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HowtobestexplaindivergenceandcurlQuora

Maxwell'sEquations

MathematicalPhysics

MathematicsandPhysics

Calculus

FluidDynamics

Physics

Electromagnetism

SurveyQuestion

Howcanyoubestexplaindivergenceandcurl?
Howcanyoubestexplainthedivergenceandcurl?Whatistheirsignificance?Whataretheir
realworldapplicationsandexamples?

MarkEichenlaub,PhDstudentinPhysics
InstituteforTheoreticalPhysicsandKaushikSBalasubramanian,PhysicsPhDstudentat
BrandeisUniversity

RelatedQuestions
Doconceptsinvolvingrateofchangelikederivatives,
integrals,divergence,curls,Stoke'stheorem,etc.
haveanytheoreticalmeaningand/or...
Whatisthephysicalmeaningofdivergence,curland
Whatisthedifferencebetweenacurl,divergenceand
significance.
Whatistheactualmeaningofdivergenceandcurlin
Maxwell'sequations?

tldr

Whocanexplainhowthedivergenceofthecurlis
zero?

Youandthreefriendsfloatdownariver,eachmarkingacornerofasquare.Ifyoursquare
isgettingbigger,theriverhaspositivedivergence.Ifit'sshrinking,negativedivergence.

Whatistheeasiestwaytoexplaintheconceptof

Next,youandyourfriendsarerigidlyconnectedsoyoursquarecan'tchangeshape.Ifthe
squarestartsrotatinglikeafrisbeeasitgoesalong,theriverhascurl.Positivecurlis
counterclockwiserotation.Negativecurlisclockwise.

Weknowthedivergenceofacurliszerobuthowwill
thisbetrueifavectorwhosecurlisdefined,also
expandsandshrinks?

I'llalsoassumeyouknowthekinematicsofrotationsandhowtoapproximatemulti

WhatkindoflogicisusedinGreen's,Stokesand
Divergencetheorems?Cansomeoneprovidethe
bestanalogytounderstandthelogic?

TubingDownaRiver

Whatisanintuitive,notheavilytechnicalway,to
explainthemeaningofdivergence,curls,Green's
theorem,Stoke'stheorem,andMaxwell's...

Moststudentslearnthedivergenceandcurlbecausethey'reimportantinMaxwell's
equationsofelectrodynamics.Theseconceptsapplytoanyvectorfield,though.Here,let's
justvisualizeyouandsomefriendsfloatingdownariveroninnertubes.Thevectorfieldis
thefieldgivingthevelocityoftheriver'sflow.Thedivergenceandcurldescribewhat
happenstoyouandyourfriendsasyoufloatdowntherivertogether.
Supposeyouaretubingdownariverwiththreefriends.Youpositionyourselvesintoa
squareformation.Assumingtheriverflowsperfectlyevenly,you'llallfloatalongtogether
andstayinthatperfectsquare.

orfallbehind.Maybetheflowpicksupsidewayscomponentsandyoudriftapart.Your
squaregetsmessedup.

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Theblackarrowsshowsomesortofmessy,complicatedflow.Theredsquarethatisyour
initialpositionsdistortsintothepointedshape.
Mathematically,wewilltreatapersoninaninnertubeasapointmovingintwo
dimensions.Theflowoftheriverisavectorfieldavectorforthevelocityoftheflowat
eachpoint.Weimaginethatpeopleflowperfectlydowntherivertheirvelocityalways
matchesthevectorfieldexactly.(Inreallife,thisisnotexactlyhowithappensthewater
canmoveunderneathyou.)Also,thepeoplethemselvesarejusttestparticlesbitsofdust
floatingonthesurfacethatdon'taffecttheriver'sflowinanyway.Becausewealways
knowtheirvelocity,wecanintegratetheirmotionforwardandfindtheirtrajectories.
Finally,toavoidcomplications,imaginethatthevectorfielddescribingtheriver'sflowis
constantintime.Differentpartscanflowatdifferentspeeds(soyoucouldspeedupor
hasthesamespeedanddirection.
We'lldenotetheflow'svelocityvectorasafunctionofpositionas
^ + V y (x, y)y
^
V(x, y) = V x (x, y)x

^ and y
^ areunitvectorsinthexand
V and V arerealvaluedfunctionsoftwovariables. x
mindthatit'safunctionofposition.
x

AreaandDivergence
Originally,yourspanisasquare,butasyougoalongitmaydistort.Divergencedescribes
howfasttheareaofyourspanischanging.
Forexample,imaginethattherivergetsfasterandfasterthefurtheryougodownstream.
spanstretchesout.Thisisanexampleofapositivedivergence.Thisisillustratedbelow.
Theshapeofthespanisaccuratelycalculatedforthisparticularvectorfield.

Ontheotherhand,ifplacesfurtherupmovemoreslowlysoyouscrunchinclosertoyour
friends,that'snegativedivergencetheareaofyourspangoesdown.

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Ifyouareallfloatingapartfromeachother,that'spositivedivergence.

source:Theideaofthedivergenceofavectorfield
Inthisvectorfield,yoursquarewouldgetbiggerinalldirectionsatonce.
Theopposite,whereallthearrowscomepointingin,wouldbenegativedivergence.
Iftheriverissimultaneouslygettingfasterandnarrower,yoursquaregetslongerand
skinnier.Ifitdoesitjustright,the"gettinglonger"partcouldcancelthe"gettingskinnier"
partsothattheareastaysthesame.Thiswouldbezerodivergence.Here'sanexampleI
constructed:

PreliminaryDefinitionofDivergence
Wewouldliketostartcalculatingthedivergence.Itseemslikeweshouldgetsomething
divergencehastodowiththeratethatanareaischanging.
Thishasaproblem,though,becausethenumberwillbedifferentifwestartwithatiny
spanthanifwestartwithalargespan.Wewantthedivergencetorefertoapropertyof
themselves.Itsvalueshouldn'tdependonsomeparticularspansizewechoose.
Thesolutionistousethepercentageareagainedpersecond,whichisthesameforlarge
andsmallspans.Thiscouldalsobecalledthefractionalrateofchange.Thefractionalrate

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ofchangeoftheareaistherateofchangeoftheareainabsolutetermsdividedbythearea
itself.Thisourdefinitionofthedivergence,whichwewilldenotebyDiv
rate of change of area of span

Div(V(x, y)) =

area of span

Theunitsoftheareacancelout,andwe'releftwithunitsofinverseseconds,asisnormal
forrates.
1

(Sidenote:ifyouunderstandcalculuswell,youcanseethatthismeansthatafterone
second,thespanwouldbe e timesaslargeasitoriginallywas.)
2

V (x, y) = 0.04x s

^
x

Thisissayingthattheflowisallinthexdirectionandthatitgetsfasterandfasterasyou
gofurtheralonginthatdirection.Ifyouwentout100meters,theflowratewouldbe
0.04 100m s
= 4m/s .
1

You're100m out,going4m/s.Let'ssayyouhaveaspanthat'sasquare1monaside.Your
pullingawayfromyouat0.04m/s.Thatmeansthesquareisgrowingatarateof0.04m /s
.
2

Ifyoudidn'tfollowwhereallthenumberscamefrominthepreviousparagraph,you
shouldgobackandworkthemout.Puttingittogether,thedivergenceis
2

0.04m /s

Div(V) =

1m

= 0.04s

Youcanrepeatthiscalculationputtingyourselfatanypositionandusinganysizespan
Ifyouwanttotestyourself,supposetheflowisgivenby
^ + (cx + dy + f )y
^
V (x, y) = (ax + by + e)x

Giveyourselfastartingspansomewherewithacertainsize.Figureouttheratethatits
areaischanging,andfindthedivergence.Youshouldfindthatthedivergenceis
Div(V) = a + d

justmovetheentiresquarealongwithoutchangingitsshape,sotheydon'tcauseany
divergence.We'reonlyconcernedwiththerelativemotionbetweenthecorners.Therefore,
wecansimplytakethebottomleftcornerandconsiderittobefixed.
area,andsoispartofthedivergence.

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representshowfastthetoppartmovestotheright.

Thiscausesyoursquaretoshear,turningitintoaparallelogram,likethis:

source:Shearstress
intotheformula.
Thesamereasoningappliestoc(therighthandsideslidingupanddown,moreshear)
Calculus
ForthesimpleexampleIgave,thedivergenceisthesamenomatterwhereyouputyour
span.However,inacomplicatedflow,theflowwillbedoingdifferentthingsatdifferent
places.Itmaybecomingtogether(negativedivergence)insomeplacesandmovingapart
(positivedivergence)inothers.Evidently,thedivergenceneedstobeafunctionofxandy.
thedivergenceisdifferentfromspottospot,thenit'sdifferentatdifferentspotsinsideyour

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HowtobestexplaindivergenceandcurlQuora

Thisisverysimilartotheproblemoffindingtheslopeofalineincalculus.Theslopeofthe
linechangesfrompointtopoint,soifyoucalculate
betweentwopoints,youkeep
rise
run

dependonhowfarapartthepointsyouchooseare,anddivergenceshouldn'tdependon
howlargeanoriginalspanyouchoose.
Thesolutiontobothproblemsisthesamewetakealimit.Incalculus,youtakethelimit
asthedistancebetweenyourtwopointsonthefunctiongoestozero.Invectorcalculus,we
takethelimitasthesizeofourstartingspangoestozero.
intervalaslongasyou'remeasuringtheslopeofastraightline.That'sessentiallywhythe
examplesIgaveintheprevioussectionworkthevectorfieldIgaveistheequivalentofa
straightline.
ExpressionfortheDivergence
Whenyouzoominclosetoafunction,itlookslocallylikeastraightline.Likewise,when
youzoominclosetoavectorfield,itlookslocallylikeourequivalenttoastraightline,for
Tobespecific,afunctionofonevariablelookslocallylike
f (x) f (x 0 ) +

df
dx

(x x 0 )

x0

rememberthatourvectorfieldis
^ + V y (x, y)y
^
V(x, y) = V x (x, y)x

## Wecanexpandthefunctions V and V thesamewayweexpandsinglevariable

functions,solongasweusetwopartialderivatives.
x

V x V x (x 0 , y0 ) +

Vx
x

(x x 0 ) +

x 0 ,y

Vx
y

(y y0 )

x 0 ,y

## andlikewisefor V .Pluggingthesezoomedinfunctionsfor V and V intoVgives

y

V(x, y) = V(x 0 , y0 )+

Vx
x

Vy

(x x 0 ) +
x 0 ,y

x 0 ,y

(x x 0 ) +

Vx
y

Vy

^+
(y y0 )) x
x 0 ,y

^
(y y0 )) y

x 0 ,y

Thisisthesameasourearliervectorfield,withpartialderivativesstandinginfora, b, c, d,
andtheinitialvalueV(x , y )standinginforeandf ,sobyanalogywecansaythatthe
divergenceis
0

Div(V ) =

Vx
x

Vy
y

Thisisthedivergenceintwodimensions.Rememberthatit'safunctionofxandy.
Agoodtestofwhetheryouunderstandthedivergenceistofinditsformulainpolar
coordinateswhenthevectorfieldis
^
^ + V (r, )
V(r, ) = V r (r, )r

Youcandothisinexactlythesamewaydrawaspan,findhowfastitsareachanges,and
dividebythearea.Thesquareisalittleawkwardhereuseaspanthatlookslikethis:

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source:Math251diary,fall2010

Div(V) =

Vr
r

Vr
r

ContinuityEquation
Supposethattheflowofwaterintheriveristwodimensional,meaningnowatermoves
upwardsordownwards.Iftherewerepositivedivergence,thatwouldmeanthewaterwas
takingupmoreandmorespace.Butthatinturnmeansthatitwouldbethinningout,
gettinglessdense.Inturn,ifthewerenegativedivergence,itwouldmeanallthewaterin
someareawasgettingsmashedtogethertobecomemoredense.
Forwater,thisisessentiallyimpossible.Thepressureittakestocompresswater
appreciablyistoohightoreachinariver.Yousimilarlycan'tthinitoutthewaterwould
justcollapse.Thismeansthatforflowingwaterthedivergenceiszero!
Moregenerally,ifthewaterisdivergingat1%persecond,thatmeansthesamemassis
relationshipbetweenthedivergenceanddensityiscalledthecontinuityequation.Ifthe
densityis,then
d
dt

= Div(V)

Thisequationworksbecausemassisconserved.You'llseeasimilarequationforany
conservationlaw.Forexample,startingfromMaxwell'sequations,youcanderivea
continuityequationlikethisforelectricchargetoshowthatchargeisconserved.Starting
fromSchrodinger'sequationinquantummechanicsyoucanderiveacontinuityequation
toshowthatprobabilityisconservedthetotalprobabilitytofindaparticleanywhere
ThreeDimensions
Inthreedimensions,everythingworksthesameway.Youcanthinkofeightdustparticles
formingacubethatdriftsthroughtheairinyourroom.Thefractionalrateofchangeof
thevolumeofthecubeisthedivergenceinthreedimensions.Itis
Div(V) =

Vx
x

Vy
y

Vz
z

EulerianvsLagrangianPictures
WhatI'vedescribedabovemightbecalledthe"Lagrangianpicture"ofthedivergence.We
Foronereasonoranother,itismorepopulartodescribethedivergenceinthe"Eulerian
picture",inwhichweimaginestayingfixedinonespotandlookingatpropertiesofthe
flowrightthere.Ultimately,thereisnodifferencebetweenthetwo,butyoumighthear

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peopledescribethedivergenceinawaythatsoundssuperficiallydifferent.It'sactuallythe
same.Youcanlearnthatpictureifyouwant,orstickwiththisone.
Curl

Itisbasicallythesamethingasbefore,exceptrigid.Youandyourthreefriendshavebeen
replacedbyfloatersattheendoftherods,andthere'sacentralhub.
Ifthedevicespins,theflowhascurl.Forexample,inthisflow,thetoppartofthedeviceis
spin.

Iftheflowisperfectlyuniform,thedevicewon'tspinandthere'snocurl.
Indetail,thewayweimaginethisdeviceworkingisthatforthetop/bottomfloaters,what
mattersisthehorizontalcomponentoftheflowvelocity.Theverticalcomponentofflow
velocitycanonlypushorpullagainsttheverticalrods,andsohasnoeffect.Forthe
left/rightfloaters,whatmattersistheverticalcomponentsoftheflowrate(zerointhe
abovepicture).

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Let'ssaytherodshavelengthl.Thepoint(x
velocityinthexdirectionatthetopfloateris

0,

V x V x (x 0 , y0 ) +

Vx

l
x 0 ,y

y0 )

isatthecenterofthedevice.The

Ontheotherhand,ifthedeviceismovingalongasawholeatV(x , y )and
simultaneouslyrotatingatangularrate,thevelocityofthetoppointwouldbe
0

V x V x (x 0 , y0 ) + l

Soitlookslikethethingwantstorotateatarate
=

Vx
y

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Ifwelookatthefloaterontherightanddothesameanalysis,itwantsthedevicetorotate
at
=

Vy
x

(Youshoulddrawthisouttopictureit.)
Thedevicecanonlyhaveonerotationspeed,whichwewillsayistheaverageofthespeed
thetop/bottomfloaterswanttogoandspeedtheleft/rightfloaterswanttogo.Thecurlis
thendefinedtobe
Curl(V) =

Vx
y

Vy
x

It'stwicetherotationrate.There'snospecialreasontomakeittwiceasfast.Itjustworks
outbetterthatwaywhenyouthinkofsomeotherpossiblewaystodefinethecurl.Those
have.
ThreeDimensions
Whatwefoundaboveisthezcomponentofthecurl.That'sbecausethethingisspinning
aroundthezaxis.(Thezaxiscomesupoutofyourmonitor.)
Imagineputtingatoyjackshapeddevicewithsixrodsandfloatersinthewater,onein
eachdirectionin3D.Itwouldspinjustthesame,butthetwoextrafloaterswould
contributesomeextratorque.Thedevicepicksupsomespinaroundthexaxisandyaxis
vectors)youfindthattheentirejackisspinningaroundsomeparticularaxisin3D.This
axisisthedirectionofthecurlinthreedimensions.Sothedirectionofthecurlisjustthe
directionoftheaxisaroundwhichthedevicespins.Themagnitudeofthecurlisstillhow
fastitspins.
Edition):H.M.Schey:9780393925166:Amazon.com:Books )

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Doconceptsinvolvingrateofchangelikederivatives,integrals,divergence,curls,Stoke's
theorem,etc.haveanytheoreticalmeaningand/or...

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Howcanoneapplytheconceptofdivergenceofacurltoarotatingfan?
theirphysicalsignificance.
WhatistheactualmeaningofdivergenceandcurlinMaxwell'sequations?

DanielMcLaury,"I'mnotThomasDolbysciencedoesn'tblindme."
WrittenMay19,2013UpvotedbyLucasTambasco,B.S.inPhysics,MIT'13

Ispentafewyearstryingandfailingtounderstandtheconceptsofdivergenceandcurl.
Afterfailingmyphysicscoursesafewtimes,Ieventuallygaveup.LaterIwentontostudy
differentialgeometry,differentialforms,anddeRhamcohomology,atwhichpointI
Searchforquestions,people,andtopics
understooddivergenceandcurlnotonlyinsomeformalsense,butintheintuitivesense

SignIn

convincedthat,atleastformyselfandmanyothers,itliterallywouldhavebeenimpossible
toarriveatthisintuitiveunderstandingwithoutpassingthroughtheformalitiesfirst.
themthefirsttime,anditlooksperfectlytransparenttomenow,butIremembertrying
andfailingtounderstandthatkindofexplanationtoomanytimestobelievethatifyou
justslightlyaltereditsomehowitwouldworkforeveryone.
So,Iwouldexplaindivergenceandcurltosomeonebyfirstteachingthispersontopology,
linearandmultilinearalgebra,anddifferentialgeometry(probablyincludingarehashof
calculussincepeopleusuallydon'tlearnittherightway).Iestimatethiswouldprobably
analysis?

HarryMcLaughlin,It'saverybusysemesterI'llgettowhatquestionsIcan
WrittenJan21

mathinsightpage:Multivariablecalculus
Whoevercreatedthesitehasgonetogreatlengthstoexplainthemathandthemeaning
behindthemath.Thereareplentyofanimationsandappletstomessaroundwith.Takea
lookforinstanceatthedetailinexplainingthecomponentsofthecurl:Thecomponentsof
thecurl
Thereisnotalotinthewayofpracticalapplications,thoughIthinkastrong
understandingofthemathematicsunderlyingtheapplicationwillmakeitthatmuch
easiertounderstandthecontext.
Nowgoandlearnsomemath!

NicholasMa
ParticlePhysicsfromUniversityofBonn

Soconsiderafluid,andafieldthatrepresentsthevelocityofthefluidateachpoint.Ifwe
imagineaverysmall(infinitesimal)cube,thedivergenceatthecenterofthecube
representshowmuchfluidisenteringorleavingthecubeperunittime.Similarly,thecurl
representshowmuchfluidisgoingaroundthecube.Neitheroftheseideasisveryprecise
mathematically,butitgivesanintuitiveexplanationoftheirinterpretation.

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Inparticular,thedivergencelawiseasilyunderstoodusingthisidea.Ifwedivideavolume
willcancelout,andsowe'releftwiththeflowinandoutofthevolume.Youcan
conceptualizeStokes'theoreminasimilarway,withtheinternalrotationcancelingout,
andonlytherotationontheboundarycontributingtotheintegral.
Bothdivergenceandcurlhavenumerousapplicationsinvectorcalculus,particularlyin
regardtofluidmechanicsandelectromagnetism.Ifwewritetheelectricandmagnetic
fieldsasvectorfieldsandthechargedensityasascalarfield,thenMaxwell'sequations
relatethemusingdivergenceandcurl.

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AmanPandey,AnIndianArmyAspirant

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WrittenMay11

kindsoffunctions:

turnsascalarfieldintoavectorfield.
TheDivergenceiswhatyougetwhenyoudotDelwithavectorfield
Div(

)=

Notethattheresultofthedivergenceisascalarfunction.Wecansaythatthedivergence
operationturnsavectorfieldintoascalarfield.
TheCurliswhatyougetwhenyoucrossDelwithavectorfield
Curl(

)=

Notethattheresultofthecurlisavectorfield.Wecansaythatthecurloperationturnsa
vectorfieldintoanothervectorfield.

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WhatkindoflogicisusedinGreen's,StokesandDivergencetheorems?Cansomeone
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