Friday, September 24, 2010

Adrien-Marie Legendre

On page 181 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I introduce Legendre polynomials. The Legendre polynomial P2(cos(θ)) arises naturally when calculating the extracellular potential in a volume conductor at a position far from an active nerve axon. We include the footnote “You can learn more about Legendre polynomials in texts on differential equations or, for example, in Harris and Stocker (1998).” On page 184, we list the first four Legendre polynomials (and have another footnote referring to Harris and Stocker). Any physics student should memorize at least the first three of these polynomials:

P0(x) = 1
P1(x) = x
P2(x) = (3 x2 – 1)/2 .

Legendre polynomials have many interesting properties. They are a solution of Legendre’s differential equation

(1–x2) d2Pn/dx2 – 2 x dPn/dx + n(n+1) Pn = 0 .

You can calculate any Legendre polynomial using Rodrigues formula

Pn(x) = 1/(2n n!) dn((x2–1)n)/dxn .

They form an orthogonal set of functions for x over the range from −1 to 1, which is rather too technical of a property to explain in this blog entry, but is very important.

The astute reader might note that Legendre’s differential equation is second order, so there should be two solutions. That is right, but the other solution—called a Legendre function of the second kind, Qn—is rarely used, and tends to be poorly behaved at x = 1 and x = –1. For instance

Q0(x) = ½ ln((1+x)/(1–x)) .

A definitive source for information about Legendre polynomials is the Handbook of Mathematical Functions, by Milton Abramowitz and Irene Stegun.

When do Legendre’s polynomials appear in physics? You often find them when working in spherical coordinates, especially when (to use an analogy with the earth) a function depends on latitude but not longitude (axisymmetry). For instance, the general axisymmetric solution to Laplace’s equation in spherical coordinates is a series of powers of the radius r multiplied by Legendre polynomials with x = cos(θ), where θ is measured from the z-axis (or, to use the earth analogy again, from the north pole). Take an introductory class in electricity and magnetism (from, say, the book by Griffiths), and you will use Legendre polynomials all the time.

Why do I bring up Legendre polynomials today? Regular readers of this blog may recall my recent obsession with all things French. Adrien-Marie Legendre (1752–1833) was a French mathematician. Details of his life are given in A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, by Rouse Ball.
Adrian Marie Legendre was born at Toulouse on September 18, 1752, and died at Paris on January 10, 1833. The leading events of his life are very simple and may be summed up briefly. He was educated at the Mazarin College in Paris, appointed professor at the military school in Paris in 1777, was a member of the Anglo-French commission of 1787 to connect Greenwich and Paris geodetically; served on several of the public commissions from 1792 to 1810; was made a professor at the Normal school in 1795; and subsequently held a few minor government appointments. The influence of Laplace was steadily exerted against his obtaining office or public recognition, and Legendre, who was a timid student, accepted the obscurity to which the hostility of his colleague condemned him.

Legendre’s analysis is of a high order of excellence, and is second only to that produced by Lagrange and Laplace, though it is not so original. His chief works are his Géométrie, his Théorie des nombres, his Exercices de calcul intégral, and his Fonctions elliptiques. These include the results of his various papers on these subjects. Besides these he wrote a treatise which gave the rule for the method of least squares, and two groups of memoirs, one on the theory of attractions, and the other on geodetical operations.


  1. Legendre polynomials,.. as your student, I would have to say you are obsessed with these! Only kidding,.. but these were highly impressed upon us! As you say, they showed up everywhere!

  2. Actually, I would say I have more of an obsession for Bessel functions rather than Legendre polynomials. But I'm glad they made an impression on you!