Solving the Laplacian in Spherical Coordinates (#1)

In this post, let’s derive a general solution for the Laplacian in Spherical Coordinates. In future posts, we shall look at the application of this equation in the context of Fluids and Quantum Mechanics.


x = rsin\theta cos\phi
y = rsin\theta cos\phi
z = rcos\theta


0 \leq r < \infty
0 \leq \theta \leq \pi
0 \leq \phi < 2\pi

The Laplacian in Spherical coordinates in its ultimate glory is written as follows:

\nabla ^{2}f ={\frac {1}{r^{2}}}{\frac {\partial }{\partial r}}\left(r^{2}{\frac {\partial f}{\partial r}}\right)+{\frac {1}{r^{2}\sin \theta }}{\frac {\partial }{\partial \theta }}\left(\sin \theta {\frac {\partial f}{\partial \theta }}\right)+{\frac {1}{r^{2}\sin ^{2}\theta }}{\frac {\partial ^{2}f}{\partial \phi ^{2}}} = 0

To solve it we use the method of separation of variables.

f = R(r)\Theta(\theta)\Phi(\phi)

Plugging in the value of f into the Laplacian, we get that :

\frac{\Theta \Phi}{r^2} \frac{d}{dr} \left( r^2\frac{dR}{dr} \right) + \frac{R \Phi}{r^2 sin \theta} \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{d\theta} \right) + \frac{\Theta R}{r^2 sin^2 \theta} \frac{d^2 \Phi}{d\phi^2} = 0

Dividing throughout by R\Theta\Phi and multiplying throughout by r^2, further simplifies into:

\underbrace{ \frac{1}{R} \frac{d}{dr} \left( r^2\frac{dR}{dr} \right)}_{h(r)} + \underbrace{\frac{1}{\Theta sin \theta} \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{d\theta} \right) + \frac{1}{\Phi sin^2 \theta} \frac{d^2 \Phi}{d\phi^2}}_{g(\theta,\phi)} = 0

It can be observed that the first expression in the differential equation is merely a function of r and the remaining a function of \theta and \phi only. Therefore, we equate the first expression to be \lambda = l(l+1) and the second to be -\lambda = -l(l+1). The reason for choosing the peculiar value of l(l+1) is explained in another post.

\underbrace{ \frac{1}{R} \frac{d}{dr} \left( r^2\frac{dR}{dr} \right)}_{l(l+1)} + \underbrace{\frac{1}{\Theta sin \theta} \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{d\theta} \right) + \frac{1}{\Phi sin^2 \theta} \frac{d^2 \Phi}{d\phi^2}}_{-l(l+1)} = 0 (1)


The first expression in (1) the Euler-Cauchy equation in r.

\frac{d}{dr} \left( r^2\frac{dR}{dr} \right) = l(l+1)R

The general solution of this has been in discussed in a previous post and it can be written as:

R(r) = C_1 r^l + \frac{C_2}{r^{l+1}}


The second expression in (1) takes the form as follows:

\frac{sin \theta}{\Theta} \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{dr} \right)+ l(l+1)sin^2 \theta + \frac{1}{\Phi} \frac{d^2 \Phi}{d\phi^2} = 0

The following observation can be made similar to the previous analysis

\underbrace{\frac{sin \theta}{\Theta} \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{dr} \right)+ l(l+1)sin^2 \theta }_{m^2} + \underbrace{\frac{1}{\Phi} \frac{d^2 \Phi}{d\phi^2}}_{-m^2} = 0 (2)


The first expression in the above equation (2) is the Associated Legendre Differential equation.

\frac{sin \theta}{\Theta} \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{dr} \right)+ l(l+1)sin^2 \theta = m^2

sin \theta \frac{d}{d \theta} \left( sin \theta \frac{d\Theta}{dr} \right)+ \Theta \left( l(l+1)sin^2 \theta - m^2 \right) = 0

The general solution to this differential equation can be given as:
\Theta(\theta) = C_3 P_l^m(cos\theta) + C_4 Q_l^m(cos\theta)


The solution to the second term in the equation (2) is a trivial one:

\frac{d^2 \Phi}{d\phi^2} = m^2 \Phi
\Phi(\phi) = C_5 e^{im\phi} + C_6 e^{-im\phi}


Therefore the general solution to the Laplacian in Spherical coordinates is given by:

R\Theta\Phi = \left(C_1 r^l + \frac{C_2}{r^{l+1}} \right) \left(C_3 P_l^m(cos\theta) + C_4 Q_l^m(cos\theta \right) \left(C_5 e^{im\phi} + C_6 e^{-im\phi}\right)

Matrix Multiplication and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

We now understand that Matrix multiplication is not commutative (Why?). What has this have to do anything with Quantum Mechanics ?

Behold the commutator operator:
[\hat{A}, \hat{B}] = \hat{A}\hat{B} - \hat{B}\hat{A}

where \hat{A},\hat{B} are operators that are acting on the wavefunction \psi . This is equal to 0 if they commute and something else if they don’t.

One of the most important formulations in Quantum mechanics is the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle and it can be written as the commutation of the momentum operator (p) and the position operator (x):

[\hat{p}, \hat{x}] = \hat{p}\hat{x} - \hat{x}\hat{p} = i\hbar

If you think of p and x as some Linear transformations. (just for the sake of simplicity).

This means that measuring distance and then momentum is not the same thing as measuring momentum and then distance. Those two operators do not commute! You can sort of visualize them in the same way as in the post.

But in Quantum Mechanics, the matrices that are associated with \hat{p} and \hat{x} are infinite dimensional. ( The harmonic oscillator being the simple example to this )

\hat{x} = \sqrt{\frac{\hbar}{2m \omega}} \begin{bmatrix} 0 & \sqrt{1} & 0 & 0 & \hdots \\ \sqrt{1} &  0 &\sqrt{2} & 0 & \hdots \\ 0 & \sqrt{2} &  0 &\sqrt{3}  & \hdots \\  0 & 0 & \sqrt{3} &  0  & \hdots \\  \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \vdots \end{bmatrix}

\hat{p} = \sqrt{\frac{\hbar m \omega}{2}} \begin{bmatrix} 0 & -i & 0 & 0 & \hdots \\ i &  0 & -i \sqrt{2} & 0 & \hdots \\ 0 & i\sqrt{2} &  0 &\-i \sqrt{3}  & \hdots \\  0 & 0 & i\sqrt{3} &  0  & \hdots \\  \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \vdots \end{bmatrix}