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Introducing Tensors to physics students

Associate Professor in Physics
Nehru Arts and Science College

In physics we have large number of physical quantities. Tensor is the mathematical tool used
to quantify these physical quantities. A physical property that can be quantified is a
physical quantity. The important property of a physical quantity is that it can be measured
and expressed in terms of a mathematical quantity. For example, length is a physical
quantity that can be expressed by stating a number of some basic measurement unit such as
meters, while anger is a property which is not possible to be described with a number or
any other mathematical quantity. Hence we cannot call anger or happiness a physical
quantity. The physical quantities so far identified in physics are given below. They are-
absorbed dose rate, acceleration, angular acceleration, angular speed, angular momentum,
area, area density, capacitance, catalytic activity, chemical potential, molar concentration,

current density, conductivity, dynamic viscosity, electric charge, electric charge

density, electric displacement, electric field strength, electrical conductance, electric
potential, electrical resistance, energy, energy density, entropy, force, frequency, half-life,
heat, heat capacity, heat flux density, illuminate, impedance, index of refraction, inductance,
irradiance, linear density, luminous flux, magnetic field strength, magnetic flux, magnetic
flux density, magnetization, mass fraction, (mass) Density, mean lifetime, molar energy,

molar entropy, molar heat capacity, moment of inertia, momentum,

permeability, permittivity, polarisability, power, pressure, (radioactive)

activity, (radioactive) dose, radiance, radiant intensity, reaction rate, speed, specific energy,

specific heat capacity, specific volume, spin, stress, susceptibility, surface tension,
thermal conductivity, torque, velocity, volume, wavelength, wave number, weight and work.
Every physical quantity must have a mathematical representation so that detailed study of
these is possible. Hence we have mathematical tools like theory of numbers or vectors with
which we can handle large number of physical quantities.

Scalars or Vectors?
Among the above physical quantities small bold faced quantities are vectors and un bold are
scalars. Generally we say quantities with magnitude only as scalars and with magnitude and
direction as vectors. But there are some quantities which are given in large font which are
not scalars and vectors. If they are not scalars and vectors what are they? What is special
about these quantities? Let us have a look at it. One quality of the above mentioned odd
members is that they sometimes behave as scalars and sometimes not. The above mentioned
physical quantities like mass, susceptibility, moment of inertia, permeability and permittivity
obey very familiar equations like

f f if if if if if if if if f if if if
F = ma, P = E, L = I, B = H, D = E, F = TA, J = E

from which we can write

m = f
= if
I = if

iif if
etc. Consider the last case. Let L = 5i + 5j + 5k and = i + j + k.
If you find moment of
inertia in this case you will get it as 5. But if L = 9i + 4j + 11k and angular velocity is not
if if
changed we will not be able to divide L with and get the moment of inertia. Why this
happen? What mathematical quantity is mass, susceptibility or moment of inertia? To
understand this we must have a look at the concept of vector division once again.

Vector Division

Consider a ball thrown vertically downwards into a liquid with a velocity

= 6k

After entering the liquid the velocity is decreased but the direction is not changed. Then the
new velocity may be

= 3k = 0.5
f f

Thus we transform the old velocity to a new velocity by a scalar multiple. But this is not true
in all cases. Suppose the ball is thrown at an angle then the incident velocity may look like
= 5i + 6j + 8k

and the deviated ball in the liquid may have different possible velocities like
= 2i + 6j + 7k

Etc depending upon the proportion of the liquid consider the first case. The components of
the final vector (3, 2, 5) can be obtained in different ways. Among them some are given


5 0
3 5

2 = 0 0 6

5 8


The above transformation matrix is diagonal.

5 0 0
3 5

2 = 5 6

0 0
5 8
0 0


3 6

5 -1 8

2 = 5 -1

2 8

1 1 -
Thus a 33 with all elements non-zero can also be used to transform the old velocity to new
one. In general the final velocity can be represented as

x 11 12 13 x

y = 21 22 23 y

z 31 32 33 z

This is the most general matrix which can be used to transform the incident velocity
to the new velocity. This shows that any vector can be transformed to a new vector in general
only by a 33matrix in 3D. If the matrix is diagonal and if the diagonal elements are same it
becomes a scalar multiple. We had seen that all our odd physical quantities always transform
one vector to a new vector. Hence the general form of these transforming quantities must be a
matrix with 9 components. Let us check whether this is true with a specific example. For this
let us find out what is the exact nature of moment of inertia.
Moment of inertia
Finding the components of moment of inertia is the simplest example given in many
textbooks for introducing a nine component physical quantity. We repeat it here for the
simplicity and also for students who may be new at such derivations. Consider,

if if
L = I
f if
In terms of r and p
if f f
f f
= r x m
f if f
=r x m ( x r)
f if f
= mr x ( x r)
if if if if if iif if if if
A x (B x C) = (A.C) B - (A.B) C
mr x ( x r) = m (r.r) - mr (r.)
f if f f f if f f if
if f f if

( ) (
= m ( x 2 +y 2 +z 2 ) x i+ y j+ z k -m xi+yj+zk )
( x +y +z )
= mr 2 - mr (r.)

x y z


L x = m ( y 2 +z 2 ) x -mxy y -mxzz
Then the three components of L are as follows,

L y = - myx x + m (x 2 +z 2 ) y - myz z

L z = - mzx x - mzy y + m (x 2 +y 2 ) z

L x = I xx x + I xy y + I xz z

L y = I yx x + I yy y + I yz z

L z = I zx x + I zy y + I zz z


I xx = m ((x 2 + y 2 + z 2 ) - x 2 ) = m (y 2 + z 2 )

I yy = m ((x 2 + y 2 + z 2 ) - y 2 ) =m (x 2 + z 2 )

I zz = m ((x 2 + y 2 + z 2 ) - z 2 ) =m (x 2 + y 2 )

I xy = - mxy = I yz

I yz = - myz = I zy
I zx = - mzx = I xz
Thus L = I can be written in the matrix form as
if if

L x I xx I xy I xz x

L y = I yx I yy I yz y
z zx zy zz z

Thus I is a physical quantity with nine components.

I xx I xy I xz

I = I yx I yy I yz

I zx I zy I zz
I11 I12 I13

I = I 21 I 22 I 23
31 32 33

L x m (y 2 +z 2 )

-mxy - mxz
L y = - myx y
L - mzx 2
m (x 2 + z 2 ) - myz
z m (x + y ) z
- mzy

L1 (x 2 2 + x 23 ) 1

-x1x 2 -x1x 3

L 2 = m -x 2 x1 -x 2 x 3 2

2 2
(x 1 + x 3)
L3 -x 3 x1 -x 3 x 2 (x 21 + x 2 2 3
We will go for another example.

Conductivity and Resistivity Tensor in the presence of electric and magnetic field
The Drude model of electrical conduction was proposed in 1900 by Paul Drude to explain the
transport properties of electrons in metals. From Drude theory we know that

J = nqv
and the mobility

When q = - e
J = - nev

Drude theory gives a scalar definition of conductivity in the formulation of Ohms law as
J= E
J = 0E

Here 0 is the scalar conductivity which is given by

ne 2
0 =

We can now show that in the presence of magnetic field the scalar conductivity change into
tensor conductivity of rank two. According to Drude model the momentum is given by

and if there are electric and magnetic field acting on the electrons then
m q

For stationary case

Replacing v by and substituting for we get

. Then the above

Let us assume that magnetic field is applied in the z direction with B = Bz K

( B k x ( J i + J j + J k ))
equation for electric field becomes

E x i + E y j + E z k = J x i + J y j + J z k - z x y z

E x i + E y j + E z k = J x i + J y j + J z k - (Bz J x j - Bz J y i)

Rewriting with B = Bz

E x i + E y j + E z k = (J x + BJ y )i + (J y - BJ x )j + J z k

In matrix format we can write this as

Ex 1 B 0 Jx
Ey = - B 0 Jy
E 0 0 1 J z
z 0

where is the resistivity tensor with nine components. The conductivity tensor is given by the inverse
of this and is given by

- B
1+ B
2 2 1+ 2B2

= 0 0
B 1
1+ B
2 2 1+ 2B2
0 1


Maxwell Stress Tensor

Now we can go for a very interesting example- the tensor nature of stress. It can be shown
that the stress produced by magnetic field will be a tensor. This was shown by Maxwell for
the total electric and magnetic field while establishing his Maxwells equations. Starting with
the Lorentz force law

if if f if
F = q(E + v x B)
the force per unit volume for the charge distribution is
f if f if
f = E + J x B
Now let us find the stress on anybody by the magnetic field alone. For charges moving in
magnetic field we have
f f if
f =JxB
Using Ampere's law without Maxwell correction (here we are not interested in the electric

( )
field contribution in the stress)
xB xB
f 1 if if

1 if
-Bx xB ( )
f if

f =

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
Using the vector identity
A.C = A x x C + C x x A + A. C + C. A
if if if if if if if if if if

( )
1 if if
.B B + B. B - ( )
f if if

1 2
f = B
0 0
It can be written more compactly by introducing the Maxwell stress tensor,

Ti j = Bi B j - B2
f = .T

where ij is Kronecker's delta. The force is now given by

F = . dV
Using Gauss's divergence theorem this can be written as

F = . ds

Thus T represents the force per unit area for the magnetic field and hence called stress tensor.
When a neutral atom is placed in an electric field the nucleus will be pushed in the direction
of the field and the electrons will move in the opposite way. The atom now has a tiny dipole
moment which points in the same direction as E. In fact this induced dipole moment is
approximately proportional to the field.
P = E
The constant of proportionality is called the atomic polarization. Its value depends
on the detailed structure of the atom in question. Consider a primitive model for an atom
consisting of a point nucleus (+ve) surrounded by a uniformly charged spherical cloud (-ve)
of radius a. In the presence of an external field E, the nucleus will be shifted slightly
to the right and the electron cloud to the left . Then for equilibrium
1 qd
Ee =
4 0 a3

qd = 4 0 a 3eE
if if
P = 4 0 a 3 E
if if
P = E
The atomic polarization is therefore

Where = 4 0 a 3 = 3 0 V

where V is the volume of the atom. For single Hydrogen atom is a constant, or is a scalar.
If we apply electric field for any atom which is spherical in shape then will be scalar.But
for a completely asymmetrical molecule like carbondioxide an electric field in the x-direction
will produce a polarization P with x, y and z components: we can write

( P = E )
Px = xx E x , Py = yx E x , Pz = zx E x
if if if
and the equation takes the form of the most general linear relation E and
P .

Px = xx E x + xy E y + xz E 2
Py = yx E x + yy E y + yz E 2

Pz = zx E x + zy E y + zz E 2

and we can write it as

Px xx xy xz E x

Py =
zx zy zz E z
yx yy yz

This shows that polarization is a tensor with 9 components.

Electromagnetic field Tensor
We will now find the components of a tensor in 4 dimensional world. We know that the
magnetic field B is given by

B=x A
if if
and the dynamic electric field E is given by
E = - -
where is the scalar and A is the vector potential. Expanding B
if if

i j k

B1i + B2 j + B3 k =
X1 X 2 X 3
A1 A2 A3
= i 3 - 2 + j 1 - 3 + k 1 - 3
X 2 X3 X3 X1 X3 X1

A 3 A 2

X 2 X 3
B1 =

A1 A 3

X 3 X1
B2 =

A1 A 3
B3 =
X 3 X1
Now let us find the components of electric field.
E = -

( )
E1i+E 2j+E3k = i
X1 X 2
+j +k
A1 A 2 A3
We can write,
E1 =
X1 t
Multiplying throughout by and rearranging we will get
A1 A 4
c X 4 X1
A 2 A 4
iE 2
c X 4 X 2
A 3 A 4
iE 3
c X 4 X 3

i i
if if iE
Here, A and form a four vector with A 4 = . Thus B and together make up the four
c c c
dimensional curl of A. Hence we define the components of the electromagnetic field F by
the expression.

F =

Here F11 = F22 = F33 = F44 = 0,

A 2 A1
= B3 = F21
X1 X 2
F12 =

A 3 A1
= B2 = F13
X1 X 3
F13 =

A 4 A1
= 1 = F41
X1 X 4
F14 =
A 3 A 2
= B1 = F32
X 2 X 3
F23 =

A 4 A 2
= 2 = F42
X 2 X 4
F24 =
A 4 A 3
= 3 = F43
X 3 X 4
F34 =

In matrix form electromagnetic field is a sixteen component physical quantity and it can be
represented in matrix form as
0 c

B3 -B2 -

-B3 iE2
0 B1 -
B2 iE3
-B1 0 -
iE2 iE3
c c c

It has 16 components since it is in the 4 dimensional space.

Now we had some ideas about the nature of a tensor and hence we can give a classification of
the tensors. We know the scalars has 30components, vector has 31 component. We found
some physical quantities with 32 components. Hence these all physical quantities can be
considered to belong to a family. In this family the members must have Nn components where
N is the dimension and n is 0,1,2,3,When n is zero we call the member scalar, when n is
1 we call the member vector and when n is 2 we call the member a tensor or a tensor of rank
2. Generally all these are called tensors with rank 0, 1, 2 etc.

1. Maxwell, J. C. 1865 A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field, vol. 1 (ed. W. D.
Niven), pp. 526-529. (Reprinted by Dover Publishing, 2003.)
2. Maxwell, J. C. 1867 Comments on `On the theory of the maintenance of electric currents
by mechanical work without the use of permanent magnetsProc. R. Soc. Lond. 15,
3. Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd Edition) [Hardcover]David J. Griffiths Addison
4. Mathematical Methods For Physicists International Student Edition [Paperback] George
B. Arfken (Author), Hans J. Weber Academic Press; 6 edition (Jun 3 2005)