Exterior derivative

Exterior derivative

In differential geometry, the exterior derivative extends the concept of the differential of a function, which is a form of degree zero, to differential forms of higher degree. Its current form was invented by Élie Cartan.

The exterior derivative "d" has the property that "d"2 = 0 and is the differential (coboundary) used to define de Rham (and Alexander-Spanier) cohomology on forms. Integration of forms gives a natural homomorphism from the de Rham cohomology to the singular cohomology of a smooth manifold. The theorem of de Rham shows that this map is actually an isomorphism. In this sense, the exterior derivative is the "dual" of the boundary map on singular simplices.


The exterior derivative of a differential form of degree "k" is a differential form of degree "k" + 1.

Given a multi-index I=(i_1, i_2, dots, i_k) with 1le i_1, i_2, dots, i_k le n, the exterior derivative of a "k"-form

: omega = f_Idx_I=f_{i_1i_2cdots i_k}dx_{i_1}wedge dx_{i_2}wedgecdotswedge dx_{i_k}

over R"n" is defined as

::d{omega} = sum_{i=1}^n frac{partial f_I}{partial x_i} dx_i wedge dx_I.

For general "k"-forms ω = Σ"I" "f""I" "dx""I" (where the components of the multi-index "I" run over all the values in {1, ..., "n"}), the definition of the exterior derivative is extended linearly. Note that whenever i is one of the components of the multi-index I, then dx_i wedge dx_I = 0 (see wedge product).

Geometrically, the "k" + 1 form "d"ω acts on each tangent space of R"n" in the following way: a ("k" + 1)-tuple of vectors ("u"1,...,"u""k" + 1) in the tangent space defines an oriented ("k" + 1)-polyhedron "p". "d"ω("u"1,...,"u""k" + 1) is defined to be the integral of ω over the boundary of "p", where the boundary is given the inherited orientation. Assuming the fact that every smooth manifold admits a (smooth) triangulation, this gives immediately Stokes' theorem.


For a 1-form sigma = u, dx + v, dy on R"2" we have, by applying the above formula to each term,

:d sigma = left(frac{partial{u{partial{x dx wedge dx + frac{partial{u{partial{y dy wedge dx ight) + left(frac{partial{v{partial{x dx wedge dy + frac{partial{v{partial{y dy wedge dy ight)::= 0 -frac{partial{u{partial{y dx wedge dy + frac{partial{v{partial{x dx wedge dy + 0 :: = left(frac{partial{v{partial{x - frac{partial{u{partial{y ight) dx wedge dy.


Exterior differentiation is by definition linear. Direct computation shows that it also has the following properties:

*the wedge product rule holds (see antiderivation)

::d(omega wedge eta) = domega wedge eta+(-1)^ m deg,}omega}(omega wedge deta),

* and "d"2 = 0, which follows from the equality of mixed partial derivatives.

It can be shown that the exterior derivative is uniquely determined by these properties and its agreement with the differential on 0-forms (functions).

Differential forms in the kernel of "d" are said to be "closed forms". For instance, a 1-form is closed if on each tangent space, its integral along the boundary of the parallelogram given by any pair of tangent vectors is zero. Thus closedness is a local condition. The image of "d" is said to consist of "exact forms" (cf. "exact differentials"). It is immediate that exact forms are closed.

The exterior derivative is natural. If "f": "M" → "N" is a smooth map and Ω"k" is the contravariant smooth functor that assigns to each manifold the space of "k"-forms on the manifold, then the following diagram commutes

so "d"("f"*ω) = "f"*"d"ω, where "f"* denotes the pullback of "f". This follows from that "f"*ω(·), by definition, is ω("f"*(·)), "f"* being the pushforward of "f". Thus "d" is a natural transformation from Ω"k" to Ω"k"+1.

Invariant formula

Given a "k"-form "ω" and arbitrary smooth vector fields "V0,V1, …, Vk" we have

:domega(V_0,V_1,...V_k) = sum_i(-1)^i V_ileft(omega(V_0, ldots, hat V_i, ldots,V_k) ight)


where [V_i,V_j] denotes Lie bracket and the hat denotes the omission of that element: omega(V_0, ldots, hat V_i, ldots,V_k) = omega(V_0, ldots, V_{i-1}, V_{i+1}, ldots, V_k).

In particular, for 1-forms we have::d omega(X,Y) = X(omega(Y)) - Y(omega(X)) - omega( [X,Y] ).

The exterior derivative in calculus

The following correspondence reveals about a dozen formulas from vector calculus as merely special cases of the above three rules of exterior differentiation.


For a 0-form, that is, a smooth function "f": R"n"→R, we have

:df = sum_{i=1}^n frac{partial f}{partial x_i}, dx_i. This is a 1-form, a section of the cotangent bundle, that gives local linear approximation to "f" on each tangent space.

For a vector field "V", :df(V) = langle mbox{grad}f ,V angle,

where grad "f" denotes gradient of "f" and < , > is the scalar product.


One can associate to a vector field "V" = ("u", "v", "w") on R3 the 1-form

:omega^1 _V = u dx + v dy + w dz,

and the 2-form

:omega^2 _V = u dy wedge dz + v dz wedge dx + w dx wedge dy.

The integral of &omega;1"V" over a path gives work done against -"V" along the path; locally, it is the dot product with "V". The integral of &omega;2"V" over a surface gives the flux of "V" over that surface; locally, it is the scalar triple product with "V".

One can check directly that

:d omega^1 _V = omega^2 _{curl ;V},

where "curl V" denotes the curl of "V". The flux of "curl V" over a surface is the integral of &omega;1"V" over the boundary of the surface.



:d omega^2 _V = mbox{div}; V ; dx wedge dy wedge dz.

The flux of "V" over the boundary of a 3-polyhedron "p" is given by the integral of the divergence of "V" over "p".

Invariant formulations of div, grad, and curl

The three operators above can be written in coordinate-free notation as follows:

: egin{array}{rcl} abla f &=& left( {mathbf d} f ight)^sharp \ abla imes F &=& left [ star left( {mathbf d} F^flat ight) ight] ^sharp \ abla cdot F &=& star {mathbf d} left( star F^flat ight) \end{array}

where star is the Hodge star operator and flat and sharp are the musical isomorphisms.

ee also

*Exterior covariant derivative
*Green's theorem
*Lie derivative
*Discrete exterior calculus



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