tion. Now we integrate this from 0 to π in u and 0 to 2π in v. Most of the integrals turn out to be zero, and all that remains is: π 2π F · ndS = F (X(u, v)) · (Xu × Xv ) dudv M 0 0 4 3 =πh (Px (0) + Qy (0) + Rz (0)) + h4 (· · · ) 3 4 If we divide the ﬂux through this surface by the volume 3 πh3 of the sphere, and take the limit as h → 0, we obtain: 1 (2.2) lim F · ndS = Px (0) + Qy (0) + Rz (0) h→0 4 πh3 M 3 which is the divergence ∇ · F of F. Thus we see that the divergence of a vector ﬁeld at a point is equal to the inﬁnitesmal ﬂux of the ﬁeld per unit volume through a sphere centred at that point. This is why we say the divergence measures the tendency of the vector ﬁeld to ‘diverge’ from a point.

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physical interpretation, vector function, Linear Algebra, Multivariable Calculus, partial derivatives, unit vectors, the origin, center of mass, Vector Analysis, Vector Field

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posted: | 1/25/2011 |

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