Open main menu

In mathematics, the mean curvature of a surface is an extrinsic measure of curvature that comes from differential geometry and that locally describes the curvature of an embedded surface in some ambient space such as Euclidean space.

The concept was used by Sophie Germain in her work on elasticity theory.[1][2] Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier used it in 1776, in his studies of minimal surfaces. It is important in the analysis of minimal surfaces, which have mean curvature zero, and in the analysis of physical interfaces between fluids (such as soap films) which, for example, have constant mean curvature in static flows, by the Young-Laplace equation.


Let   be a point on the surface  . Each plane through   containing the normal line to   cuts   in a (plane) curve. Fixing a choice of unit normal gives a signed curvature to that curve. As the plane is rotated by an angle   (always containing the normal line) that curvature can vary. The maximal curvature   and minimal curvature   are known as the principal curvatures of  .

The mean curvature at   is then the average of the signed curvature over all angles  :


By applying Euler's theorem, this is equal to the average of the principal curvatures (Spivak 1999, Volume 3, Chapter 2):


More generally (Spivak 1999, Volume 4, Chapter 7), for a hypersurface   the mean curvature is given as


More abstractly, the mean curvature is the trace of the second fundamental form divided by n (or equivalently, the shape operator).

Additionally, the mean curvature   may be written in terms of the covariant derivative   as


using the Gauss-Weingarten relations, where   is a smoothly embedded hypersurface,   a unit normal vector, and   the metric tensor.

A surface is a minimal surface if and only if the mean curvature is zero. Furthermore, a surface which evolves under the mean curvature of the surface  , is said to obey a heat-type equation called the mean curvature flow equation.

The sphere is the only embedded surface of constant positive mean curvature without boundary or singularities. However, the result is not true when the condition "embedded surface" is weakened to "immersed surface".[3]

Surfaces in 3D spaceEdit

For a surface defined in 3D space, the mean curvature is related to a unit normal of the surface:


where the normal chosen affects the sign of the curvature. The sign of the curvature depends on the choice of normal: the curvature is positive if the surface curves "towards" the normal. The formula above holds for surfaces in 3D space defined in any manner, as long as the divergence of the unit normal may be calculated. Mean Curvature may also be calculated


where I and II denote first and second quadratic form matrices, respectively.

For the special case of a surface defined as a function of two coordinates, e.g.  , and using the upward pointing normal the (doubled) mean curvature expression is


In particular at a point where  , the mean curvature is half the trace of the Hessian matrix of  .

If the surface is additionally known to be axisymmetric with  ,


where   comes from the derivative of  .

Implicit form of mean curvatureEdit

The mean curvature of a surface specified by an implicit equation   can be calculated by using the gradient   and the Hessian matrix


The mean curvature is given by:[4][5]


Another form is as the divergence of the unit normal. A unit normal is given by   and the mean curvature is


Mean curvature in fluid mechanicsEdit

An alternate definition is occasionally used in fluid mechanics to avoid factors of two:


This results in the pressure according to the Young-Laplace equation inside an equilibrium spherical droplet being surface tension times  ; the two curvatures are equal to the reciprocal of the droplet's radius


Minimal surfacesEdit

A rendering of Costa's minimal surface.

A minimal surface is a surface which has zero mean curvature at all points. Classic examples include the catenoid, helicoid and Enneper surface. Recent discoveries include Costa's minimal surface and the Gyroid.

CMC surfacesEdit

An extension of the idea of a minimal surface are surfaces of constant mean curvature. The surfaces of unit constant mean curvature in hyperbolic space are called Bryant surfaces.[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Marie-Louise Dubreil-Jacotin on Sophie Germain
  2. ^ Lodder, J. (2003). "Curvature in the Calculus Curriculum". The American Mathematical Monthly. 110 (7): 593–605. doi:10.2307/3647744. JSTOR 3647744.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Goldman, R. (2005). "Curvature formulas for implicit curves and surfaces". Computer Aided Geometric Design. 22 (7): 632–658. doi:10.1016/j.cagd.2005.06.005.
  5. ^ Spivak, M (1975). A Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry. 3. Publish or Perish, Boston.
  6. ^ Rosenberg, Harold (2002), "Bryant surfaces", The global theory of minimal surfaces in flat spaces (Martina Franca, 1999), Lecture Notes in Math., 1775, Berlin: Springer, pp. 67–111, doi:10.1007/978-3-540-45609-4_3, ISBN 978-3-540-43120-6, MR 1901614.


  • Spivak, Michael (1999), A comprehensive introduction to differential geometry (Volumes 3-4) (3rd ed.), Publish or Perish Press, ISBN 978-0-914098-72-0, (Volume 3), (Volume 4).
  • P.Grinfeld (2014). Introduction to Tensor Analysis and the Calculus of Moving Surfaces. Springer. ISBN 978-1-4614-7866-9.