Archive for the 'Occasional' Category

Adjoints of Vector Operators

We take a fresh look at the vector differential operators grad, div and curl. There are many vector identities relating these. In particular, there are two combinations that always yield zero results:

\displaystyle \begin{array}{rcl} \mathbf{curl}\ \mathbf{grad}\ \chi &\equiv& 0\,, \quad \mbox{for all scalar functions\ }\chi \\ \mathrm{div}\ \mathbf{curl}\ \boldsymbol{\psi} &\equiv& 0\,, \quad \mbox{for all vector functions\ }\boldsymbol{\psi} \end{array}

Question: Is there a connection between these identities?


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Grad, Div and Curl on Weather Maps: a Gateway to Vector Analysis

Vector analysis can be daunting for students. The theory can appear abstract, and operators like Grad, Div and Curl seem to be introduced without any obvious motivation. Concrete examples can make things easier to understand. Weather maps, easily obtained on the web, provide real-life applications of vector operators.


Fig. 1. An idealized scalar field representing the mean sea-level atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic area.

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Divergent Series Yield Valuable Results

Mathematicians have traditionally dealt with convergent series and shunned divergent ones. But, long ago, astronomers found that divergent expansions yield valuable results. If these so-called asymptotic expansions are truncated, the error is bounded by the first term omitted. Thus, by stopping just before the smallest term, excellent approximations may be obtained.

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The Intermediate Axis Theorem

In 1985, cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov commanded a mission to repair the space station Salyut-7. During the operation, he flicked a wing-nut to remove it. As it left the end of the bolt, the nut continued to spin in space, but every few seconds, it turned over through {180^\circ}. Although the angular momentum did not change, the rotation axis moved in the body frame. The nut continued to flip back and forth, although there were no forces or torques acting on it.


Flipping nut [image from Veritasium].

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Archimedes and the Volume of a Sphere

One of the most remarkable and important mathematical results obtained by Archimedes was the determination of the volume of a sphere. Archimedes used a technique of sub-dividing the volume into slices of known cross-sectional area and adding up, or integrating, the volumes of the slices. This was essentially an application of a technique that was — close to two thousand years later — formulated as integral calculus.


Cone, sphere and cylinder on the same base. The volumes are in the ratios  1 : 2 : 3 [image from].

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Elliptic Trigonometry: Fun with “sun”, “cun” and “dun”


The circular functions arise from ratios of lengths in a circle. In a similar manner, the elliptic functions can be defined by means of ratios of lengths in an ellipse. Many of the key properties of the elliptic functions follow from simple geometric properties of the ellipse.

Originally, Carl Gustav Jacobi defined the elliptic functions {\mathop\mathrm{sn} u}, {\mathop\mathrm{cn} u}, {\mathop\mathrm{dn} u} using the integral

\displaystyle u = \int_0^{\phi} \frac{\mathrm{d}\phi}{\sqrt{1-k^2\sin^2\phi}} \,.

He called {\phi} the amplitude and wrote {\phi = \mathop\mathrm{am} u}. It can be difficult to understand what motivated his definitions. We will define the elliptic functions {\mathop\mathrm{sn} u}, {\mathop\mathrm{cn} u}, {\mathop\mathrm{dn} u} in a more intuitive way, as simple ratios associated with an ellipse.

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An Attractive Spinning Toy: the Phi-TOP

It is fascinating to watch a top spinning. It seems to defy gravity: while it would topple over if not spinning, it remains in a vertical position as long as it is spinning rapidly.

There are many variations on the simple top. The gyroscope has played a vital role in navigation and in guidance and control systems. Many similar rotating toys have been devised. These include rattlebacks, tippe-tops and the Euler disk. The figure below shows four examples.


(a) Simple top, (b) Rising egg, (c) Tippe-top, (d) Euler disk. [Image from website of Rod Cross.]

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