The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Deriving Physics from Maxwell’s Equations

It’s important to note at this point that we didn’t have to start with our experimentally-justified axioms. Maxwell’s equations suffice to derive all the physics we need.

In the case of Faraday’s law, we’re already done, since it’s exactly the third of Maxwell’s equations in integral form. So far, so good.

Coulomb’s law is almost as simple. If we have a point charge q it makes sense that it generate a spherically symmetric, radial electric field. Given this assumption, we just need to calculate its magnitude at the radius r. To do this, set up a sphere of that radius around the point; Gauss’ law in integral form tells us that the flow of E out through this sphere is the total charge q inside. But it’s easy to calculate the integral, getting

\displaystyle4\pi r^2\lvert E(\lvert r\rvert)\rvert=\frac{q}{\epsilon_0}


\displaystyle\lvert E(\lvert r\rvert)\rvert=\frac{1}{4\pi\epsilon_0}\frac{q}{r^2}

which is the magnitude given by Coulomb’s law.

To get the Biot-Savart law, we can use Ampère’s law to calculate the magnetic field around an infinitely long straight current I. We again argue on geometric grounds that the magnitude of the magnetic field should only depend on the distance from the current and should point directly around the current. If we set up a circle of radius r then, the total circulation around the circle is, by Ampère’s law:

\displaystyle2\pi r\lvert B(\lvert r\rvert)\rvert=\mu_0I


\displaystyle\lvert B(\lvert r\rvert)\rvert=\frac{\mu_0}{2\pi}\frac{I}{r}

Now, we can compare this to the last time we computed the magnetic field of the straight infinite current by integrating the Biot-Savart law directly and got essentially the same answer.

Finally, we can derive conservation of charge from Ampère’s law, with Maxwell’s correction by taking its divergence:

\displaystyle\nabla\cdot(\nabla\times B)=\mu_0\nabla\cdot J+\epsilon_0\mu_0\frac{\partial}{\partial t}(\nabla\cdot E)

The quantity on the left is the divergence of a curl, so it automatically vanishes. Meanwhile, Gauss’ law tells us that \epsilon\nabla\cdot E=\rho, so we conclude

\displaystyle0=\mu_0\left(\nabla\cdot J+\frac{\partial\rho}{\partial t}\right)


\displaystyle\nabla\cdot J+\frac{\partial\rho}{\partial t}=0

which is the “continuity equation” expressing the conservation of charge.

The importance is that while we originally derived Maxwell’s equations from four experimentally-justified laws, those laws are themselves essentially derivable from Maxwell’s equations. Thus any reformulation of Maxwell’s equations is just as sufficient a basis for all of electromagnetism as our original physical axioms.

February 3, 2012 Posted by | Electromagnetism, Mathematical Physics | 4 Comments