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Maxwell's equations specify two vector and two scalar (differential) equations. That implies 8 components in the equations. But between vector fields $\vec{E}=(E_x,E_y,E_z)$ and $\vec{B}=(B_x,B_y,B_z)$, there are only 6 unknowns. So we have 8 equations for 6 unknowns. Why isn't this a problem?

As far as I know, the answer is basically because the equations aren't actually independent but I've never found a clear explanation. Perhaps the right direction is in this article on arXiv.

Apologies if this is a repost. I found some discussions on PhysicsForums but no similar question here.

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Suggestion for the title(v1): Replace the word overdefine with overdetermine or perhaps overconstrain. –  Qmechanic Jan 27 '12 at 10:25
Ah, good point. "Overdetermine" is much better. –  Warrick Jan 27 '12 at 10:49
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8 Answers

up vote 31 down vote accepted

It isn't a problem because two of the eight equations are constraints and they're not quite independent from the remaining six.

The constraint equations are the scalar ones, $$ {\rm div}\,\,\vec D = \rho, \qquad {\rm div}\,\,\vec B = 0$$ Imagine $\vec D=\epsilon_0\vec E$ and $\vec B=\mu_0\vec H$ everywhere for the sake of simplicity.

If these equations are satisfied in the initial state, they will immediately be satisfied at all times. That's because the time derivatives of these non-dynamical equations ("non-dynamical" means that they're not designed to determine time derivatives of fields themselves; they don't really contain any time derivatives) may be calculated from the remaining 6 equations. Just apply ${\rm div}$ on the remaining 6 component equations, $$ {\rm curl}\,\, \vec E+ \frac{\partial\vec B}{\partial t} = 0, \qquad {\rm curl}\,\, \vec H- \frac{\partial\vec D}{\partial t} = \vec j. $$ When you apply ${\rm div}$, the curl terms disappear because ${\rm div}\,\,{\rm curl} \,\,\vec V\equiv 0$ is an identity and you get $$\frac{\partial({\rm div}\,\,\vec B)}{\partial t} =0,\qquad \frac{\partial({\rm div}\,\,\vec D)}{\partial t} =-{\rm div}\,\,\vec j. $$ The first equation implies that ${\rm div}\,\,\vec B$ remains zero if it were zero in the initial state. The second equation may be rewritten using the continuity equation for $\vec j$, $$ \frac{\partial \rho}{\partial t}+{\rm div}\,\,\vec j = 0$$ (i.e. we are assuming this holds for the sources) to get $$ \frac{\partial ({\rm div}\,\,\vec D-\rho)}{\partial t} = 0 $$ so ${\rm div}\,\,\vec D-\rho$ also remains zero at all times if it is zero in the initial state.

Let me mention that among the 6+2 component Maxwell's equations, 4 of them, those involving $\vec E,\vec B$, may be solved by writing $\vec E,\vec B$ in terms of four components $\Phi,\vec A$. In this language, we are left with the remaining 4 Maxwell's equations only. However, only 3 of them are really independent at each time, as shown above. That's also OK because the four components of $\Phi,\vec A$ are not quite determined: one of these components (or one function) may be changed by the 1-parameter $U(1)$ gauge invariance.

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What Lubos is saying is that scalar equations can be considered as consequences of vector equations, conservation of charges and initial conditions. For instance, $div B = 0$ is the consequence of conservation of magnetic charge and lack of magnetic charges at the initial time, since $div B = const$ is the consequence of $curl E = -\frac{\partial B}{\partial t}$, and $divB=0$ at the initial time. –  Murod Abdukhakimov Jan 27 '12 at 10:24
Lubosh, $\vec{E},\vec{B}$ are expressed via 6 time and space derivatives of $\phi$ and $\vec{A}$; that is why there is an ambiguity in potentials. –  Vladimir Kalitvianski Jan 27 '12 at 18:48
Dear Vladimir, I have answered your question in detail. Again. There's a 1-parameter ambiguity in the 4 potentials - the U(1) gauge invariance - because locally in spacetime, the 4 potentials are only constrained by 3 equations, curl H = $j+\partial D / \partial t$. The fourth equation with currents, ${\rm div}\,\, D=\rho$, isn't independent: its time derivative follows from the previous three. The remaining 3+1 equations for $B,E$ are satisfied automatically if $B,E$ are expressed in terms of the 4 potentials, they're Bianchi identities. –  Luboš Motl Jan 27 '12 at 18:54
Of course, the way we introduce potentials is not arbitrary, but specific to the Maxwell equations. Any specification is a constraint in comparison with arbitrariness. Now tell me, how many independent electric and magnetic field components are there in electro-magneto-statics? –  Vladimir Kalitvianski Jan 27 '12 at 19:33
Dear @Nick, Lubos or Lubosh is surely easier to write and I don't get insulted. Many people, even those outside Central and Eastern Europe where š may be typed on keyboard, are actually able to write the character in a second or so, by copy-and-paste etc., so it's not a huge sacrifice if they write it correctly. But yes, š is pronounced as sh. –  Luboš Motl Jan 31 '12 at 7:18
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I) Let us just for fun generalize OP's question to $n$ spacetime dimensions, and check how the counting of eqs. and degrees of freedom (d.o.f.) work out in this general setting. We shall use Lubos Motl's answer as a template for this part. Also we shall use a special relativistic $(-,+,\ldots,+)$ notation with $c=1$, where $\mu,\nu\in\{0,\ldots,n-1\}$ denote spacetime indices, while $i,j \in\{1,\ldots,n-1\}$ denote spatial indices. Maxwell eqs. are the following.

  1. Source-free Bianchi identities: $${\rm d}F~=~0 \qquad\qquad \Leftrightarrow \qquad\qquad \sum_{\rm cycl.~\mu,\nu,\lambda} d_{\lambda} F_{\mu\nu} ~=~0, \qquad\qquad F~:=~\frac{1}{2} F_{\mu\nu}~ {\rm d}x^{\mu} \wedge {\rm d}x^{\nu}.$$ Here $$\left(\begin{array}{c} n \cr 3\end{array}\right) {\rm~Bianchi~identities} ~=~ \left(\begin{array}{c} n-1 \cr 3\end{array}\right) {\rm~constraints}~+~ \left(\begin{array}{c} n-1 \cr 2\end{array}\right) {\rm~dynamical~eqs.} $$ $$~=~ ({\rm No~magnetic~monopole~eqs.})~+~ ({\rm Faraday's~law}). $$

  2. Maxwell eqs. with source terms: $$ d_{\mu}F^{\mu\nu}~=~-j^{\nu} .$$ Here $$n {\rm~source~eqs.}~=~1 {\rm~constraint} ~+~ (n-1) {\rm~dynamical~eqs.}$$ $$~=~({\rm Gauss'~law}) ~+~ ({\rm Ampere's~law~with~displacement~term}).$$

We have used the terminology that a dynamical eq. contains time derivatives, while a constraint does not. So the number of dynamical eqs. is

$$ \left(\begin{array}{c} n-1 \cr 2\end{array}\right)~+~(n-1)~=~ \left(\begin{array}{c} n \cr 2\end{array}\right),$$

which precisely matches

$${\rm the~number~} \left(\begin{array}{c} n \cr 2\end{array}\right) {\rm~of~} F_{\mu\nu} {\rm~fields}$$ $$~=~\left(\begin{array}{c} n-1 \cr 2\end{array}\right){~\rm magnetic~fields~} F_{ij} ~+~(n-1) {\rm~electric~fields~}F_{i0} .$$

Maxwell eqs. with source terms imply the continuity eq.

$$ d_{\nu}j^{\nu} ~=~-d_{\nu}d_{\mu}F^{\mu\nu}~=~0,\qquad\qquad F^{\mu\nu}~=~-F^{\nu\mu},$$

so one must demand that the background sources $j^{\nu}$ obey the continuity eq.

For consistency, the time derivative of each of the constraints should vanish. In the case of the no-magnetic-monopole-eqs., this follows from Faraday's law. In the case of Gauss' law, this follows from the modified Ampere's law and the continuity eq.

II) The previous section (I) made the counting in terms of the $\left(\begin{array}{c} n \cr 2\end{array}\right)$ field strengths $F_{\mu\nu}$. In terms of the $n$ gauge potentials $A_{\mu}$, the counting goes as follows. The Bianchi identities are now trivially satisfied,

$$F~=~{\rm d}A\qquad\qquad A~:=~A_{\mu}~ {\rm d}x^{\mu}. $$

There are still the $n$ Maxwell eqs. with source terms

$$ (\Box\delta^{\mu}_{\nu}-d^{\mu}d_{\nu})A^{\nu}~=~-j^{\mu} , \qquad\qquad \Box~:=~d_{\mu}d^{\mu}. $$

There is a single gauge d.o.f. because of gauge symmetry $A \to A + {\rm d}\Lambda$ and $F \to F$. If one gauge-fixes using the Lorenz gauge condition

$$d_{\mu}A^{\mu}~=~0, $$

the Maxwell eqs. become $n$ decoupled wave equations

$$ \Box A^{\mu}(x)~=~-j^{\mu}(x). $$

By a spatial Fourier transformation, these become decoupled linear second-order ODEs with constant coefficients,

$$ (d^2_t+\vec{k}^2) \hat{A}^{\mu}(t;\vec{k})~=~\hat{j}^{\mu}(t;\vec{k}) , $$

which, starting from some initial time $t_0$, may be solved for all times $t$, cf. OP's question. [One should check that the solution

$$\hat{A}^{\mu}(t;\vec{k}) ~=~\int {\rm d} t^{\prime} ~G(t-t^{\prime};\vec{k})~\hat{j}^{\mu}(t^{\prime};\vec{k}), \qquad\qquad (d^2_t+\vec{k}^2)G(t-t^{\prime};\vec{k})~=~\delta(t-t^{\prime}),$$

satisfies the Lorenz gauge condition. This follows from the continuity eq.]

III) It is interesting to derive the complete solution $\tilde{A}^{\mu}(k)$ in $k^{\nu}$-momentum space without gauge-fixing. The Fourier-transformed Maxwell eqs. read

$$M^{\mu}{}_{\nu}~\tilde{A}^{\nu}(k)~=~\tilde{j}^{\mu}(k), \qquad\qquad M^{\mu}{}_{\nu}~:=~k^2\delta^{\mu}_{\nu} -k^{\mu}k_{\nu}. $$

To proceed one must analyze the matrix $M^{\mu}{}_{\nu}$ for fixed $k^{\lambda}$. There are three cases.

  1. Constant mode $k^{\mu}=0$. Then the matrix $M^{\mu}{}_{\nu}=0$ vanishes identically. Maxwell eqs. are only possible to satisfy if $\tilde{j}^{\mu}(k=0)=0$ is zero. The gauge potential $\tilde{A}_{\mu}(k=0)$ is not restricted at all by Maxwell eqs., i.e., there is a full $n$-parameter solution.

  2. Massive case $k^2\neq 0$. The matrix $M^{\mu}{}_{\nu}$ is diagonalizable with eigenvalue $k^2$ (with multiplicity $n-1$), and eigenvalue $0$ (with multiplicity $1$). The latter corresponds to a pure gauge mode $\tilde{A}^{\mu}~\propto~k^{\mu}$. The complete solution is a $1$-parameter solution of the form $$\tilde{A}^{\mu}(k) ~=~\frac{\tilde{j}^{\mu}(k)}{k^2}~+~ik^{\mu}\tilde{\Lambda}(k).$$ Apart from the source term, this is pure gauge.

  3. Massless case $k^2=0$ and $k^{\mu}\neq 0$. The matrix $M^{\mu}{}_{\nu}$ is not diagonalizable. There is only eigenvalue $0$ (with multiplicity $n-1$). Maxwell eqs. are only possible to satisfy if the source $\tilde{j}^{\mu}(k)=\tilde{f}(k)k^{\mu}$ is proportional to $k^{\mu}$ with some proportionality factor $\tilde{f}(k)$. In that case Maxwell eqs. become $$ -k_{\mu}\tilde{A}^{\mu}(k)~=~\tilde{f}(k). $$ Let us introduce an $\eta$-dual vector$^1$ $$k^{\mu}_{\eta}~:=~(-k^0,\vec{k})\qquad {\rm for}\qquad k^{\mu}~=~(k^0,\vec{k}).$$ Note that $$k_{\mu}~k^{\mu}_{\eta}~=~(k^0)^2+\vec{k}^2$$ is just the Euclidean distance square in $k^{\mu}$-momentum space. The complete solution is an $(n-1)$-parameter solution of the form $$\tilde{A}^{\mu}(k) ~=~-\frac{k^{\mu}_{\eta}}{k_{\nu}~k^{\nu}_{\eta}}\tilde{f}(k) ~+~ik^{\mu}\tilde{\Lambda}(k)~+~\tilde{A}^{\mu}_{T}(k).$$ The term proportional to $k_{\mu}$ is pure gauge. Here $\tilde{A}^{\mu}_{T}(k)$ denote $n-2$ transversal modes, $$k_{\mu}~\tilde{A}^{\mu}_{T}(k)~=~0, \qquad\qquad k_{\mu}^{\eta}~\tilde{A}^{\mu}_{T}(k)~=~0. $$ The $n-2$ transversal modes $\tilde{A}^{\mu}_{T}$ are the only propagating physical d.o.f. (electromagnetic waves, photon field).


$^1$ Longitudinal and timelike polarizations are in the massless case proportional to $k^{\mu}\pm k^{\mu}_{\eta}$, respectively.

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Equations are written for any time $t$ and there is no need to "prove" their validity at any time. These equations are the experimental laws and are, of course, consistent at any time. The constraints are imposed here not to the fields, but to the electric and magnetic charges. The charges do not have sources/sinks so the derived equations like $\partial\rho/\partial t + \rm div \vec{j}=0$ say namely that and are called the charge conservation laws. (They are are an experimental fact.) The charge conservation laws do not determine the charge dynamics; for the latter the "mechanical" equations exist. In case of one elementary charge $q$, its conservation means its time-independence: $\frac{dq}{dt}=0$ which is not usually written as an additional equation, but used as its solution $q=const$ in the "mechanical" equations.

So you have six equations for fields and two as conservation laws for charges.

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The Maxwell's equations do not over-determine the electric and magnetic fields. This becomes clearer if we rewrite the four Maxwell's equations into one using geometric algebra: $$(c^{-1}\partial_t + \vec\nabla)(\vec E + i\zeta\vec H) = \zeta(\rho c +\vec j)$$, where the vector products follow the Pauli identity $\vec a\vec b = \vec a\cdot\vec b + i\vec a\times \vec b$ . In principle, we can invert the Maxwell's equation to solve for the electromagnetic field $\vec E + i\zeta\vec H$, by applying boundary conditions.

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You can write in TeX by enclosing the texcode with dollar signs (inline), or double dollars. –  Manishearth Feb 7 '12 at 14:03
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Maxwell's equations are indeed redondant, if one works with the normal variables the redundecies are eliminated. A very clear discussion is found into:

Photons and atoms: introduction to quantum electrodynamics Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Jacques Dupont-Roc, Gilbert Grynberg

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Why is this an improvement on Lubos and Qmechanic's fine answers? –  Ron Maimon Jul 18 '12 at 2:19
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Here's a related question I always throw at students. In free space you can convert Maxwell's equation into 2 vector Helmholtz equations, one for E and one for B. So how come they are decoupled? It would seem that we could calculate E and B separately. The clue is that in free space, to have non-zero fields at all you must specify some boundary conditions. And the boundary conditions must be consistent with Maxwell's equations. So the transverse, coupled nature of the fields comes from the BC and is propagated into free space.

Incidentally, for finite beams the E and B fields need not be transverse to one another (i.e., there are longitudinal fields). This makes working with finite beams a lot harder than working with unphysical plane waves.

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This is easy to see if you use the Maxwell equations to arrive at the decoupled, inhomogeneous wave equations for the fields, $$\begin{split}\Box \vec{E} &= - \mu_0 \frac{\partial \vec{J}}{\partial t} - \vec{\nabla} \frac{\rho}{\varepsilon_0},\\ \Box \vec{B} &= \mu_0\vec{\nabla}\times \vec{J}, \end{split} $$ with $\Box \equiv \frac{1}{c^2} \frac{\partial^2}{\partial t^2} - \nabla^2$ the dalembertian. This derivation requires the use of all of Maxwell's equations and a solution exists and is uniquely defined if we use appropriate boundary conditions, therefore Maxwell's equations are not independent.

A hint for their dependence of one on another is the Helmholtz theorem, provided that the sources are localized. According to the theorem, a field is uniquely defined if both its divergence and its curl are known, i.e. the theorem defines 3 functions from 4 dependent equations.

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Maxwell's equations consist of all possible partial derivatives of $\vec E, \vec B~$ wrt $(t, x, y, z)$ giving (3+3)*4=24 independent variables. Each is given in just one equation, and so can't be eliminated by the others. Maxwell's equations aren't enough to solve electromagnetic problems and you need other information such as the boundary conditions.

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The searched variables are fields, not derivatives. The equations are not algebraic, but differential, so there are constants of integration determined with the initial and boundary conditions. –  Vladimir Kalitvianski Jan 28 '12 at 10:37
@vladimir true. The point I'm making is that the differentials are all independent. $\delta E_x$ wrt $\delta t$ is independent of $\delta E_x$ wrt $\delta y$ and cannot be eliminated using the other Maxwell's equations because it only occurs in one equation, and likewise for the other 23 differentials. –  John McVirgo Jan 28 '12 at 18:03
This is nonsense, -1, please delete this answer. –  Ron Maimon May 2 '12 at 15:01
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