In mathematics, a Dirichlet problem is the problem of finding a function which solves a specified partial differential equation (PDE) in the interior of a given region that takes prescribed values on the boundary of the region.
The Dirichlet problem can be solved for many PDEs, although originally it was posed for Laplace's equation. In that case the problem can be stated as follows:
- Given a function f that has values everywhere on the boundary of a region in Rn, is there a unique continuous function u twice continuously differentiable in the interior and continuous on the boundary, such that u is harmonic in the interior and u = f on the boundary?
The Dirichlet problem goes back to George Green who studied the problem on general domains with general boundary conditions in his Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism, published in 1828. He reduced the problem into a problem of constructing what we now call Green's functions, and argued that Green's function exists for any domain. His methods were not rigorous by today's standards, but the ideas were highly influential in the subsequent developments. The next steps in the study of the Dirichlet's problem were taken by Karl Friedrich Gauss, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet after whom the problem was named and the solution to the problem (at least for the ball) using the Poisson kernel was known to Dirichlet (judging by his 1850 paper submitted to the Prussian academy). Lord Kelvin and Dirichlet suggested a solution to the problem by a variational method based on the minimization of "Dirichlet's energy". According to Hans Freudenthal (in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol 11), Bernhard Riemann was the first mathematician who solved this variational problem based on a method which he called Dirichlet's principle. The existence of a unique solution is very plausible by the 'physical argument': any charge distribution on the boundary should, by the laws of electrostatics, determine an electrical potential as solution. However, Karl Weierstrass found a flaw in Riemann's argument, and a rigorous proof of existence was found only in 1900 by David Hilbert, using his direct method in the calculus of variations. It turns out that the existence of a solution depends delicately on the smoothness of the boundary and the prescribed data.
For a domain having a sufficiently smooth boundary , the general solution to the Dirichlet problem is given by
where is the Green's function for the partial differential equation, and
is the derivative of the Green's function along the inward-pointing unit normal vector . The integration is performed on the boundary, with measure . The function is given by the unique solution to the Fredholm integral equation of the second kind,
The Green's function to be used in the above integral is one which vanishes on the boundary:
for and . Such a Green's function is usually a sum of the free-field Green's function and a harmonic solution to the differential equation.
The Dirichlet problem for harmonic functions always has a solution, and that solution is unique, when the boundary is sufficiently smooth and is continuous. More precisely, it has a solution when
for some , where denotes the Hölder condition.
Example: the unit disk in two dimensions
In some simple cases the Dirichlet problem can be solved explicitly. For example, the solution to the Dirichlet problem for the unit disk in R2 is given by the Poisson integral formula.
If is a continuous function on the boundary of the open unit disk , then the solution to the Dirichlet problem is given by
The solution is continuous on the closed unit disk and harmonic on
The integrand is known as the Poisson kernel; this solution follows from the Green's function in two dimensions:
where is harmonic
and chosen such that for .
Methods of solution
For bounded domains, the Dirichlet problem can be solved using the Perron method, which relies on the maximum principle for subharmonic functions. This approach is described in many text books. It is not well-suited to describing smoothness of solutions when the boundary is smooth. Another classical Hilbert space approach through Sobolev spaces does yield such information. The solution of the Dirichlet problem using Sobolev spaces for planar domains can be used to prove the smooth version of the Riemann mapping theorem. Bell (1992) has outlined a different approach for establishing the smooth Riemann mapping theorem, based on the reproducing kernels of Szegő and Bergman, and in turn used it to solve the Dirichlet problem. The classical methods of potential theory allow the Dirichlet problem to be solved directly in terms of integral operators, for which the standard theory of compact and Fredholm operators is applicable. The same methods work equally for the Neumann problem. 
Dirichlet problems are typical of elliptic partial differential equations, and potential theory, and the Laplace equation in particular. Other examples include the biharmonic equation and related equations in elasticity theory.
Example - equation of a finite string attached to one moving wall
Consider the Dirichlet problem for the wave equation which describes a string attached between walls with one end attached permanently and with the other moving with the constant velocity i.e. the d'Alembert equation on the triangular region of the Cartesian product of the space and the time:
As one can easily check by substitution that the solution fulfilling the first condition is
Additionally we want
we get the condition of self-similarity
It is fulfilled for example by the composite function
thus in general
where is a periodic function with a period
and we get the general solution
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