Normal coordinates

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In differential geometry, normal coordinates at a point p in a differentiable manifold equipped with a symmetric affine connection are a local coordinate system in a neighborhood of p obtained by applying the exponential map to the tangent space at p. In a normal coordinate system, the Christoffel symbols of the connection vanish at the point p, thus often simplifying local calculations. In normal coordinates associated to the Levi-Civita connection of a Riemannian manifold, one can additionally arrange that the metric tensor is the Kronecker delta at the point p, and that the first partial derivatives of the metric at p vanish.

A basic result of differential geometry states that normal coordinates at a point always exist on a manifold with a symmetric affine connection. In such coordinates the covariant derivative reduces to a partial derivative (at p only), and the geodesics through p are locally linear functions of t (the affine parameter). This idea was implemented in a fundamental way by Albert Einstein in the general theory of relativity: the equivalence principle uses normal coordinates via inertial frames. Normal coordinates always exist for the Levi-Civita connection of a Riemannian or Pseudo-Riemannian manifold. By contrast, there is no way to define normal coordinates for Finsler manifolds (Busemann 1955).

Geodesic normal coordinates[edit]

Geodesic normal coordinates are local coordinates on a manifold with an affine connection afforded by the exponential map

 \exp_p : T_{p}M \supset V \rightarrow M

and an isomorphism

 E: \mathbb{R}^n \rightarrow T_{p}M

given by any basis of the tangent space at the fixed basepoint p ∈ M. If the additional structure of a Riemannian metric is imposed, then the basis defined by E may be required in addition to be orthonormal, and the resulting coordinate system is then known as a Riemannian normal coordinate system.

Normal coordinates exist on a normal neighborhood of a point p in M. A normal neighborhood U is a subset of M such that there is a proper neighborhood V of the origin in the tangent space TpM and expp acts as a diffeomorphism between U and V. Now let U be a normal neighborhood of p in M then the chart is given by:

 \varphi := E^{-1} \circ \exp_p^{-1}: U \rightarrow \mathbb{R}^n

The isomorphism E can be any isomorphism between both vectorspaces, so there are as many charts as different orthonormal bases exist in the domain of E.


The properties of normal coordinates often simplify computations. In the following, assume that U is a normal neighborhood centered at p in M and (xi) are normal coordinates on U.

  • Let V be some vector from TpM with components Vi in local coordinates, and  \gamma_V be the geodesic with starting point p and velocity vector V, then  \gamma_V is represented in normal coordinates by  \gamma_V(t) = (tV^1, ... , tV^n) as long as it is in U.
  • The coordinates of p are (0, ..., 0)
  • In Riemannian normal coordinates at p the components of the Riemannian metric g simplify to  \delta_{ij} .
  • The Christoffel symbols vanish at p. In the Riemannian case, so do the first partial derivatives of  g_{ij} .

Polar coordinates[edit]

On a Riemannian manifold, a normal coordinate system at p facilitates the introduction of a system of spherical coordinates, known as polar coordinates. These are the coordinates on M obtained by introducing the standard spherical coordinate system on the Euclidean space TpM. That is, one introduces on TpM the standard spherical coordinate system (r,φ) where r ≥ 0 is the radial parameter and φ = (φ1,...,φn−1) is a parameterization of the (n−1)-sphere. Composition of (r,φ) with the inverse of the exponential map at p is a polar coordinate system.

Polar coordinates provide a number of fundamental tools in Riemannian geometry. The radial coordinate is the most significant: geometrically it represents the geodesic distance to p of nearby points. Gauss's lemma asserts that the gradient of r is simply the partial derivative \partial/\partial r. That is,

\langle df, dr\rangle = \frac{\partial f}{\partial r}

for any smooth function ƒ. As a result, the metric in polar coordinates assumes a block diagonal form

g = \begin{bmatrix}
1&0&\cdots\ 0\\
\vdots &&g_{\phi\phi}(r,\phi)\\


See also[edit]