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Howcanyoubestexplaindivergenceandcurl?
Howcanyoubestexplainthedivergenceandcurl?Whatistheirsignificance?Whataretheir
realworldapplicationsandexamples?

10Answers
MarkEichenlaub,PhDstudentinPhysics
UpdatedApr24,2014UpvotedbyBarakShoshany,GraduateStudentatPerimeter
InstituteforTheoreticalPhysicsandKaushikSBalasubramanian,PhysicsPhDstudentat
BrandeisUniversity

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Whocanexplainhowthedivergenceofthecurlis
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Youandthreefriendsfloatdownariver,eachmarkingacornerofasquare.Ifyoursquare
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Whatistheeasiestwaytoexplaintheconceptof
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Howcanwedefinegradientdivergenceandcurl.?

Thisanswerassumesagoodknowledgeofcalculus,includingpartialderivatives,vectors,
andthewaywetalkaboutthesethingsinanintroductorycalculusbasedphysicscourse.
I'llalsoassumeyouknowthekinematicsofrotationsandhowtoapproximatemulti
variablefunctionsaboutanarbitrarypointwiththefirstordertermsofitsTaylorseries.

WhatkindoflogicisusedinGreen's,Stokesand
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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.

However,iftherivermovesfasterinsomeplacesthanothers,someofyoumightgetahead
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
slowdownasyoutubealong),butthewaterpassingbysomeparticularfixedpointalways
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
ydirections.Tosavespace,I'llsometimesjustwriteVinsteadofV(x, y),sojustkeepin
mindthatit'safunctionofposition.
x

AreaandDivergence
Let'staketheshapemadebyyouandyourthreefriendsandcallthatyourspan.
Originally,yourspanisasquare,butasyougoalongitmaydistort.Divergencedescribes
howfasttheareaofyourspanischanging.
Forexample,imaginethattherivergetsfasterandfasterthefurtheryougodownstream.
Thenyourfriendsinfrontofyouwillkeepgettingfurtherandfurtherahead,andyour
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
like"suchandsuchmanysquaremeterspersecond"forouranswer,becausethe
divergencehastodowiththeratethatanareaischanging.
Thishasaproblem,though,becausethenumberwillbedifferentifwestartwithatiny
spanthanifwestartwithalargespan.Wewantthedivergencetorefertoapropertyof
themathematicalvectorfield.Itcapturesthe"spreadingapart"natureofthevectors
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.
Ifthedivergenceis2s ,thenthespanisaddingareaatarateoftwotimesitsownarea
oncepersecond.Soitwouldtakeabout0.005secondstoincreaseitsareaby1%.
1

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

Wecannowcalculateadivergence.Let'simaginetheriver'sflowisdescribedby
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
twofriendsinfrontofyouare1mahead,sothey'regoing4.04m/s.Thatmeansthey're
pullingawayfromyouat0.04m/s.Thatmeansthesquareisgrowingatarateof0.04m /s
.
2

Ifyoudidn'tfollowwhereallthenumberscamefrominthepreviousparagraph,you
shouldgobackandworkthemout.Puttingittogether,thedivergenceis
2

0.04m /s

Div(V) =

1m

= 0.04s

Youcanrepeatthiscalculationputtingyourselfatanypositionandusinganysizespan
(androtatingitifyouwant).You'llgetthesameanswer.
Ifyouwanttotestyourself,supposetheflowisgivenby
^ + (cx + dy + f )y
^
V (x, y) = (ax + by + e)x

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

Thisresultactuallymakesintuitivesense.eandf areconstantsaddedtothevelocity.They
justmovetheentiresquarealongwithoutchangingitsshape,sotheydon'tcauseany
divergence.We'reonlyconcernedwiththerelativemotionbetweenthecorners.Therefore,
wecansimplytakethebottomleftcornerandconsiderittobefixed.
arepresentshowfasttherighthandsideoftheboxismovingout.Thisaddstothebox's
area,andsoispartofthedivergence.

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representshowfastthetoppartmovestotheright.

Thiscausesyoursquaretoshear,turningitintoaparallelogram,likethis:

source:Shearstress
Itstillhasthesamebaseandheight,sotheareadoesn'tchange.That'swhybdoesn'tcome
intotheformula.
Thesamereasoningappliestoc(therighthandsideslidingupanddown,moreshear)
andd(movingthetopupward,addingtothearea,andaffectingthedivergence).
Calculus
ForthesimpleexampleIgave,thedivergenceisthesamenomatterwhereyouputyour
span.However,inacomplicatedflow,theflowwillbedoingdifferentthingsatdifferent
places.Itmaybecomingtogether(negativedivergence)insomeplacesandmovingapart
(positivedivergence)inothers.Evidently,thedivergenceneedstobeafunctionofxandy.
Thispresentsaproblem,becausenowthesizeofthespanisgoingtomakeadifference.If
thedivergenceisdifferentfromspottospot,thenit'sdifferentatdifferentspotsinsideyour
span,butwe'rejusttryingtogetasinglecorrectanswer.

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Thisisverysimilartotheproblemoffindingtheslopeofalineincalculus.Theslopeofthe
linechangesfrompointtopoint,soifyoucalculate
betweentwopoints,youkeep
rise
run

gettingdifferentanswersdependingonhowfarapartthepointsare.Slopeshouldn't
dependonhowfarapartthepointsyouchooseare,anddivergenceshouldn'tdependon
howlargeanoriginalspanyouchoose.
Thesolutiontobothproblemsisthesamewetakealimit.Incalculus,youtakethelimit
asthedistancebetweenyourtwopointsonthefunctiongoestozero.Invectorcalculus,we
takethelimitasthesizeofourstartingspangoestozero.
Insinglevariablecalculusyou'llgettherightanswerfortheslopeusingafinitesize
intervalaslongasyou'remeasuringtheslopeofastraightline.That'sessentiallywhythe
examplesIgaveintheprevioussectionworkthevectorfieldIgaveistheequivalentofa
straightline.
ExpressionfortheDivergence
Whenyouzoominclosetoafunction,itlookslocallylikeastraightline.Likewise,when
youzoominclosetoavectorfield,itlookslocallylikeourequivalenttoastraightline,for
whichwealreadycalculatedthedivergence.
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

Theansweris
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
gettingspreadover1%morevolume,sothedensityisgoingdownby1%persecond.This
relationshipbetweenthedivergenceanddensityiscalledthecontinuityequation.Ifthe
densityis,then
d
dt

= Div(V)

Thisequationworksbecausemassisconserved.You'llseeasimilarequationforany
conservationlaw.Forexample,startingfromMaxwell'sequations,youcanderivea
continuityequationlikethisforelectricchargetoshowthatchargeisconserved.Starting
fromSchrodinger'sequationinquantummechanicsyoucanderiveacontinuityequation
toshowthatprobabilityisconservedthetotalprobabilitytofindaparticleanywhere
alwaysaddsupto100%.
ThreeDimensions
Inthreedimensions,everythingworksthesameway.Youcanthinkofeightdustparticles
formingacubethatdriftsthroughtheairinyourroom.Thefractionalrateofchangeof
thevolumeofthecubeisthedivergenceinthreedimensions.Itis
Div(V) =

Vx
x

Vy
y

Vz
z

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

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

Itisbasicallythesamethingasbefore,exceptrigid.Youandyourthreefriendshavebeen
replacedbyfloatersattheendoftherods,andthere'sacentralhub.
Ifthedevicespins,theflowhascurl.Forexample,inthisflow,thetoppartofthedeviceis
infasterwaterandsogetsahead.Thebottompartlagsbehind,andalltogetherthiscauses
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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Wegetthesameanswerifwelookatthebottomfloater.
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
otherwaysareequivalentyoucanreadaboutthemanywhere.ThisisjustthepictureI
have.
ThreeDimensions
Whatwefoundaboveisthezcomponentofthecurl.That'sbecausethethingisspinning
aroundthezaxis.(Thezaxiscomesupoutofyourmonitor.)
Imagineputtingatoyjackshapeddevicewithsixrodsandfloatersinthewater,onein
eachdirectionin3D.Itwouldspinjustthesame,butthetwoextrafloaterswould
contributesomeextratorque.Thedevicepicksupsomespinaroundthexaxisandyaxis
inadditiontothefamiliarzaxisspin.
Addingupthespinsaroundeachaxis(whichyoucandobecauseangularvelocitiesare
vectors)youfindthattheentirejackisspinningaroundsomeparticularaxisin3D.This
axisisthedirectionofthecurlinthreedimensions.Sothedirectionofthecurlisjustthe
directionoftheaxisaroundwhichthedevicespins.Themagnitudeofthecurlisstillhow
fastitspins.
FurtherReading
Div,Grad,Curl,andAllThat,Schey(AnInformalTextonVectorCalculus(Fourth
Edition):H.M.Schey:9780393925166:Amazon.com:Books )
Ifyouhavesometimetoanswerafewquestionsabouttheeffectivenessofthisanswer,
pleasecheckoutDanandIDivergebyMarkEichenlaubonPaintingtheCathedral
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Ispentafewyearstryingandfailingtounderstandtheconceptsofdivergenceandcurl.
Afterfailingmyphysicscoursesafewtimes,Ieventuallygaveup.LaterIwentontostudy
differentialgeometry,differentialforms,anddeRhamcohomology,atwhichpointI
Searchforquestions,people,andtopics
understooddivergenceandcurlnotonlyinsomeformalsense,butintheintuitivesense
thatpeoplehadbeentryingtoexplaininformallyallalong.

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I'vetalkedtoatleastadozenpeoplewhohadexactlythesameexperience.[1]I'msolidly
convincedthat,atleastformyselfandmanyothers,itliterallywouldhavebeenimpossible
toarriveatthisintuitiveunderstandingwithoutpassingthroughtheformalitiesfirst.
SomepeoplecanjustreadsomethinglikeNicholasMa'sanswerandhaveitmakesenseto
themthefirsttime,anditlooksperfectlytransparenttomenow,butIremembertrying
andfailingtounderstandthatkindofexplanationtoomanytimestobelievethatifyou
justslightlyaltereditsomehowitwouldworkforeveryone.
So,Iwouldexplaindivergenceandcurltosomeonebyfirstteachingthispersontopology,
linearandmultilinearalgebra,anddifferentialgeometry(probablyincludingarehashof
calculussincepeopleusuallydon'tlearnittherightway).Iestimatethiswouldprobably
takemeabouttwoyearstodo.
Probablynottheansweryouwanted,butit'stheonlyanswerIcanhonestlygive.
BONUS:CommentsonMyInvestigationofDivergenceandCurl ,anicearticleby
mathematicianLeeLadyonhisattemptstoexplaindivergenceandcurltohissatisfaction
[1]SeealsoJesseFarmer'sanswertoShouldyoustudyadvancedcalculusbeforereal
analysis?
8.8kViewsViewUpvotesAnswerrequestedbyVikasRoy

HarryMcLaughlin,It'saverybusysemesterI'llgettowhatquestionsIcan
WrittenJan21

IwoulddelightedtowriteananswerbutthebestadviceIcangivewouldbetorefertothe
mathinsightpage:Multivariablecalculus
Whoevercreatedthesitehasgonetogreatlengthstoexplainthemathandthemeaning
behindthemath.Thereareplentyofanimationsandappletstomessaroundwith.Takea
lookforinstanceatthedetailinexplainingthecomponentsofthecurl:Thecomponentsof
thecurl
Thereisnotalotinthewayofpracticalapplications,thoughIthinkastrong
understandingofthemathematicsunderlyingtheapplicationwillmakeitthatmuch
easiertounderstandthecontext.
IseeMarkEichenlaub'sname,whoisanexcellentwriterandrecommendreadinghis
answer.
Nowgoandlearnsomemath!
2.2kViewsViewUpvotes

NicholasMa
WrittenMay19,2013UpvotedbyAnjishnuBandyopadhyay,PhDStudentinExperimental
ParticlePhysicsfromUniversityofBonn

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

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Inparticular,thedivergencelawiseasilyunderstoodusingthisidea.Ifwedivideavolume
intomanysmallcells,andadduptheirdivergences,theflowsfromonecellintoanother
willcancelout,andsowe'releftwiththeflowinandoutofthevolume.Youcan
conceptualizeStokes'theoreminasimilarway,withtheinternalrotationcancelingout,
andonlytherotationontheboundarycontributingtotheintegral.
Bothdivergenceandcurlhavenumerousapplicationsinvectorcalculus,particularlyin
regardtofluidmechanicsandelectromagnetism.Ifwewritetheelectricandmagnetic
fieldsasvectorfieldsandthechargedensityasascalarfield,thenMaxwell'sequations
relatethemusingdivergenceandcurl.
6.6kViewsViewUpvotesAnswerrequestedbyVikasRoy

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AmanPandey,AnIndianArmyAspirant

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WrittenMay11

Thegradient,divergence,andcurlaretheresultofapplyingtheDeloperatortovarious
kindsoffunctions:
TheGradientiswhatyougetwhenyoumultiplyDelbyascalarfunction
Grad(f)=

Notethattheresultofthegradientisavectorfield.Wecansaythatthegradientoperation
turnsascalarfieldintoavectorfield.
TheDivergenceiswhatyougetwhenyoudotDelwithavectorfield
Div(

)=

Notethattheresultofthedivergenceisascalarfunction.Wecansaythatthedivergence
operationturnsavectorfieldintoascalarfield.
TheCurliswhatyougetwhenyoucrossDelwithavectorfield
Curl(

)=

Notethattheresultofthecurlisavectorfield.Wecansaythatthecurloperationturnsa
vectorfieldintoanothervectorfield.
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MyviewisthatClintonisfundamentallya
pragmatist,whoseesarangeofoptionsand
makeswhatsheseesasoptimaldecisions
basedonthecurrentsituation.Iseeheras
weighingvariousfactionsandlisteningto
multiplepointsofview.Isuggestreviewof
thislinkedarticle:WhatSortofForeign
PolicyHawkIsHillaryClinton?TheNew
Yorker IsuggestfurtherreadingofIs
HillaryClinton... ReadMore

Ratherthantheusualtextformat,Ithought
Iwouldsummarizemyregretssofarinthis
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lovelypiechart.Youwillseethatthe
overwhelmingmajorityofthepieisdevoted

TheWhiteHousehasperiodiclockdowns
whentheSecretServicespotssomebodywith
agunoutside.Peopleevenshootatthe
WhiteHousefromtimetotime.Butithasan
extensivebasementthatswellprotected.I
suspectthatheandthefamilyandstaff
simplygothereuntiltheygettheallclear.It
seldomtakeslongtheseeventsseemtobe
overinabouthalfanhourorso.
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https://www.quora.com/Howcanyoubestexplaindivergenceandcurl

12/12