Vector spherical harmonics

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In mathematics, vector spherical harmonics (VSH) are an extension of the scalar spherical harmonics for use with vector fields. The components of the VSH are complex-valued functions expressed in the spherical coordinate basis vectors.


Several conventions have been used to define the VSH.[1][2][3][4][5] We follow that of Barrera et al.. Given a scalar spherical harmonic Yℓm(θ, φ), we define three VSH:

with being the unit vector along the radial direction in spherical coordinates and r the vector along the radial direction with the same norm as the radius: (r, 0, 0). The radial factors are included to guarantee that the dimensions of the VSH are the same as those of the ordinary spherical harmonics and that the VSH do not depend on the radial spherical coordinate.

The interest of these new vector fields is to separate the radial dependence from the angular one when using spherical coordinates, so that a vector field admits a multipole expansion

The labels on the components reflect that is the radial component of the vector field, while and are transverse components.

Main Properties[edit]


Like the scalar spherical harmonics, the VSH satisfy

which cuts the number of independent functions roughly in half. The star * indicates complex conjugate.


The VSH are orthogonal in the usual three-dimensional way

but also in the Hilbert space

Vector multipole moments[edit]

The orthogonality relations allow one to compute the spherical multipole moments of a vector field as

The gradient of a scalar field[edit]

Given the multipole expansion of a scalar field

we can express its gradient in terms of the VSH as


For any multipole field we have

By superposition we obtain the divergence of any vector field

we see that the component on Φℓm is always solenoidal.


For any multipole field we have

By superposition we obtain the curl of any vector field


First vector spherical harmonics[edit]

The expression for negative values of m are obtained applying the symmetry relations.



The VSH are especially useful in the study of multipole radiation fields. For instance, a magnetic multipole is due to an oscillating current with angular frequency and complex amplitude

and the corresponding electric and magnetic fields can be written as

Substituting into Maxwell equations, Gauss' law is automatically satisfied

while Faraday's law decouples in

Gauss' law for the magnetic field implies

and Ampère-Maxwell's equation gives

In this way, the partial differential equations have been transformed into a set of ordinary differential equations.

Fluid dynamics[edit]

In the calculation of the Stokes' law for the drag that a viscous fluid exerts on a small spherical particle, the velocity distribution obeys Navier-Stokes equations neglecting inertia, i.e.

with the boundary conditions

being U the relative velocity of the particle to the fluid far from the particle. In spherical coordinates this velocity at infinity can be written as

The last expression suggest an expansion on spherical harmonics for the liquid velocity and the pressure

Substitution in the Navier-Stokes equations produces a set of ordinary differential equations for the coefficients.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R.G. Barrera, G.A. Estévez and J. Giraldo, Vector spherical harmonics and their application to magnetostatics, Eur. J. Phys. 6 287-294 (1985)
  2. ^ B. Carrascal, G.A. Estevez, P. Lee and V. Lorenzo Vector spherical harmonics and their application to classical electrodynamics, Eur. J. Phys., 12, 184-191 (1991)
  3. ^ E. L. Hill, The theory of Vector Spherical Harmonics, Am. J. Phys. 22, 211-214 (1954)
  4. ^ E. J. Weinberg, Monopole vector spherical harmonics, Phys. Rev. D. 49, 1086-1092 (1994)
  5. ^ P.M. Morse and H. Feshbach, Methods of Theoretical Physics, Part II, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1898-1901 (1953)

External links[edit]