Introduction to the mathematics of general relativity

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This article is a non-technical introduction to the subject. For the main encyclopedia article, see Mathematics of general relativity.

The mathematics of general relativity are complex. In Newton's theories of motion, an object's length and the rate at which time passes remain constant while the object accelerates, meaning that many problems in Newtonian mechanics may be solved by algebra alone. In relativity, however, an object's length and the rate at which time passes both change appreciably as the object's speed approaches the speed of light, meaning that more variables and more complicated mathematics are required to calculate the object's motion. As a result, relativity requires the use of concepts such as vectors, tensors, pseudotensors and curvilinear coordinates.

For an introduction based on the example of particles following circular orbits about a large mass, nonrelativistic and relativistic treatments are given in, respectively, Newtonian motivations for general relativity and Theoretical motivation for general relativity.

Vectors and tensors[edit]

Main articles: Euclidean vector and Tensor


Illustration of a typical vector.

In mathematics, physics, and engineering, a Euclidean vector (sometimes called a geometric[1] or spatial vector,[2] or – as here – simply a vector) is a geometric object that has both a magnitude (or length) and direction. A vector is what is needed to "carry" the point A to the point B; the Latin word vector means "one who carries".[3] The magnitude of the vector is the distance between the two points and the direction refers to the direction of displacement from A to B. Many algebraic operations on real numbers such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and negation have close analogues for vectors, operations which obey the familiar algebraic laws of commutativity, associativity, and distributivity.


Stress, a second-order tensor. Stress is here shown as a series of vectors on each side of the box

A tensor extends the concept of a vector to additional dimensions. A scalar, that is, a simple number without a direction, would be shown on a graph as a point, a zero-dimensional object. A vector, which has a magnitude and direction, would appear on a graph as a line, which is a one-dimensional object. A tensor extends this concept to additional dimensions. A two-dimensional tensor would be called a second-order tensor. This can be viewed as a set of related vectors, moving in multiple directions on a plane.


Vectors are fundamental in the physical sciences. They can be used to represent any quantity that has both a magnitude and direction, such as velocity, the magnitude of which is speed. For example, the velocity 5 meters per second upward could be represented by the vector (0, 5) (in 2 dimensions with the positive y axis as 'up'). Another quantity represented by a vector is force, since it has a magnitude and direction. Vectors also describe many other physical quantities, such as displacement, acceleration, momentum, and angular momentum. Other physical vectors, such as the electric and magnetic field, are represented as a system of vectors at each point of a physical space; that is, a vector field.

Tensors also have extensive applications in physics:


In general relativity, four-dimensional vectors, or four-vectors, are required. These four dimensions are length, height, width and time. A "point" in this context would be an event, as it has both a location and a time. Similar to vectors, tensors in relativity require four dimensions. One example is the Riemann curvature tensor.

Coordinate transformation[edit]

In physics, as well as mathematics, a vector is often identified with a tuple, or list of numbers, which depend on some auxiliary coordinate system or reference frame. When the coordinates are transformed, for example by rotation or stretching of the coordinate system, then the components of the vector also transform. The vector itself has not changed, but the reference frame has, so the components of the vector (or measurements taken with respect to the reference frame) must change to compensate.

The vector is called covariant or contravariant depending on how the transformation of the vector's components is related to the transformation of coordinates.

  • Contravariant vectors are "regular vectors" with units of distance (such as a displacement) or distance times some other unit (such as velocity or acceleration). For example, in changing units from meters to millimeters, a displacement of 1 m becomes 1000 mm.
  • Covariant vectors, on the other hand, have units of one-over-distance (typically such as gradient). For example, in changing again from meters to millimeters, a gradient of 1 K/m becomes 0.001 K/mm.

In Einstein notation, contravariant vectors and components of tensors are shown with superscripts, e.g. xi, and covariant vectors and components of tensors with subscripts, e.g. xi. Indices are "raised" or "lowered" by multiplication by an appropriate matrix, often the identity matrix.

Coordinate transformation is important because relativity states that there is no one correct reference point in the universe. On earth, we use dimensions like north, east, and elevation, which are used throughout the entire planet. There is no such system for space. Without a clear reference grid, it becomes more accurate to describe the four dimensions as towards/away, left/right, up/down and past/future. As an example event, take the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To a modern observer on Mount Rainier looking east, the event is ahead, to the right, below, and in the past. However, to an observer in medieval England looking north, the event is behind, to the left, neither up nor down, and in the future. The event itself has not changed, the location of the observer has.

Oblique axes[edit]

An oblique coordinate system is one in which the axes are not necessarily orthogonal to each other; that is, they meet at angles other than right angles. When using coordinate transformations as described above, the new coordinate system will often appear to have oblique axes compared to the old system.


See also: Pseudotensor

A nontensor is a tensor-like quantity that behaves like a tensor in the raising and lowering of indices, but that does not transform like a tensor under a coordinate transformation. For example, Christoffel symbols cannot be tensors themselves if the coordinates don't change in a linear way.

In general relativity, one cannot describe the energy and momentum of the gravitational field by an energy–momentum tensor. Instead, one introduces objects that behave as tensors only with respect to restricted coordinate transformations. Strictly speaking, such objects are not tensors at all. A famous example of such a pseudotensor is the Landau–Lifshitz pseudotensor.

Curvilinear coordinates and curved spacetime[edit]

High-precision test of general relativity by the Cassini space probe (artist's impression): radio signals sent between the Earth and the probe (green wave) are delayed by the warping of space and time (blue lines) due to the Sun's mass. That is, the Sun's mass causes the regular grid coordinate system (in blue) to distort and have curvature. The radio wave then follows this curvature and moves toward the Sun.

Curvilinear coordinates are coordinates in which the angles between axes can change from point to point. This means that rather than having a grid of straight lines, the grid instead has curvature.

A good example of this is the surface of the Earth. While maps frequently portray north, south, east and west as a simple square grid, that is not in fact the case. Instead, the longitude lines running north and south are curved and meet at the north pole. This is because the Earth is not flat, but instead round.

In general relativity, gravity has curvature effects on the four dimensions of the universe. A common analogy is placing a heavy object on a stretched out rubber sheet, causing the sheet to bend downward. This curves the coordinate system around the object, much like an object in the universe curves the coordinate system it sits in. The mathematics here are conceptually more complex than on Earth, as it results in four dimensions of curved coordinates instead of three as used to describe a curved 2D surface.

Parallel transport[edit]

Main article: Parallel transport
Example: Parallel displacement along a circle of a three-dimensional ball embedded in two dimensions. The circle of radius r is embedded in a two-dimensional space characterized by the coordinates z1 and z2. The circle itself is characterized by coordinates y1 and y2 in the two-dimensional space. The circle itself is one-dimensional and can be characterized by its arc length x. The coordinate y is related to the coordinate x through the relation y1 = r cos x/r and y2 = r sin x/r. This gives y1/x = −sin x/r and y2/x = cos x/r In this case the metric is a scalar and is given by g = cos2 x/r + sin2 x/r = 1. The interval is then ds2 = g dx2 = dx2. The interval is just equal to the arc length as expected.

The interval in a high-dimensional space[edit]

In a Euclidean space, the separation between two points is measured by the distance between the two points. The distance is purely spatial, and is always positive. In spacetime, the separation between two events is measured by the invariant interval between the two events, which takes into account not only the spatial separation between the events, but also their temporal separation. The interval, s2, between two events is defined as:

     (spacetime interval),

where c is the speed of light, and Δr and Δt denote differences of the space and time coordinates, respectively, between the events. The choice of signs for s2 above follows the space-like convention (−+++). A notation like Δr2 means r)2. The reason s2 is called the interval and not s is that s2 can be positive, zero or negative.

Spacetime intervals may be classified into three distinct types, based on whether the temporal separation (c2Δt2) or the spatial separation (Δr2) of the two events is greater: time-like, light-like or space-like.

Certain types of world lines are called geodesics of the spacetime – straight lines in the case of Minkowski space and their closest equivalent in the curved spacetime of general relativity. In the case of purely time-like paths, geodesics are (locally) the paths of greatest separation (spacetime interval) as measured along the path between two events, whereas in Euclidean space and Riemannian manifolds, geodesics are paths of shortest distance between two points.[4][5] The concept of geodesics becomes central in general relativity, since geodesic motion may be thought of as "pure motion" (inertial motion) in spacetime, that is, free from any external influences.

The covariant derivative[edit]

Main article: Covariant derivative

The covariant derivative is a generalization of the directional derivative from vector calculus. As with the directional derivative, the covariant derivative is a rule, which takes as its inputs: (1) a vector, u, (along which the derivative is taken) defined at a point P, and (2) a vector field, v, defined in a neighborhood of P. The output is a vector, also at the point P. The primary difference from the usual directional derivative is that the covariant derivative must, in a certain precise sense, be independent of the manner in which it is expressed in a coordinate system.

Parallel transport[edit]

Given the covariant derivative, one can define the parallel transport of a vector v at a point P along a curve γ starting at P. For each point x of γ, the parallel transport of v at x will be a function of x, and can be written as v(x), where v(0) = v. The function v is determined by the requirement that the covariant derivative of v(x) along γ is 0. This is similar to the fact that a constant function is one whose derivative is constantly 0.

Christoffel symbols[edit]

Main article: Christoffel symbol

The equation for the covariant derivative can be written down in terms of Christoffel symbols. The Christoffel symbols find frequent use in Einstein's theory of general relativity, where spacetime is represented by a curved 4-dimensional Lorentz manifold with a Levi-Civita connection. The Einstein field equations – which determine the geometry of spacetime in the presence of matter – contain the Ricci tensor. Since the Ricci tensor is derived from the Riemann tensor, which can be written in terms of Christoffel symbols, a calculation of the Christoffel symbols is essential. Once the geometry is determined, the paths of particles and light beams are calculated by solving the geodesic equations in which the Christoffel symbols explicitly appear.


In general relativity, a geodesic generalizes the notion of a "straight line" to curved spacetime. Importantly, the world line of a particle free from all external, non-gravitational force, is a particular type of geodesic. In other words, a freely moving or falling particle always moves along a geodesic.

In general relativity, gravity can be regarded as not a force but a consequence of a curved spacetime geometry where the source of curvature is the stress–energy tensor (representing matter, for instance). Thus, for example, the path of a planet orbiting around a star is the projection of a geodesic of the curved 4-dimensional spacetime geometry around the star onto 3-dimensional space.

A curve is a geodesic if the tangent vector of the curve at any point is equal to the parallel transport of the tangent vector of the base point.

Curvature tensor[edit]

The Riemann tensor tells us, mathematically, how much curvature there is in any given region of space. Contracting the tensor produces 3 different mathematical objects:

  1. The Riemann curvature tensor: Rρσμν, which gives the most information on the curvature of a space and is derived from derivatives of the metric tensor. In flat space this tensor is zero.
  2. The Ricci tensor: Rσν, comes from the need in Einstein's theory for a curvature tensor with only 2 indices. It is obtained by averaging certain portions of the Riemann curvature tensor.
  3. The scalar curvature: R, the simplest measure of curvature, assigns a single scalar value to each point in a space. It is obtained by averaging the Ricci tensor.

The Riemann curvature tensor can be expressed in terms of the covariant derivative.

The Einstein tensor G is a rank-2 tensor defined over pseudo-Riemannian manifolds. In index-free notation it is defined as

where R is the Ricci tensor, g is the metric tensor and R is the scalar curvature. It is used in the Einstein field equations.

Stress–energy tensor[edit]

Contravariant components of the stress–energy tensor.

The stress–energy tensor (sometimes stress–energy–momentum tensor or energy–momentum tensor) is a tensor quantity in physics that describes the density and flux of energy and momentum in spacetime, generalizing the stress tensor of Newtonian physics. It is an attribute of matter, radiation, and non-gravitational force fields. The stress–energy tensor is the source of the gravitational field in the Einstein field equations of general relativity, just as mass density is the source of such a field in Newtonian gravity.

Einstein equation[edit]

The Einstein field equations (EFE) or Einstein's equations are a set of 10 equations in Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity which describe the fundamental interaction of gravitation as a result of spacetime being curved by matter and energy.[6] First published by Einstein in 1915[7] as a tensor equation, the EFE equate local spacetime curvature (expressed by the Einstein tensor) with the local energy and momentum within that spacetime (expressed by the stress–energy tensor).[8]

The Einstein Field Equations can be written as

where Gμν is the Einstein tensor and Tμν is the stress–energy tensor.

This implies that the curvature of space (represented by the Einstein tensor) is directly connected to the presence of matter and energy (represented by the stress–energy tensor).

Schwarzschild solution and black holes[edit]

Main article: Schwarzschild metric

In Einstein's theory of general relativity, the Schwarzschild metric (also Schwarzschild vacuum or Schwarzschild solution), is a solution to the Einstein field equations which describes the gravitational field outside a spherical mass, on the assumption that the electric charge of the mass, the angular momentum of the mass, and the universal cosmological constant are all zero. The solution is a useful approximation for describing slowly rotating astronomical objects such as many stars and planets, including Earth and the Sun. The solution is named after Karl Schwarzschild, who first published the solution in 1916.

According to Birkhoff's theorem, the Schwarzschild metric is the most general spherically symmetric, vacuum solution of the Einstein field equations. A Schwarzschild black hole or static black hole is a black hole that has no charge or angular momentum. A Schwarzschild black hole is described by the Schwarzschild metric, and cannot be distinguished from any other Schwarzschild black hole except by its mass.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ivanov 2001
  2. ^ Heinbockel 2001
  3. ^ Latin: vectus, perfect participle of vehere, "to carry"/ veho = "I carry". For historical development of the word vector, see "vector n.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) and Jeff Miller. "Earliest Known Uses of Some of the Words of Mathematics". Retrieved 2007-05-25. 
  4. ^ This characterization is not universal: both the arcs between two points of a great circle on a sphere are geodesics.
  5. ^ Berry, Michael V. (1989). Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation. CRC Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-85274-037-9.  Extract of page 58, caption of Fig. 25
  6. ^ Einstein, Albert (1916). "The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity" (PDF). Annalen der Physik. 354 (7): 769. Bibcode:1916AnP...354..769E. doi:10.1002/andp.19163540702. 
  7. ^ Einstein, Albert (November 25, 1915). "Die Feldgleichungen der Gravitation". Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin: 844–847. Retrieved 2006-09-12. 
  8. ^ Misner, Charles W.; Thorne, Kip S.; Wheeler, John Archibald (1973). Gravitation. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 978-0-7167-0344-0  Chapter 34, p 916


  • P. A. M. Dirac (1996). General Theory of Relativity. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01146-X. 
  • Misner, Charles; Thorne, Kip S.; Wheeler, John Archibald (1973). Gravitation. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-0344-0. 
  • Landau, L. D.; Lifshitz, E. M. (1975). Classical Theory of Fields (Fourth Revised English Edition). Oxford: Pergamon. ISBN 0-08-018176-7. 
  • R. P. Feynman; F. B. Moringo; W. G. Wagner (1995). Feynman Lectures on Gravitation. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-201-62734-5. 
  • Einstein, A. (1961). Relativity: The Special and General Theory. New York: Crown. ISBN 0-517-02961-8.