I’ve been reading Elke Stangl’s Elkemental Force blog for years now. Sometimes I even feel social-media-caught-up enough to comment, or at least to like posts. This is relevant today as I discuss one of the Stangl’s suggestions for my letter-V topic.
So sometime in pre-algebra, or early in (high school) algebra, you start drawing equations. It’s a simple trick. Lay down a coordinate system, some set of axes for ‘x’ and ‘y’ and maybe ‘z’ or whatever letters are important. Look to the equation, made up of x’s and y’s and maybe z’s and so. Highlight all the points with coordinates whose values make the equation true. This is the logical basis for saying (eg) that the straight line “is” .
A short while later, you learn about polar coordinates. Instead of using ‘x’ and ‘y’, you have ‘r’ and ‘θ’. ‘r’ is the distance from the center of the universe. ‘θ’ is the angle made with respect to some reference axis. It’s as legitimate a way of describing points in space. Some classrooms even have a part of the blackboard (whiteboard, whatever) with a polar-coordinates “grid” on it. This looks like the lines of a dartboard. And you learn that some shapes are easy to describe in polar coordinates. A circle, centered on the origin, is ‘r = 2’ or something like that. A line through the origin is ‘θ = 1’ or whatever. The line that we’d called before? … That’s … some mess. And now … that’s not even a line. That’s some kind of spiral. Two spirals, really. Kind of wild.
And something to bother you a while. is an equation that looks the same as . You’ve changed the names of the variables, but not how they relate to each other. But one is a straight line and the other a spiral thing. How can that be?
The answer, ultimately, is that the letters in the equations aren’t these content-neutral labels. They carry meaning. ‘x’ and ‘y’ imply looking at space a particular way. ‘r’ and ‘θ’ imply looking at space a different way. A shape has different representations in different coordinate systems. Fair enough. That seems to settle the question.
But if you get to calculus the question comes back. You can integrate over a region of space that’s defined by Cartesian coordinates, x’s and y’s. Or you can integrate over a region that’s defined by polar coordinates, r’s and θ’s. The first time you try this, you find … well, that any region easy to describe in Cartesian coordinates is painful in polar coordinates. And vice-versa. Way too hard. But if you struggle through all that symbol manipulation, you get … different answers. Eventually the calculus teacher has mercy and explains. If you’re integrating in Cartesian coordinates you need to use “dx dy”. If you’re integrating in polar coordinates you need to use “r dr dθ”. If you’ve never taken calculus, never mind what this means. What is important is that “r dr dθ” looks like three things multiplied together, while “dx dy” is two.
We get this explained as a “change of variables”. If we want to go from one set of coordinates to a different one, we have to do something fiddly. The extra ‘r’ in “r dr dθ” is what we get going from Cartesian to polar coordinates. And we get formulas to describe what we should do if we need other kinds of coordinates. It’s some work that introduces us to the Jacobian, which looks like the most tedious possible calculation ever at that time. (In Intro to Differential Equations we learn we were wrong, and the Wronskian is the most tedious possible calculation ever. This is also wrong, but it might as well be true.) We typically move on after this and count ourselves lucky it got no worse than that.
None of this is wrong, even from the perspective of more advanced mathematics. It’s not even misleading, which is a refreshing change. But we can look a little deeper, and get something good from doing so.
The deeper perspective looks at “differential forms”. These are about how to encode information about how your coordinate system represents space. They’re tensors. I don’t blame you for wondering if they would be. A differential form uses interactions between some of the directions in a space. A volume form is a differential form that uses all the directions in a space. And satisfies some other rules too. I’m skipping those because some of the symbols involved I don’t even know how to look up, much less make WordPress present.
What’s important is the volume form carries information compactly. As symbols it tells us that this represents a chunk of space that’s constant no matter what the coordinates look like. This makes it possible to do analysis on how functions work. It also tells us what we would need to do to calculate specific kinds of problem. This makes it possible to describe, for example, how something moving in space would change.
The volume form, and the tools to do anything useful with it, demand a lot of supporting work. You can dodge having to explicitly work with tensors. But you’ll need a lot of tensor-related materials, like wedge products and exterior derivatives and stuff like that. If you’ve never taken freshman calculus don’t worry: the people who have taken freshman calculus never heard of those things either. So what makes this worthwhile?
Yes, person who called out “polynomials”. Good instinct. Polynomials are usually a reason for any mathematics thing. This is one of maybe four exceptions. I have to appeal to my other standard answer: “group theory”. These volume forms match up naturally with groups. There’s not only information about how coordinates describe a space to consider. There’s ways to set up coordinates that tell us things.
That isn’t all. These volume forms can give us new invariants. Invariants are what mathematicians say instead of “conservation laws”. They’re properties whose value for a given problem is constant. This can make it easier to work out how one variable depends on another, or to work out specific values of variables.
For example, classical physics problems like how a bunch of planets orbit a sun often have a “symplectic manifold” that matches the problem. This is a description of how the positions and momentums of all the things in the problem relate. The symplectic manifold has a volume form. That volume is going to be constant as time progresses. That is, there’s this way of representing the positions and speeds of all the planets that does not change, no matter what. It’s much like the conservation of energy or the conservation of angular momentum. And this has practical value. It’s the subject that brought my and Elke Stangl’s blogs into contact, years ago. It also has broader applicability.
There’s no way to provide an exact answer for the movement of, like, the sun and nine-ish planets and a couple major moons and all that. So there’s no known way to answer the question of whether the Earth’s orbit is stable. All the planets are always tugging one another, changing their orbits a little. Could this converge in a weird way suddenly, on geologic timescales? Might the planet might go flying off out of the solar system? It doesn’t seem like the solar system could be all that unstable, or it would have already. But we can’t rule out that some freaky alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and Halley’s Comet might not tweak the Earth’s orbit just far enough for catastrophe to unfold. Granted there’s nothing we could do about the Earth flying out of the solar system, but it would be nice to know if we face it, we tell ourselves.
But we can answer this numerically. We can set a computer to simulate the movement of the solar system. But there will always be numerical errors. For example, we can’t use the exact value of π in a numerical computation. 3.141592 (and more digits) might be good enough for projecting stuff out a day, a week, a thousand years. But if we’re looking at millions of years? The difference can add up. We can imagine compensating for not having the value of π exactly right. But what about compensating for something we don’t know precisely, like, where Jupiter will be in 16 million years and two months?
Symplectic forms can help us. The volume form represented by this space has to be conserved. So we can rewrite our simulation so that these forms are conserved, by design. This does not mean we avoid making errors. But it means we avoid making certain kinds of errors. We’re more likely to make what we call “phase” errors. We predict Jupiter’s location in 16 million years and two months. Our simulation puts it thirty degrees farther in its circular orbit than it actually would be. This is a less serious mistake to make than putting Jupiter, say, eight-tenths as far from the Sun as it would really be.
Volume forms seem, at first, a lot of mechanism for a small problem. And, unfortunately for students, they are. They’re more trouble than they’re worth for changing Cartesian to polar coordinates, or similar problems. You know, ones that the student already has some feel for. They pay off on more abstract problems. Tracking the movement of a dozen interacting things, say, or describing a space that’s very strangely shaped. Those make the effort to learn about forms worthwhile.