In many situations in which symmetries are involved, it is useful to write the equations describing the physical objects under study with respect to frames related to said symmetries. For situations involving rotational symmetry, polar (or cylindrical) coordinates are particularly useful.

For this reason, it is a good exercise to see how to transform something like Laplace equation into polar coordinates.

Remember that the Laplacian of is . If we write in polar coordinates as , we then need to write the Laplacian directly in terms of derivatives with respect to and .

Following a common abuse of notation, I will write , etc, for what one should more precisely write , etc, with as above.

Let’s begin by finding , , etc.

Since , then

We have . Similarly, .

Since , then , so .

Similarly, , so .

Before we continue, a word of caution is in order: Notice that so, for example, . This means that is not , as it is the case with functions of one variable.

Now we use the chain rule: Suppose is a differentiable function of . Then we obtain .

Assume now that is sufficiently differentiable so all the derivatives to follow exist and are continuous, mixed derivatives commute, etc. Apply the above twice, first with and then with to obtain or

Similarly, or

Thus,

We have obtained the Laplacian in polar coordinates as

Example: Let . We know from lecture that is harmonic. Writing in polar coordinates, we obtain . Then , , , and , so as expected.

Exercise: To test your understanding of the algebra involved in the operations above, you may want to find an expression for the wave equation in polar coordinates.

Cylindrical coordinates: Finally, if is a function of three variables and so , then we see immediately from the work above that we can write the Laplacian in cylindrical coordinates as .

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4 Responses to 275 -The Laplacian in polar coordinates

[…] proof that the method of partial fractions decomposition works. For 275, you may want to review the polar expression of the Laplacian and how to derive it. For both courses, a safe assumption is that if something was […]

thanks i am really impressed how you explained all this i am undergraduate student i am having problem with spherical polar coordinate conversion how we find derivative of Theta w.r.t x, y,z kindly help me

I’m still just a little confused in the second application of the chain rule, when we differentiate to get the second derivative of f in respect to x. Can anyone help me here?

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[…] proof that the method of partial fractions decomposition works. For 275, you may want to review the polar expression of the Laplacian and how to derive it. For both courses, a safe assumption is that if something was […]

Thanks for that post!

I was making some mistakes in these computations,

and this has helped!

thanks i am really impressed how you explained all this i am undergraduate student i am having problem with spherical polar coordinate conversion how we find derivative of Theta w.r.t x, y,z kindly help me

I’m still just a little confused in the second application of the chain rule, when we differentiate to get the second derivative of f in respect to x. Can anyone help me here?