Variational Principles in Mechanics

  • John L. Troutman
Part of the Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics book series (UTM)


The recognition that minimizing an integral function through variational methods (as in the last chapters) leads to the second-order differential equations of Euler-Lagrange for the minimizing function made it natural for mathematicians of the eighteenth century to ask for an integral quantity whose minimization would result in Newton’s equations of motion. With such a quantity, a new principle through which the universe acts would be obtained. The belief that “something” should be minimized was in fact a long-standing conviction of natural philosophers who felt that God had constructed the universe to operate in the most efficient manner—but how that efficiency was to be assessed was subject to interpretation. However, Fermat (1657) had already invoked such a principle successfully in declaring that light travels through a medium along the path of least time of transit. Indeed, it was by recognizing that the brachistochrone should give the least time of transit for light in an appropriate medium that Johann Bernoulli “proved” that it should be a cycloid in 1697. (See Problem 1.1.) And it was Johann Bernoulli who in 1717 suggested that static equilibrium might be characterized through requiring that the work done by the external forces during a small displacement from equilibrium should vanish. This “principle of virtual work” marked a departure from other minimizing principles in that it incorporated stationarity—even local stationarity—(tacitly) in its formulation. Efforts were made by Leibniz, by Euler, and most notably, by Lagrange to define a principle of least action (kinetic energy), but it was not until the last century that a truly satisfactory principle emerged, namely, Hamilton’s principle of stationary action (c. 1835) which was foreshadowed by Poisson (1809) and polished by Jacobi (1848) and his successors into an enduring landmark of human intellect, one, moreover, which has survived transition to both relativity and quantum mechanics. (See [L], [Fu] and Problems 8.11 8.12.)


Variational Principle Potential Energy Function Canonical Equation Integrand Function Brachistochrone Problem 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • John L. Troutman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of MathematicsSyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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