Once again it’s time to introduce first-year Mathematical Physics students to the joy of vectors, or specifically Euclidean vectors. Some of my students have seen them before, but probably aren’t aware of how much we use them theoretical physics. Obviously we introduce the idea of a vector in the simplest way possible, as a directed line segment. It’s only later on, in the second year, that we explain how there’s much more to vectors than that and explain their relationship to matrices and tensors.

Although I enjoy teaching this subject I always have to grit my teeth when I write them in the form that seems obligatory these days.

You see, when I was a lad, I was taught to write a geometric vector in the following fashion:

This is a simple column vector, where are the components in a three-dimensional cartesian coordinate system. Other kinds of vector, such as those representing states in quantum mechanics, or anywhere else where linear algebra is used, can easily be represented in a similar fashion.

This notation is great because it’s very easy to calculate the scalar (dot) and vector (cross) products of two such objects by writing them in column form next to each other and performing a simple bit of manipulation. For example, the scalar product of the two vectors

and

can easily be found by multiplying the corresponding elements of each together and totting them up:

showing immediately that these two vectors are orthogonal. In normalised form, these two particular vectors appear in other contexts in physics, where they have a more abstract interpretation than simple geometry, such as in the representation of the gluon in particle physics.

Moreover, writing vectors like this makes it a lot easier to transform them via the action of a matrix, by multipying rows in the usual fashion, e.g.

which corresponds to a rotation of the vector in the plane. Transposing a column vector into a row vector is easy too.

Well, that’s how I was taught to do it.

However, somebody, sometime, decided that, in Britain at least, this concise and computationally helpful notation had to be jettisoned and students instead must be forced to write a vector laboriously in terms of base vectors:

Some of you may even be used to doing it that way yourself. Why is this awful? For a start, it’s incredibly clumsy. It is less intuitive, doesn’t lend itself to easy operations on the vectors like I described above, doesn’t translate easily into the more general case of a matrix, and is generally just …well… awful. The only amusing thing about this is that you get to tell students not to put a dot on the “i” or the “j” – it always gets a laugh when you point out that these little dots are called “tittles“.

Worse still, for the purpose of teaching inexperienced students physics, it offers the possibility of horrible notational confusion. In particular, the unit vector is too easily confused with , the square root of minus one. Introduce a plane wave with a wavevector and it gets even worse, especially when you want to write , and if you want the answer to be the current density then you’re in big trouble!

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take the row and column notation any day!

(Actually it’s better still just to use the index notation, which generalises easily to and, for that matter, .)

Or perhaps being here in Ireland we should, in honour of Hamilton, do everything in quaternions.