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The vector product

We have discovered how to construct a scalar from the components of two general vectors $\bf a$ and $\bf b$. Can we also construct a vector which is not just a linear combination of $\bf a$ and $\bf b$? Consider the following definition:
{\bf a}  {\rm x}  {\bf b} = (a_x  b_x,  a_y  b_y,  a_z  b_z).
\end{displaymath} (28)

Is ${\bf a}  {\rm x}  {\bf b}$ a proper vector? Suppose that ${\bf a} = (1, 0, 0)$, ${\bf b} = (0, 1, 0)$. Clearly, ${\bf a}  {\rm x}  {\bf b}= {\bf0}$. However, if we rotate the basis through $45^\circ$ about the $z$-axis then ${\bf a} = (1/\sqrt{2},  -1/\sqrt{2},  0)$, ${\bf b} = (1/\sqrt{2}, 
1/\sqrt{2},  0)$, and ${\bf a}  {\rm x}  {\bf b} = (1/2,  -1/2, 0)$. Thus, ${\bf a}  {\rm x}  {\bf b}$ does not transform like a vector, because its magnitude depends on the choice of axes. So, above definition is a bad one.

Consider, now, the cross product or vector product:

{\bf a}\times{\bf b} = (a_y   b_z-a_z  b_y,  a_z  b_x - a_x  b_z,  a_x  b_y - a_y  b_x)
={\bf c}.
\end{displaymath} (29)

Does this rather unlikely combination transform like a vector? Let us try rotating the basis through $\theta$ degrees about the $z$-axis using Eqs. (10)-(12). In the new basis,
$\displaystyle c_{x'}$ $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle (-a_x  \sin\theta + a_y \cos\theta) b_z - a_z (-b_x  \sin\theta + b_y \cos\theta)$  
  $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle (a_y  b_z - a_z  b_y)  \cos\theta + (a_z  b_x-a_x  b_z) \sin\theta$  
  $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle c_x \cos\theta
+c_y \sin\theta.$ (30)

Thus, the $x$-component of ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ transforms correctly. It can easily be shown that the other components transform correctly as well, and that all components also transform correctly under rotation about the $y$- and $z$-axes. Thus, ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ is a proper vector. Incidentally, ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ is the only simple combination of the components of two vectors which transforms like a vector (which is non-coplanar with ${\bf a}$ and ${\bf b}$). The cross product is anticommutative,
{\bf a}\times{\bf b} = - {\bf b} \times{\bf a},
\end{displaymath} (31)

{\bf a}\times({\bf b} +{\bf c})= {\bf a} \times{\bf b}+{\bf a}\times{\bf c},
\end{displaymath} (32)

but is not associative:
{\bf a}\times({\bf b} \times{\bf c})\neq ({\bf a}\times{\bf b}) \times{\bf c}.
\end{displaymath} (33)

The cross product transforms like a vector, which means that it must have a well-defined direction and magnitude. We can show that ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ is perpendicular to both ${\bf a}$ and ${\bf b}$. Consider ${\bf a}\cdot {\bf a}\times{\bf b}$. If this is zero then the cross product must be perpendicular to ${\bf a}$. Now

$\displaystyle {\bf a}\cdot {\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle a_x (a_y  b_z-a_z  b_y) + a_y  (a_z  b_x- a_x  b_z)
+a_z (a_x  b_y - a_y  b_x)$  
  $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle 0.$ (34)

Therefore, ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ is perpendicular to ${\bf a}$. Likewise, it can be demonstrated that ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ is perpendicular to ${\bf b}$. The vectors $\bf a$, $\bf b$, and ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$ form a right-handed set, like the unit vectors ${\bf e}_x$, ${\bf e}_y$, and ${\bf e}_z$. In fact, ${\bf e}_x\times
{\bf e}_y={\bf e}_z$. This defines a unique direction for ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$, which is obtained from the right-hand rule (see Fig. 6).
Figure 6:
\epsfysize =2in

Let us now evaluate the magnitude of ${\bf a}\times{\bf b}$. We have

$\displaystyle ({\bf a}\times{\bf b})^2$ $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle (a_y  b_z-a_z  b_y)^2 +(a_z  b_x - a_x  b_z)^2 +(a_x  b_z
-a_y  b_x)^2$  
  $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle (a_x^{ 2}+a_y^{ 2}+a_z^{ 2}) (b_x^{ 2}+b_y^{ 2}+b_z^{ 2}) -
(a_x  b_x + a_y  b_y + a_z  b_z)^2$  
  $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle \vert a\vert^2  \vert b\vert^2 - ({\bf a}\cdot {\bf b})^2$  
  $\textstyle =$ $\displaystyle \vert a\vert^2  \vert b\vert^2 - \vert a\vert^2  \vert b\vert^2  \cos^2\theta = \vert a\vert^2 \vert b\vert^2  \sin^2\theta.$ (35)

\vert{\bf a}\times{\bf b}\vert = \vert a\vert \vert b\vert \sin\theta.
\end{displaymath} (36)

Clearly, ${\bf a}\times{\bf a} = {\bf0}$ for any vector, since $\theta$ is always zero in this case. Also, if ${\bf a}\times{\bf b} = {\bf0}$ then either $\vert a\vert=0$, $\vert b\vert=0$, or ${\bf b}$ is parallel (or antiparallel) to ${\bf a}$.

Figure 7:
\epsfysize =1.5in
Consider the parallelogram defined by vectors ${\bf a}$ and ${\bf b}$ (see Fig. 7). The scalar area is $a b \sin\theta$. The vector area has the magnitude of the scalar area, and is normal to the plane of the parallelogram, which means that it is perpendicular to both ${\bf a}$ and ${\bf b}$. Clearly, the vector area is given by
{\bf S} = {\bf a}\times {\bf b},
\end{displaymath} (37)

with the sense obtained from the right-hand grip rule by rotating ${\bf a}$ on to ${\bf b}$.

Suppose that a force ${\bf F}$ is applied at position ${\bf r}$ (see Fig. 8). The moment, or torque, about the origin $O$ is the product of the magnitude of the force and the length of the lever arm $OQ$. Thus, the magnitude of the moment is $\vert F\vert \vert r\vert \sin\theta$. The direction of the moment is conventionally the direction of the axis through $O$ about which the force tries to rotate objects, in the sense determined by the right-hand grip rule. It follows that the vector moment is given by

{\bf M} = {\bf r}\times{\bf F}.
\end{displaymath} (38)

Figure 8:
\epsfysize =2.5in

next up previous
Next: Rotation Up: Vectors Previous: The scalar product
Richard Fitzpatrick 2006-02-02