Covariant formulation of classical electromagnetism

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The covariant formulation of classical electromagnetism refers to ways of writing the laws of classical electromagnetism (in particular, Maxwell's equations and the Lorentz force) in a form that is manifestly invariant under Lorentz transformations, in the formalism of special relativity using rectilinear inertial coordinate systems. These expressions both make it simple to prove that the laws of classical electromagnetism take the same form in any inertial coordinate system, and also provide a way to translate the fields and forces from one frame to another. However, this is not as general as Maxwell's equations in curved spacetime or non-rectilinear coordinate systems.

Covariance and contravariance of vectors Manner in which a geometric object varies with a change of basis

In multilinear algebra and tensor analysis, covariance and contravariance describe how the quantitative description of certain geometric or physical entities changes with a change of basis.

Classical electromagnetism Branch of theoretical physics that studies consequences of the electromagnetic forces between electric charges and currents

Classical electromagnetism or classical electrodynamics is a branch of theoretical physics that studies the interactions between electric charges and currents using an extension of the classical Newtonian model. The theory provides a description of electromagnetic phenomena whenever the relevant length scales and field strengths are large enough that quantum mechanical effects are negligible. For small distances and low field strengths, such interactions are better described by quantum electrodynamics.

Maxwells equations set of partial differential equations that describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents

Maxwell's equations are a set of coupled partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. The equations provide a mathematical model for electric, optical, and radio technologies, such as power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar etc. Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of the fields. An important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at a constant speed (c) in a vacuum. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum of light from radio waves to γ-rays. The equations are named after the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who between 1861 and 1862 published an early form of the equations that included the Lorentz force law. Maxwell first used the equations to propose that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.


This article uses the classical treatment of tensors and Einstein summation convention throughout and the Minkowski metric has the form diag (+1, −1, −1, −1). Where the equations are specified as holding in a vacuum, one could instead regard them as the formulation of Maxwell's equations in terms of total charge and current.

For a more general overview of the relationships between classical electromagnetism and special relativity, including various conceptual implications of this picture, see Classical electromagnetism and special relativity.

Classical electromagnetism and special relativity Relationship between relativity and pre-quantum electromagnetism

The theory of special relativity plays an important role in the modern theory of classical electromagnetism. First of all, it gives formulas for how electromagnetic objects, in particular the electric and magnetic fields, are altered under a Lorentz transformation from one inertial frame of reference to another. Secondly, it sheds light on the relationship between electricity and magnetism, showing that frame of reference determines if an observation follows electrostatic or magnetic laws. Third, it motivates a compact and convenient notation for the laws of electromagnetism, namely the "manifestly covariant" tensor form.

Covariant objects

Preliminary 4-vectors

Lorentz tensors of the following kinds may be used in this article to describe bodies or particles:

where γ(u) is the Lorentz factor at the 3-velocity u.
where is 3-momentum, is the total energy, and is rest mass.

The signs in the following tensor analysis depend on the convention used for the metric tensor. The convention used here is +−−−, corresponding to the Minkowski metric tensor:

In the mathematical field of differential geometry, a metric tensor is a type of function which takes as input a pair of tangent vectors v and w at a point of a surface and produces a real number scalar g(v, w) in a way that generalizes many of the familiar properties of the dot product of vectors in Euclidean space. In the same way as a dot product, metric tensors are used to define the length of and angle between tangent vectors. Through integration, the metric tensor allows one to define and compute the length of curves on the manifold.

Electromagnetic tensor

The electromagnetic tensor is the combination of the electric and magnetic fields into a covariant antisymmetric tensor whose entries are B-field quantities. [1]

In mathematics and theoretical physics, a tensor is antisymmetric onan index subset if it alternates sign (+/−) when any two indices of the subset are interchanged. The index subset must generally either be all covariant or all contravariant.

and the result of raising its indices is

where E is the electric field, B the magnetic field, and c the speed of light.


The four-current is the contravariant four-vector which combines electric charge density ρ and electric current density j:


The electromagnetic four-potential is a covariant four-vector containing the electric potential (also called the scalar potential) ϕ and magnetic vector potential (or vector potential) A, as follows:

The differential of the electromagnetic potential is

Electromagnetic stress–energy tensor

The electromagnetic stress–energy tensor can be interpreted as the flux density of the momentum 4-vector, and is a contravariant symmetric tensor that is the contribution of the electromagnetic fields to the overall stress–energy tensor:

where ε0 is the electric permittivity of vacuum, μ0 is the magnetic permeability of vacuum, the Poynting vector is

and the Maxwell stress tensor is given by

The electromagnetic field tensor F constructs the electromagnetic stress–energy tensor T by the equation:

where η is the Minkowski metric tensor (with signature +−−−). Notice that we use the fact that

which is predicted by Maxwell's equations.

Maxwell's equations in vacuum

In vacuum (or for the microscopic equations, not including macroscopic material descriptions), Maxwell's equations can be written as two tensor equations.

The two inhomogeneous Maxwell's equations, Gauss's Law and Ampère's law (with Maxwell's correction) combine into (with +−−− metric): [2]

Gauss Ampère law

while the homogeneous equations – Faraday's law of induction and Gauss's law for magnetism combine to form:

Gauss Faraday law

where Fαβ is the electromagnetic tensor, Jα is the 4-current, εαβγδ is the Levi-Civita symbol, and the indices behave according to the Einstein summation convention.

Each of these tensor equations corresponds to four scalar equations, one for each value of β.

Using the antisymmetric tensor notation and comma notation for the partial derivative (see Ricci calculus), the second equation can also be written more compactly as:

In the absence of sources, Maxwell's equations reduce to:

which is an electromagnetic wave equation in the field strength tensor.

Maxwell's equations in the Lorenz gauge

The Lorenz gauge condition is a Lorentz-invariant gauge condition. (This can be contrasted with other gauge conditions such as the Coulomb gauge, which if it holds in one inertial frame will generally not hold in any other.) It is expressed in terms of the four-potential as follows:

In the Lorenz gauge, the microscopic Maxwell's equations can be written as:

Lorentz force

Charged particle

Lorentz force f on a charged particle (of charge q) in motion (instantaneous velocity v). The E field and B field vary in space and time. Lorentz force particle.svg
Lorentz force f on a charged particle (of charge q) in motion (instantaneous velocity v). The E field and B field vary in space and time.

Electromagnetic (EM) fields affect the motion of electrically charged matter: due to the Lorentz force. In this way, EM fields can be detected (with applications in particle physics, and natural occurrences such as in aurorae). In relativistic form, the Lorentz force uses the field strength tensor as follows. [3]

Expressed in terms of coordinate time t, it is:

where pα is the four-momentum, q is the charge, and xβ is the position.

In the co-moving reference frame, this yields the 4-force

where uβ is the four-velocity, and τ is the particle's proper time, which is related to coordinate time by dt = γdτ.

Charge continuum

Lorentz force per spatial volume f on a continuous charge distribution (charge density r) in motion. Lorentz force continuum.svg
Lorentz force per spatial volume f on a continuous charge distribution (charge density ρ) in motion.

The density of force due to electromagnetism, whose spatial part is the Lorentz force, is given by

and is related to the electromagnetic stress–energy tensor by

Conservation laws

Electric charge

The continuity equation:

expresses charge conservation.

Electromagnetic energy–momentum

Using the Maxwell equations, one can see that the electromagnetic stress–energy tensor (defined above) satisfies the following differential equation, relating it to the electromagnetic tensor and the current four-vector


which expresses the conservation of linear momentum and energy by electromagnetic interactions.

Covariant objects in matter

Free and bound 4-currents

In order to solve the equations of electromagnetism given here, it is necessary to add information about how to calculate the electric current, Jν Frequently, it is convenient to separate the current into two parts, the free current and the bound current, which are modeled by different equations;


Maxwell's macroscopic equations have been used, in addition the definitions of the electric displacement D and the magnetic intensity H:

where M is the magnetization and P the electric polarization.

Magnetization-polarization tensor

The bound current is derived from the P and M fields which form an antisymmetric contravariant magnetization-polarization tensor [1]

which determines the bound current

Electric displacement tensor

If this is combined with Fμν we get the antisymmetric contravariant electromagnetic displacement tensor which combines the D and H fields as follows:

The three field tensors are related by:

which is equivalent to the definitions of the D and H fields given above.

Maxwell's equations in matter

The result is that Ampère's law,


and Gauss's law,


combine into one equation:

Gauss Ampère law(matter)

The bound current and free current as defined above are automatically and separately conserved

Constitutive equations


In vacuum, the constitutive relations between the field tensor and displacement tensor are:

Antisymmetry reduces these 16 equations to just six independent equations. Because it is usual to define Fμν by

the constitutive equations may, in vacuum, be combined with the Gauss–Ampère law to get:

The electromagnetic stress–energy tensor in terms of the displacement is:

where δαπ is the Kronecker delta. When the upper index is lowered with η, it becomes symmetric and is part of the source of the gravitational field.

Linear, nondispersive matter

Thus we have reduced the problem of modeling the current, Jν to two (hopefully) easier problems modeling the free current, Jνfree and modeling the magnetization and polarization, . For example, in the simplest materials at low frequencies, one has

where one is in the instantaneously comoving inertial frame of the material, σ is its electrical conductivity, χe is its electric susceptibility, and χm is its magnetic susceptibility.

The constitutive relations between the and F tensors, proposed by Minkowski for a linear materials (that is, E is proportional to D and B proportional to H), are: [4]

where u is the 4-velocity of material, ε and μ are respectively the proper permittivity and permeability of the material (i.e. in rest frame of material), and denotes the Hodge dual.

Lagrangian for classical electrodynamics


The Lagrangian density for classical electrodynamics is

In the interaction term, the four-current should be understood as an abbreviation of many terms expressing the electric currents of other charged fields in terms of their variables; the four-current is not itself a fundamental field.

The Euler–Lagrange equation for the electromagnetic Lagrangian density can be stated as follows:



the expression inside the square bracket is

The second term is

Therefore, the electromagnetic field's equations of motion are

which is one of the Maxwell equations above.


Separating the free currents from the bound currents, another way to write the Lagrangian density is as follows:

Using Euler–Lagrange equation, the equations of motion for can be derived.

The equivalent expression in non-relativistic vector notation is

See also

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 Vanderlinde, Jack (2004), classical electromagnetic theory, Springer, pp. 313–328, ISBN   9781402026997
  2. Classical Electrodynamics by Jackson, 3rd Edition, Chapter 11 Special Theory of Relativity
  3. The assumption is made that no forces other than those originating in E and B are present, that is, no gravitational, weak or strong forces.
  4. D.J. Griffiths (2007). Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd ed.). Dorling Kindersley. p. 563. ISBN   81-7758-293-3.

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