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Maxwell's equations are a set of coupled partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. The equations provide a mathematical model for electric, optical, and radio technologies, such as power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar etc. Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of the fields.[1] An important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at a constant speed (c) in a vacuum. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum of light from radio waves to γ-rays. The equations are named after the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who between 1861 and 1862 published an early form of the equations that included the Lorentz force law. Maxwell first used the equations to propose that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.

The equations have two major variants. The microscopic Maxwell equations have universal applicability but are unwieldy for common calculations. They relate the electric and magnetic fields to total charge and total current, including the complicated charges and currents in materials at the atomic scale. The "macroscopic" Maxwell equations define two new auxiliary fields that describe the large-scale behaviour of matter without having to consider atomic scale charges and quantum phenomena like spins. However, their use requires experimentally determined parameters for a phenomenological description of the electromagnetic response of materials.

The term "Maxwell's equations" is often also used for equivalent alternative formulations. Versions of Maxwell's equations based on the electric and magnetic potentials are preferred for explicitly solving the equations as a boundary value problem, analytical mechanics, or for use in quantum mechanics. The covariant formulation (on spacetime rather than space and time separately) makes the compatibility of Maxwell's equations with special relativity manifest. Maxwell's equations in curved spacetime, commonly used in high energy and gravitational physics, are compatible with general relativity.[2] In fact, Einstein developed special and general relativity to accommodate the invariant speed of light, a consequence of Maxwell's equations, with the principle that only relative movement has physical consequences.

Since the mid-20th century, it has been understood that Maxwell's equations are not exact, but a classical limit of the fundamental theory of quantum electrodynamics.

Conceptual descriptions

Gauss's law describes the relationship between a static electric field and the electric charges that cause it: a static electric field points away from positive charges and towards negative charges, and the net outflow of the electric field through any closed surface is proportional to the charge enclosed by the surface. Picturing the electric field by its field lines, this means the field lines begin at positive electric charges and end at negative electric charges. 'Counting' the number of field lines passing through a closed surface yields the total charge (including bound charge due to polarization of material) enclosed by that surface, divided by dielectricity of free space (the vacuum permittivity).

Gauss's law for magnetism states that there are no "magnetic charges" (also called magnetic monopoles), analogous to electric charges.[7] Instead, the magnetic field due to materials is generated by a configuration called a dipole, and the net outflow of the magnetic field through any closed surface is zero. Magnetic dipoles are best represented as loops of current but resemble positive and negative 'magnetic charges', inseparably bound together, having no net 'magnetic charge'. In terms of field lines, this equation states that magnetic field lines neither begin nor end but make loops or extend to infinity and back. In other words, any magnetic field line that enters a given volume must somewhere exit that volume. Equivalent technical statements are that the sum total magnetic flux through any Gaussian surface is zero, or that the magnetic field is a solenoidal vector field.

The Maxwell–Faraday version of Faraday's law of induction describes how a time varying magnetic field creates ("induces") an electric field.[7] In integral form, it states that the work per unit charge required to move a charge around a closed loop equals the rate of decrease of the magnetic flux through the enclosed surface.

The dynamically induced electric field has closed field lines similar to a magnetic field, unless superposed by a static (charge induced) electric field. This aspect of electromagnetic induction is the operating principle behind many electric generators: for example, a rotating bar magnet creates a changing magnetic field, which in turn generates an electric field in a nearby wire.

Ampère's law with Maxwell's addition states that magnetic fields can be generated in two ways: by electric current (this was the original "Ampère's law") and by changing electric fields (this was "Maxwell's addition", which he called displacement current). In integral form, the magnetic field induced around any closed loop is proportional to the electric current plus displacement current (proportional to the rate of change of electric flux) through the enclosed surface.

Maxwell's addition to Ampère's law is particularly important: it makes the set of equations mathematically consistent for non static fields, without changing the laws of Ampere and Gauss for static fields.[8] However, as a consequence, it predicts that a changing magnetic field induces an electric field and vice versa.[7][9] Therefore, these equations allow self-sustaining "electromagnetic waves" to travel through empty space (see electromagnetic wave equation).

The speed calculated for electromagnetic waves, which could be predicted from experiments on charges and currents,[3] exactly matches the speed of light; indeed, light is one form of electromagnetic radiation (as are X-rays, radio waves, and others). Maxwell understood the connection between electromagnetic waves and light in 1861, thereby unifying the theories of electromagnetism and optics.

Formulation in terms of electric and magnetic fields (microscopic or in vacuum version)

In the electric and magnetic field formulation there are four equations that determine the fields for given charge and current distribution. A separate law of nature, the Lorentz force law, describes how, conversely, the electric and magnetic field act on charged particles and currents. A version of this law was included in the original equations by Maxwell but, by convention, is included no longer. The vector calculus formalism below, due to Oliver Heaviside,[10][11] has become standard. It is manifestly rotation invariant, and therefore mathematically much more transparent than Maxwell's original 20 equations in x,y,z components. The relativistic formulations are even more symmetric and manifestly Lorentz invariant. For the same equations expressed using tensor calculus or differential forms, see alternative formulations.

The differential and integral equations formulations are mathematically equivalent and are both useful. The integral formulation relates fields within a region of space to fields on the boundary and can often be used to simplify and directly calculate fields from symmetric distributions of charges and currents. On the other hand, the differential equations are purely local and are a more natural starting point for calculating the fields in more complicated (less symmetric) situations, for example using finite element analysis.[12]

Symbols in bold represent vector quantities, and symbols in italics represent scalar quantities, unless otherwise indicated. The equations introduce the electric field, E, a vector field, and the magnetic field, B, a pseudovector field, each generally having a time and location dependence. The sources are

The universal constants appearing in the equations (the first two ones explicitly only in the SI units formulation) are:

In the differential equations,

  • the nabla symbol, ∇, denotes the three-dimensional gradient operator, del,
  • the ∇⋅ symbol (pronounced "del dot") denotes the divergence operator,
  • the ∇× symbol (pronounced "del cross") denotes the curl operator.

In the integral equations,

  • Ω is any fixed volume with closed boundary surface ∂Ω, and
  • Σ is any fixed surface with closed boundary curve ∂Σ,

Here a fixed volume or surface means that it does not change over time. The equations are correct, complete, and a little easier to interpret with time-independent surfaces. For example, since the surface is time-independent, we can bring the differentiation under the integral sign in Faraday's law:

Maxwell's equations can be formulated with possibly time-dependent surfaces and volumes by using the differential version and using Gauss and Stokes formula appropriately.

The definitions of charge, electric field, and magnetic field can be altered to simplify theoretical calculation, by absorbing dimensioned factors of ε0 and μ0 into the units of calculation, by convention. With a corresponding change in convention for the Lorentz force law this yields the same physics, i.e. trajectories of charged particles, or work done by an electric motor. These definitions are often preferred in theoretical and high energy physics where it is natural to take the electric and magnetic field with the same units, to simplify the appearance of the electromagnetic tensor: the Lorentz covariant object unifying electric and magnetic field would then contain components with uniform unit and dimension.[13] [] Such modified definitions are conventionally used with the Gaussian (CGS) units. Using these definitions and conventions, colloquially "in Gaussian units",[14] the Maxwell equations become:[15]

The equations are particularly readable when length and time are measured in compatible units like seconds and lightseconds i.e. in units such that c = 1 unit of length/unit of time. Ever since 1983 (see International System of Units), metres and seconds are compatible except for historical legacy since by definition c = 299 792 458 m/s (≈ 1.0 feet/nanosecond).

Further cosmetic changes, called rationalisations, are possible by absorbing factors of 4π depending on whether we want Coulomb's law or Gauss's law to come out nicely, see Lorentz-Heaviside units (used mainly in particle physics). In theoretical physics it is often useful to choose units such that Planck's constant, the elementary charge, and even Newton's constant are 1. See Planck units.

Relationship between differential and integral formulations

The equivalence of the differential and integral formulations are a consequence of the Gauss divergence theorem and the Kelvin–Stokes theorem.

According to the (purely mathematical) Gauss divergence theorem, the electric flux through the boundary surface ∂Ω can be rewritten as

The integral version of Gauss's equation can thus be rewritten as

Since Ω is arbitrary (e.g. an arbitrary small ball with arbitrary center), this is satisfied iff the integrand is zero. This is the differential equations formulation of Gauss equation up to a trivial rearrangement.

Similarly rewriting the magnetic flux in Gauss's law for magnetism in integral form gives

By the Kelvin–Stokes theorem we can rewrite the line integrals of the fields around the closed boundary curve ∂Σ to an integral of the "circulation of the fields" (i.e. their curls) over a surface it bounds, i.e.

Hence the modified Ampere law in integral form can be rewritten as

Since Σ can be chosen arbitrarily, e.g. as an arbitrary small, arbitrary oriented, and arbitrary centered disk, we conclude that the integrand is zero iff Ampere's modified law in differential equations form is satisfied. The equivalence of Faraday's law in differential and integral form follows likewise.

The line integrals and curls are analogous to quantities in classical fluid dynamics: the circulation of a fluid is the line integral of the fluid's flow velocity field around a closed loop, and the vorticity of the fluid is the curl of the velocity field.

Charge conservation

The invariance of charge can be derived as a corollary of Maxwell's equations. The left-hand side of the modified Ampere's Law has zero divergence by the div–curl identity. Expanding the divergence of the right-hand side, interchanging derivatives, and applying Gauss's law gives:


By the Gauss Divergence Theorem, this means the rate of change of charge in a fixed volume equals the net current flowing through the boundary:

In particular, in an isolated system the total charge is conserved.

Vacuum equations, electromagnetic waves and speed of light

In a region with no charges (ρ = 0) and no currents (J = 0), such as in a vacuum, Maxwell's equations reduce to:

Taking the curl (∇×) of the curl equations, and using the curl of the curl identity we obtain

In materials with relative permittivity, εr, and relative permeability, μr, the phase velocity of light becomes

which is usually[4] less than c.

In addition, E and B are perpendicular to each other and to the direction of wave propagation, and are in phase with each other. A sinusoidal plane wave is one special solution of these equations. Maxwell's equations explain how these waves can physically propagate through space. The changing magnetic field creates a changing electric field through Faraday's law. In turn, that electric field creates a changing magnetic field through Maxwell's addition to Ampère's law. This perpetual cycle allows these waves, now known as electromagnetic radiation, to move through space at velocity c.

Macroscopic formulation

The above equations are the "microscopic" version of Maxwell's equations, expressing the electric and the magnetic fields in terms of the (possibly atomic-level) charges and currents present. This is sometimes called the "general" form, but the macroscopic version below is equally general, the difference being one of bookkeeping.

The microscopic version is sometimes called "Maxwell's equations in a vacuum": this refers to the fact that the material medium is not built into the structure of the equations, but appears only in the charge and current terms. The microscopic version was introduced by Lorentz, who tried to use it to derive the macroscopic properties of bulk matter from its microscopic constituents.[16] []

"Maxwell's macroscopic equations", also known as Maxwell's equations in matter, are more similar to those that Maxwell introduced himself.

In the "macroscopic" equations, the influence of bound charge Qb and bound current Ib is incorporated into the displacement field D and the magnetizing field H, while the equations depend only on the free charges Qf and free currents If. This reflects a splitting of the total electric charge Q and current I (and their densities ρ and J) into free and bound parts:

The cost of this splitting is that the additional fields D and H need to be determined through phenomenological constituent equations relating these fields to the electric field E and the magnetic field B, together with the bound charge and current.

See below for a detailed description of the differences between the microscopic equations, dealing with total charge and current including material contributions, useful in air/vacuum;[5] and the macroscopic equations, dealing with free charge and current, practical to use within materials.

When an electric field is applied to a dielectric material its molecules respond by forming microscopic electric dipoles – their atomic nuclei move a tiny distance in the direction of the field, while their electrons move a tiny distance in the opposite direction. This produces a macroscopic bound charge in the material even though all of the charges involved are bound to individual molecules. For example, if every molecule responds the same, similar to that shown in the figure, these tiny movements of charge combine to produce a layer of positive bound charge on one side of the material and a layer of negative charge on the other side. The bound charge is most conveniently described in terms of the polarization P of the material, its dipole moment per unit volume. If P is uniform, a macroscopic separation of charge is produced only at the surfaces where P enters and leaves the material. For non-uniform P, a charge is also produced in the bulk.[17]

Somewhat similarly, in all materials the constituent atoms exhibit magnetic moments that are intrinsically linked to the angular momentum of the components of the atoms, most notably their electrons. The connection to angular momentum suggests the picture of an assembly of microscopic current loops. Outside the material, an assembly of such microscopic current loops is not different from a macroscopic current circulating around the material's surface, despite the fact that no individual charge is traveling a large distance. These bound currents can be described using the magnetization M.[18]

The very complicated and granular bound charges and bound currents, therefore, can be represented on the macroscopic scale in terms of P and M, which average these charges and currents on a sufficiently large scale so as not to see the granularity of individual atoms, but also sufficiently small that they vary with location in the material. As such, Maxwell's macroscopic equations ignore many details on a fine scale that can be unimportant to understanding matters on a gross scale by calculating fields that are averaged over some suitable volume.

The definitions (not constitutive relations) of the auxiliary fields are:

where P is the polarization field and M is the magnetization field, which are defined in terms of microscopic bound charges and bound currents respectively. The macroscopic bound charge density ρb and bound current density Jb in terms of polarization P and magnetization M are then defined as

If we define the total, bound, and free charge and current density by

and use the defining relations above to eliminate D, and H, the "macroscopic" Maxwell's equations reproduce the "microscopic" equations.

In order to apply 'Maxwell's macroscopic equations', it is necessary to specify the relations between displacement field D and the electric field E, as well as the magnetizing field H and the magnetic field B. Equivalently, we have to specify the dependence of the polarization P (hence the bound charge) and the magnetization M (hence the bound current) on the applied electric and magnetic field. The equations specifying this response are called constitutive relations. For real-world materials, the constitutive relations are rarely simple, except approximately, and usually determined by experiment. See the main article on constitutive relations for a fuller description.[19] []

For materials without polarization and magnetization, the constitutive relations are (by definition)[13] []

where ε0 is the permittivity of free space and μ0 the permeability of free space. Since there is no bound charge, the total and the free charge and current are equal.

An alternative viewpoint on the microscopic equations is that they are the macroscopic equations together with the statement that vacuum behaves like a perfect linear "material" without additional polarization and magnetization. More generally, for linear materials the constitutive relations are[19] []

  • For homogeneous materials, ε and μ are constant throughout the material, while for inhomogeneous materials they depend on location within the material (and perhaps time).[20] []
  • For isotropic materials, ε and μ are scalars, while for anisotropic materials (e.g. due to crystal structure) they are tensors.[19] [] [20] []
  • Materials are generally dispersive, so ε and μ depend on the frequency of any incident EM waves.[19] [] [20] []

Even more generally, in the case of non-linear materials (see for example nonlinear optics), D and P are not necessarily proportional to E, similarly H or M is not necessarily proportional to B. In general D and H depend on both E and B, on location and time, and possibly other physical quantities.

In applications one also has to describe how the free currents and charge density behave in terms of E and B possibly coupled to other physical quantities like pressure, and the mass, number density, and velocity of charge-carrying particles. E.g., the original equations given by Maxwell (see History of Maxwell's equations) included Ohm's law in the form

Alternative formulations

Following is a summary of some of the numerous other mathematical formalisms to write the microscopic Maxwell's equations, with the columns separating the two homogeneous Maxwell equations from the two inhomogeneous ones involving charge and current. Each formulation has versions directly in terms of the electric and magnetic fields, and indirectly in terms of the electrical potential φ and the vector potential A. Potentials were introduced as a convenient way to solve the homogeneous equations, but it was thought that all observable physics was contained in the electric and magnetic fields (or relativistically, the Faraday tensor). The potentials play a central role in quantum mechanics, however, and act quantum mechanically with observable consequences even when the electric and magnetic fields vanish (Aharonov–Bohm effect).

Each table describes one formalism. See the main article for details of each formulation. SI units are used throughout.

Relativistic formulations

The Maxwell equations can also be formulated on a spacetime-like Minkowski space where space and time are treated on equal footing. The direct spacetime formulations make manifest that the Maxwell equations are relativistically invariant. Because of this symmetry electric and magnetic field are treated on equal footing and are recognised as components of the Faraday tensor. This reduces the four Maxwell equations to two, which simplifies the equations, although we can no longer use the familiar vector formulation. In fact the Maxwell equations in the space + time formulation are not Galileo invariant and have Lorentz invariance as a hidden symmetry. This was a major source of inspiration for the development of relativity theory. To repeat: the space + time formulation is not a non-relativistic approximation and it describes the same physics by simply renaming variables. For this reason the relativistic invariant equations are usually called the Maxwell equations as well.

Each table describes one formalism.

  • In the tensor calculus formulation, the electromagnetic tensor Fαβ is an antisymmetric covariant order 2 tensor; the four-potential, Aα, is a covariant vector; the current, Jα, is a vector; the square brackets, [ ], denote antisymmetrization of indices; ∂α is the derivative with respect to the coordinate, xα. In Minkowski space coordinates are chosen with respect to an inertial frame; (xα) = (ct,x,y,z), so that the metric tensor used to raise and lower indices is ηαβ = diag(1,−1,−1,−1). The d'Alembert operator on Minkowski space is ◻ = ∂αα as in the vector formulation. In general spacetimes, the coordinate system xα is arbitrary, the covariant derivativeα, the Ricci tensor, Rαβ and raising and lowering of indices are defined by the Lorentzian metric, gαβ and the d'Alembert operator is defined as ◻ = ∇αα. The topological restriction is that the second real cohomology group of the space vanishes (see the differential form formulation for an explanation). This is violated for Minkowski space with a line removed, which can model a (flat) spacetime with a point-like monopole on the complement of the line.
  • In the differential form formulation on arbitrary space times, F = Fαβdxα ∧ dxβ is the electromagnetic tensor considered as a 2-form, A = Aαdxα is the potential 1-form, J is the current 3-form, d is the exterior derivative, and is the Hodge star on forms defined (up to its an orientation, i.e. its sign) by the Lorentzian metric of spacetime. In the special case of 2-forms such as F, the Hodge star depends on the metric tensor only for its local scale. This means that, as formulated, the differential form field equations are conformally invariant, but the Lorenz gauge condition breaks conformal invariance. The operator is the d'Alembert–Laplace–Beltrami operator on 1-forms on an arbitrary Lorentzian spacetime. The topological condition is again that the second real cohomology group is trivial. By the isomorphism with the second de Rham cohomology this condition means that every closed 2-form is exact.

Other formalisms include the geometric algebra formulation and a matrix representation of Maxwell's equations. Historically, a quaternionic formulation[21][22] was used.


Maxwell's equations are partial differential equations that relate the electric and magnetic fields to each other and to the electric charges and currents. Often, the charges and currents are themselves dependent on the electric and magnetic fields via the Lorentz force equation and the constitutive relations. These all form a set of coupled partial differential equations which are often very difficult to solve: the solutions encompass all the diverse phenomena of classical electromagnetism. Some general remarks follow.

As for any differential equation, boundary conditions[23][24][25] and initial conditions[26] are necessary for a unique solution. For example, even with no charges and no currents anywhere in spacetime, there are the obvious solutions for which E and B are zero or constant, but there are also non-trivial solutions corresponding to electromagnetic waves. In some cases, Maxwell's equations are solved over the whole of space, and boundary conditions are given as asymptotic limits at infinity.[27] In other cases, Maxwell's equations are solved in a finite region of space, with appropriate conditions on the boundary of that region, for example an artificial absorbing boundary representing the rest of the universe,[28][29] or periodic boundary conditions, or walls that isolate a small region from the outside world (as with a waveguide or cavity resonator).[30]

Jefimenko's equations (or the closely related Liénard–Wiechert potentials) are the explicit solution to Maxwell's equations for the electric and magnetic fields created by any given distribution of charges and currents. It assumes specific initial conditions to obtain the so-called "retarded solution", where the only fields present are the ones created by the charges. However, Jefimenko's equations are unhelpful in situations when the charges and currents are themselves affected by the fields they create.

Numerical methods for differential equations can be used to compute approximate solutions of Maxwell's equations when exact solutions are impossible. These include the finite element method and finite-difference time-domain method.[23][25][31][32][33] For more details, see Computational electromagnetics.

Overdetermination of Maxwell's equations

Maxwell's equations seem overdetermined, in that they involve six unknowns (the three components of E and B) but eight equations (one for each of the two Gauss's laws, three vector components each for Faraday's and Ampere's laws). (The currents and charges are not unknowns, being freely specifiable subject to charge conservation.) This is related to a certain limited kind of redundancy in Maxwell's equations: It can be proven that any system satisfying Faraday's law and Ampere's law automatically also satisfies the two Gauss's laws, as long as the system's initial condition does.[34][35] This explanation was first introduced by Julius Adams Stratton in 1941.[36] Although it is possible to simply ignore the two Gauss's laws in a numerical algorithm (apart from the initial conditions), the imperfect precision of the calculations can lead to ever-increasing violations of those laws. By introducing dummy variables characterizing these violations, the four equations become not overdetermined after all. The resulting formulation can lead to more accurate algorithms that take all four laws into account.[37]

Maxwell's equations as the classical limit of QED

Maxwell's equations and the Lorentz force law (along with the rest of classical electromagnetism) are extraordinarily successful at explaining and predicting a variety of phenomena; however they are not exact, but a classical limit of quantum electrodynamics (QED).

Some observed electromagnetic phenomena are incompatible with Maxwell's equations. These include photon–photon scattering and many other phenomena related to photons or virtual photons, "nonclassical light" and quantum entanglement of electromagnetic fields (see quantum optics). E.g. quantum cryptography cannot be described by Maxwell theory, not even approximately. The approximate nature of Maxwell's equations becomes more and more apparent when going into the extremely strong field regime (see Euler–Heisenberg Lagrangian) or to extremely small distances.

Finally, Maxwell's equations cannot explain any phenomenon involving individual photons interacting with quantum matter, such as the photoelectric effect, Planck's law, the Duane–Hunt law, and single-photon light detectors. However, many such phenomena may be approximated using a halfway theory of quantum matter coupled to a classical electromagnetic field, either as external field or with the expected value of the charge current and density on the right hand side of Maxwell's equations.


Popular variations on the Maxwell equations as a classical theory of electromagnetic fields are relatively scarce because the standard equations have stood the test of time remarkably well.

Maxwell's equations posit that there is electric charge, but no magnetic charge (also called magnetic monopoles), in the universe. Indeed, magnetic charge has never been observed, despite extensive searches,[6] and may not exist. If they did exist, both Gauss's law for magnetism and Faraday's law would need to be modified, and the resulting four equations would be fully symmetric under the interchange of electric and magnetic fields.[13] []

See also

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