I was looking for a certain book on heat transfer which I had (as usual) misplaced somewhere, and while searching for *that* book at home, I accidentally ran into another book I had—the one on Classical Mechanics by Rana and Joag [^].

After dusting this book a bit, I spent some time in one typical way, viz. by going over some fond memories associated with a suddenly re-found book…. The memories of how enthusiastic I once was when I had bought that book; how I had decided to finish that book right within *weeks* of buying it several years ago; the number of times I might have picked it up, and soon later on, kept it back aside somewhere, etc. …

Yes, that’s right. I have *not* yet managed to finish this book. Why, I have not even managed to *begin* reading this book the way it *should* be read—with a paper and pencil at hand to work through the equations and the problems. That was the reason why, I now felt a bit guilty. … It just so happened that it was just the other day (or so) when I was happily mentioning the Poisson brackets on Prof. Scott Aaronson’s blog, at this thread [^]. … To remove (at least some part of) my sense of guilt, I then decided to browse at least through this part (viz., Poisson’s brackets) in this book. … Then, reading a little through this chapter, I decided to browse through the preceding chapters from the Lagrangian mechanics on which it depends, and then, in general, also on the calculus of variations.

It was at this point that I suddenly happened to remember the reason why I had never been able to finish (even the portions relevant to engineering from) this book.

The thing was, the explanation of the —the delta of the variational calculus.

The explanation of what the basically means, I had found right back then (many, many years ago), was *not* satisfactorily given in this book. The book did talk of all those things like the holonomic constraints vs. the nonholonomic constraints, the functionals, integration by parts, etc. etc. etc. But without ever *really* telling me, in a forth-right and explicit manner, what the hell this was *basically* supposed to *mean*! How this was different from the finite changes () and the infinitesimal changes () of the usual calculus, for instance. In terms of its *physical* meaning, that is. (Hell, this book was supposed to be on *physics*, wasn’t it?)

Here, I of course fully realize that describing Rana and Joag’s book as “unsatisfactory” is making a rather bold statement, a very courageous one, in fact. This book is extraordinarily well-written. And yet, there I was, many, many years ago, trying to understand the delta, and not getting anywhere, not *even* with this book in my hand. (OK, a confession. The current copy which I have is not all that old. My old copy is gone by now (i.e., *permanently* misplaced or so), and so, the current copy is the one which I had bought once again, in 2009. As to my old copy, I think, I had bought it sometime in the mid-1990s.)

It was many years later, guess some time while *teaching* FEM to the undergraduates in Mumbai, that the concept had finally become clear enough to me. Most especially, while I was going through P. Seshu’s and J. N. Reddy’s books. [Reflected Glory Alert! Professor P. Seshu was my class-mate for a few courses at IIT Madras!] However, even then, even at that time, I remember, I still had this odd feeling that the physical meaning was still not clear to me—not as as clear as it should be. The matter eventually became “fully” clear to me only later on, while musing about the differences between the perspective of Thermodynamics on the one hand and that of Heat Transfer on the other. That was some time last year, while teaching Thermodynamics to the PG students here in Pune.

Thermodynamics deals with systems at equilibria, primarily. Yes, its methods can be extended to handle also the non-equilibrium situations. However, even then, the basis of the approach summarily lies only in the equilibrium states. Heat Transfer, on the other hand, necessarily deals with the non-equilibrium situations. Remove the temperature gradient, and there is no more heat left to speak of. There does remain the thermal energy (as a form of the internal energy), but not heat. (Remember, heat is the thermal energy *in transit* that appears on a system *boundary*.) Heat transfer necessarily requires an absence of thermal equilibrium. … Anyway, it was while teaching thermodynamics last year, and only incidentally pondering about its differences from heat transfer, that the idea of the variations (of Cov) had finally become (conceptually) clear to me. (No, CoV does not necessarily deal only with the equilibrium states; it’s just that it was while thinking about the equilibrium vs. the transient that the matter about CoV had suddenly “clicked” to me.)

In this post, let me now note down something on the concept of the variation, i.e., towards understanding the physical meaning of the symbol .

**Please note**, I have made an **inline update** on 26th December 2016. It makes the presentation of the calculus of variations a bit *less* dumbed down. The updated portion is clearly marked as such, in the text.

**The Problem Description:**

The concept of variations is abstract. We would be better off considering a simple, concrete, *physical* situation first, and only then try to understand the meaning of this abstract concept.

Accordingly, consider a certain idealized system. See its schematic diagram below:

There is a long, rigid cylinder made from some transparent material like glass. The left hand-side end of the cylinder is hermetically sealed with a rigid seal. At the other end of the cylinder, there is a friction-less piston which can be driven by some external means.

Further, there also are a couple of thin, circular, piston-like disks ( and ) placed inside the cylinder, at some and positions along its length. These disks thus divide the cylindrical cavity into three distinct compartments. The disks are assumed to be impermeable, and fitting snugly, they in general permit no movement of gas across their plane. However, they also are assumed to be able to move *without* any friction.

Initially, all the three compartments are filled with a compressible fluid to the same pressure in each compartment, say 1 atm. Since all the three compartments are at the same pressure, the disks stay stationary.

Then, suppose that the piston on the extreme right end is moved, say from position to . The final position may be to the left or to the right of the initial position ; it doesn’t matter. For the current description, however, let’s suppose that the position is to the left of . The effect of the piston movement thus is to increase the pressure inside the system.

The problem is to determine the nature of the resulting displacements that the two disks undergo as measured from their respective initial positions.

There are essentially two entirely different paradigms for conducting an analysis of this problem.

**The “Vector Mechanics” Paradigm:**

The first paradigm is based on an approach that was put to use so successfully by Newton. Usually, it is called the paradigm of vector analysis.

In this paradigm, we focus on the fact that the forced displacement of the piston with time, , may be described using some function of time that is defined over the interval lying between two instants and .

For example, suppose the function is:

,

where is a constant. In other words, the motion of the piston is steady, with a constant velocity, *between the initial and final instants*. Since the velocity is constant, there is no acceleration over the open interval .

However, notice that *before* the instant , the piston velocity was *zero*. Then, the velocity suddenly became a finite (constant) value. Therefore, if you extend the interval to include the end-instants as well, i.e., if you consider the semi-closed interval , then there is an acceleration *at* the instant . Similarly, since the piston comes to a position of rest at , there also is another acceleration, equal in magnitude and opposite in direction, which appears *at* the instant .

The existence of these two instantaneous accelerations implies that jerks or pressure waves are sent through the system. We may model them as vector quantities, as impulses. [*Side Exercise:* Work out what happens if we consider only the open interval .]

We can now apply Newton’s 3 laws, based on the idea that shock-waves must have begun at the piston at the instant . They must have got transmitted through the gas kept under pressure, and they must have affected the disk lying closest to the piston, thereby setting this disk into motion. This motion must have passed through the gas in the middle compartment of the system as another pulse in the pressure (generated at the disk ), thereby setting also the disk in a state of motion a little while later. Finally, the pulse must have got bounced off the seal on the left hand side, and in turn, come back to affect the motion of the disk , and then of the disk . Continuing their travels to and fro, the pulses, and hence the disks, would thus be put in a back and forth motion.

After a while, these transients would move forth and back, superpose, and some of their constituent frequencies would get cancelled out, leaving only those frequencies operative such that the three compartments are put under some kind of stationary states.

In case the gas is not ideal, there would be damping anyway, and after a sufficiently long while, the disks would move through such small displacements that we could easily ignore the ever-decreasing displacements in a limiting argument.

Thus, assume that, after an elapse of a sufficiently long time, the disks become stationary. Of course, their new positions are not the same as their original positions.

The problem thus can be modeled as basically a transient one. The state of the new *equilibrium* state is thus primarily seen as an *effect* or an end-result of a couple of *transient* processes which occur in the forward and backward directions. The equilibrium is seen as *not* a primarily existing state, but as a result of two equal and opposite transient causes.

Notice that throughout this process, Newton’s laws can be applied directly. The nature of the analysis is such that the quantities in question—viz. the displacements of the disks—always are *real, *i.e., they correspond to what actually is supposed to exist in the reality out there.

The (values of) displacements are real in the sense that the mathematical analysis procedure itself involves *only* those (values of) displacements which can actually occur in reality. The analysis does not concern itself with some other displacements that might have been *possible* but *don’t* actually occur. The analysis begins with the forced displacement condition, translates it into pressure waves, which in turn are used in order to derive the predicted displacements in the gas in the system, at each instant. Thus, at any arbitrary instant of time (in fact, the analysis here runs for times ), the analysis remains concerned only with those displacements that are *actually* taking place at that instant.

**The Method of Calculus of Variations:**

The second paradigm follows the energetics program. This program was initiated by Newton himself as well as by Leibnitz. However, it was pursued vigorously not by Newton but rather by Leibnitz, and then by a series of gifted mathematicians-physicists: the Bernoulli brothers, Euler, Lagrange, Hamilton, and others. This paradigm is essentially based on the calculus of variations. The idea here is something like the following.

We do not care for a local description at all. Thus, we do not analyze the situation in terms of the local pressure pulses, their momenta/forces, etc. All that we focus on are just two sets of quantities: the initial positions of the disks, and their final positions.

For instance, focus on the disk . It initially is at the position . It is found, after a long elapse of time (i.e., at the next *equilibrium* state), to have moved to . The question is: how to relate this change in on the one hand, to the displacement that the piston itself undergoes from to .

To analyze this question, the energetics program (i.e., the calculus of variations) adopts a seemingly strange methodology.

It *begins* by saying that there is *nothing* unique to the specific value of the position as assumed by the disk . The disk could have come to a halt at *any* other (nearby) position, e.g., at some other point , or , or , … etc. In fact, since there are an infinity of points lying in a finite segment of line, there could have been an infinity of positions where the disk could have come to a rest, when the new equilibrium was reached.

Of course, in reality, the disk comes to a halt at none of these *other* positions; it comes to a halt only at .

Yet, the theory says, we need to be “all-inclusive,” in a way. We need not, just for the aforementioned reason, deny a place in our analysis to these *other* positions. The analysis must include all such possible positions—even if they be purely hypothetical, imaginary, or unreal. What we do in the analysis, this paradigm says, is to *initially* include these merely hypothetical, unrealistic positions too *on exactly the same footing* as that enjoyed by that *one* position which is realistic, which is given by .

Thus, we take a set of all possible positions for each disk. Then, for each such a position, we calculate the “impact” it would make on the *energy* of the system *taken as a whole*.

The energy of the system can be *additively* decomposed into the energies carried by each of its sub-parts. Thus, focusing on disk , for each one of its possible (hypothetical) final position, we should calculate the energies carried by both its adjacent compartments. Since a change in ‘s position does not affect the compartment 3, we need not include it. However, for the disk , we *do* need to include the energies carried by both the compartments 1 and 2. Similarly, for each of the possible positions occupied by the disk , it should include the energies of the compartments 2 and 3, but not of 1.

At this point, to bring simplicity (and thereby better) clarity to this entire procedure, let us further *assume* that the possible positions of each disk forms a finite set. For instance, each disk can occupy only one of the positions that is some or distance-units away from its initial position. Thus, a disk is not allowed to come to a rest at, say, units; it must do so either at or at units. (We will thus perform the initial analysis in terms of only the integer positions, and only later on extend it to any real-valued positions.) (If you are a mechanical engineering student, suggest a suitable mechanism that can ensure only integer relative displacements.)

The change in energy of a compartment is given by

,

where is the pressure, is the cross-sectional area of the cylinder, and is the change in the length of the compartment.

Now, observe that the energy of the middle compartment depends on the *relative* distance between the two disks lying on its sides. Yet, for the same reason, the energy of the middle compartment does depend on *both* these positions. Hence, we must take a Cartesian product of the relative displacements undergone by both the disks, and only then calculate the system energy for each such a permutation (i.e. the ordered pair) of their positions. Let us go over the details of the Cartesian product.

The Cartesian product of the two positions may be stated as a row-by-row listing of *ordered pairs* of the relative positions of and , e.g., as follows: the ordered pair means that the disk is units to the left of *its* initial position, and the disk is units to the right of *its* initial position. Since each of the two positions forming an ordered pair can range over any of the above-mentioned number of different values, there are, in all, number of such possible ordered pairs in the Cartesian product.

For each one of these different pairs, we use the above-given formula to determine what the energy of *each* compartment is like. Then, we add the three energies (of the three compartments) together to get the value of the energy of the system as a whole.

In short, we get a set of possible values for the energy of the system.

You must have noticed that we have admitted every possible permutation into analysis—*all* the number of them.

Of course, out of all these number of permutations of positions, it should turn out that number of them have to be discarded because they would be merely hypothetical, i.e. unreal. That, in turn, is because, the relative positions of the disks contained in *one and only one* ordered pair would actually correspond to the final, equilibrium position. After all, if you conduct this experiment in reality, you would *always* get a very definite pair of the disk-positions, and it this *same* pair of relative positions that would be observed *every* time you conducted the experiment (for the same piston displacement). Real experiments are *reproducible*, and give rise to the *same*, unique result. (Even if the system were to be probabilistic, it would have to give rise to an exactly identical probability distribution function.) It can’t be this result today and that result tomorrow, or this result in this lab and that result in some other lab. That simply isn’t science.

Thus, out of all those different ordered-pairs, *one and only one* ordered-pair would actually correspond to *reality*; the rest all would be merely hypothetical.

The question now is, which particular pair corresponds to reality, and which ones are unreal. How to tell the real from the unreal. That is the question.

Here, the variational principle says that the pair of relative positions that actually occurs in reality carries a certain definite, *distinguishing* attribute.

The system-energy calculated for this pair (of relative displacements) happens to carry the *lowest* magnitude from among all possible number of pairs. In other words, any *hypothetical or unreal *pair has a *higher* amount of system energy associated with it. (If two pairs give rise to the same lowest value, both would be equally likely to occur. However, that is not what provably happens in the current example, so let us leave this kind of a “degeneracy” aside for the purposes of this post.)

*(The update on 26 December 2016 begins here:)*

Actually, the description given in the immediately preceding paragraph was a bit too dumbed down. The variational principle is more subtle than that. Explaining it makes this post even longer, but let me give it a shot anyway, at least today.

To follow the actual idea of the variational principle (in a not dumbed-down manner), the procedure you have to follow is this.

First, make a table of all possible relative-position pairs, and their associated energies. The table has the following columns: a relative-position pair, the associated energy as calculated above, and one more column which for the time being would be empty. The table may look something like what the following (partial) listing shows:

(0,0) -> say, 115 Joules

(-1,0) -> say, 101 Joules

(-2,0) -> say, 110 Joules

…

(2,2) -> say, 102 Joules

(2,3) -> say, 100 Joules

(2,4) -> say, 101 Joules

(2,5) -> say, 120 Joules

…

(5,0) -> say, 135 Joules

…

(5,5) -> say 117 Joules.

Having created this table (of rows), you then pick *each* row one by and one, and for the picked up -th row, you ask a question: What all *other* row(s) from this table have *their* relative distance pairs such that these pairs lie closest to the relative distance pair of this given row. Let me illustrate this question with a concrete example. Consider the row which has the relative-distance pair given as (2,3). Then, the relative distance pairs closest to this one would be obtained by adding or subtracting a distance of 1 to each in the pair. Thus, the relative distance pairs closest to this one would be: (3,3), (1,3), (2,4), and (2,2). So, you have to pick up those rows which have these four entries in the relative-distance pairs column. Each of these four pairs represents a variation on the chosen state, viz. the state (2,3).

In symbolic terms, suppose for the -th row being considered, the rows closest to it in terms of the differences in their relative distance pairs, are the -th, -th, -th and -th rows. (Notice that the rows which are closest to a given row in this sense, would *not* necessarily be found listed just above or below that given row, because the scheme followed while creating the list or the* vector* that is the table would not necessarily honor the closest-lying criterion (which necessarily involves *two* numbers)—not at least for *all *rows in the table.

OK. Then, in the next step, you find the differences in the energies of the -th row from each of these closest rows, viz., the -th, -th, -th and -th rows. That is to say, you find the absolute magnitudes of the energy differences. Let us denote these magnitudes as: , , and . Suppose the minimum among *these* values is . So, against the -th row, in the last column of the table, you write the value .

Having done this exercise separately for *each *row in the table, you then ask: Which row has the smallest entry in the last column (the one for ), and you pick that up. That is the distinguished (or the physically occurring) state.

In other words, the variational principle asks you to select *not* the row with the lowest absolute value of energy, but that row which shows the smallest *difference* of energy from one of its closest neighbours—and these closest neighbours are to be selected according to the differences in each number appearing in the relative-distance pair, and not according to the vertical place of rows in the tabular listing. (It so turns out that in this example, the row thus selected following both criteria—lowest energy as well as lowest variation in energy—are identical, though it would not necessarily always be the case. In short, we can’t always get away with the first, *too* dumbed down, version.)

Thus, the variational principle is about that change in the relative positions for which the corresponding *change* in the energy vanishes (or has the minimum possible absolute magnitude, in case the positions form a discretely varying, finite set).

*(The update on 26th December 2016 gets over here.)*

And, it turns out that this approach, too, *is* indeed able to *perfectly* predict the final disk-positions—precisely as they actually are observed in reality.

If you allow a continuum of positions (instead of the discrete set of only the number of different final positions for one disk, or number of ordered pairs), then instead of taking a Cartesian product of positions, what you have to do is take into account a *tensor product* of the position *functions*. The maths involved is a little more advanced, but the underlying algebraic structure—and the predictive principle which is fundamentally involved in the procedure—remains essentially the same. This principle—the variational principle—says:

Among all possible variations in the system configurations, that system configuration corresponds to reality which has the least variation in energy associated with it.

(This is a very rough statement, but it will do for this post and for a general audience. In particular, we don’t look into the issues of what constitute the kinematically admissible constraints, why the configurations must satisfy the field boundary conditions, the idea of the stationarity vs. of a minimum or a maximum, i.e., the issue of convexity-vs.-concavity, etc. The purpose of this post—and our example here—are both simple enough that we need not get into the whole she-bang of the variational theory as such.)

Notice that in this second paradigm, (i) we did not restrict the analysis to only those quantities that are actually taking place in reality; we also included a host (possibly an infinity) of purely hypothetical combinations of quantities too; (ii) we worked with energy, a scalar quantity, rather than with momentum, a vector quantity; and finally, (iii) in the variational method, we didn’t bother about the *local* details. We took into account the displacements of the disks, but not any displacement at any other point, say in the gas. We did not look into presence or absence of a pulse at one point in the gas as contrasted from any other point in it. In short, we did not discuss the details local to the system* either in space or in time*. We did not follow the system evolution, at all—not at least in a detailed, local way. If we were to do that, we would be concerned about what happens in the system at the instants and at spatial points other than the initial and final disk positions. Instead, we looked only at a global property—viz. the energy—whether at the sub-system level of the individual compartments, or at the level of the overall system.

**The Two Paradigms Contrasted from Each Other:**

If we were to follow Newton’s method, it would be *impossible*—impossible *in principle*—to be able to predict the final disk positions *unless* all their motions over all the intermediate transient dynamics (occurring over each moment of time and at each place of the system) were *not* be traced. Newton’s (or vectorial) method would require us to follow *all* the details of the *entire* evolution of *all* parts of the system at *each* point on its evolution path. In the variational approach, the latter is not of any primary concern.

Yet, in following the energetics program, we are able to predict the final disk positions. We are able to do that without worrying about what all happened *before* the equilibrium gets established. We remain concerned only with certain global quantities (here, system-energy) at each of the hypothetical positions.

The *upside* of the energetics program, as just noted, is that we don’t have to look into every detail at every stage of the entire transient dynamics.

Its* downside* is that we are able to talk *only* of the *differences* between certain isolated (hypothetical) configurations or states. The *formalism* is *unable* to say *anything* at all about *any* of the *intermediate* states—*even if these do actually occur in reality*. This is a very, very important point to keep in mind.

**The Question:**

Now, the question with which we began this post. Namely, *what does the delta of the variational calculus mean?*

Referring to the above discussion, note that the delta of the variational calculus is, here, nothing but a change in the position-pair, and also the corresponding change in the energy.

Thus, in the above example, the difference of the state (2,3) from the other close states such as (3,3), (1,3), (2,4), and (2,2) represents a variation in the system configuration (or state), and for each such a variation in the system configuration (or state), there is a corresponding variation in the energy of the system. That is what the delta refers to, in this example.

Now, with all this discussion and clarification, would it be possible for you to clearly state what the *physical* meaning of the delta is? To what precisely does the concept refer? How does the variation in energy differ from both the finite changes () as well as the infinitesimal changes () of the usual calculus?

Note, the question is *conceptual* in nature. And, no, not a single one of the very best books on classical mechanics manages to give a very succinct and accurate answer to it. Not even Rana and Joag (or Goldstein, or Feynman, or…)

I will give *my* answer in my next post, *next year*. I will also try to apply it to a couple of more interesting (and somewhat more complicated) physical situations—one from engineering sciences, and another from quantum mechanics!

In the meanwhile, think about it—the delta—the concept itself, its (conceptual) meaning. (If you already know the calculus of variations, note that in my above write-up, I have *already* supplied the answer, in a way. You just have to think a bit about it, that’s all!)

An Important Note: Do bring this post to the notice of the Officially Approved Full Professors of Mechanical Engineering in SPPU, and the SPPU authorities. I would like to know if the former would be able to state the meaning—at least *now* that I have already given the necessary context in such great detail.

Ditto, to the Officially Approved Full Professors of Mechanical Engineering at COEP, esp. D. W. Pande, and others like them.

After all, this topic—Lagrangian mechanics—is at the core of *Mechanical* Engineering, even *they* would agree. In fact, it comes from a subject that is *not* taught to the metallurgical engineers, viz., the topic of Theory of Machines. But it is taught to the *Mechanical* Engineers. That’s why, *they* should be able to crack it, in no time.

(Let me continue to be honest. I do *not* expect them to be able to crack it. But I do wish to know if they are *able* at least to give a *try* that is *good enough!)*

Even though I am jobless (and also nearly bank balance-less, and also cashless), what the hell! …

…Season’s greetings and best wishes for a happy new year!

**A Song I Like:**

[With jobless-ness and all, my mood isn’t likely to stay *this* upbeat, but anyway, while it lasts, listen to this song… And, yes, this song is like, it’s like, slightly *more* than *60* years old!]

(Hindi) “yeh raat bhigee bhigee”

Music: Shankar-Jaikishan

Singers: Manna De and Lata Mangeshkar

Lyrics: Shailendra

[E&OE]