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Spherical multipole moments are the coefficients in a series expansion of a potential that varies inversely with the distance R to a source, i.e., as 1/R. Examples of such potentials are the electric potential, the magnetic potential and the gravitational potential.

For clarity, we illustrate the expansion for a point charge, then generalize to an arbitrary charge density . Through this article, the primed coordinates such as refer to the position of charge(s), whereas the unprimed coordinates such as refer to the point at which the potential is being observed. We also use spherical coordinates throughout, e.g., the vector has coordinates where is the radius, is the colatitude and is the azimuthal angle.


Spherical multipole moments of a point chargeEdit

Figure 1: Definitions for the spherical multipole expansion

The electric potential due to a point charge located at   is given by


where   is the distance between the charge position and the observation point and   is the angle between the vectors   and  . If the radius   of the observation point is greater than the radius   of the charge, we may factor out 1/r and expand the square root in powers of   using Legendre polynomials


This is exactly analogous to the axial multipole expansion.

We may express   in terms of the coordinates of the observation point and charge position using the spherical law of cosines (Fig. 2)

Figure 2: Angles between the unit vectors   (the coordinate axis),   (the observation point) and   (the charge position).

Substituting this equation for   into the Legendre polynomials and factoring the primed and unprimed coordinates yields the important formula known as the spherical harmonic addition theorem


where the   functions are the spherical harmonics. Substitution of this formula into the potential yields


which can be written as


where the multipole moments are defined


As with axial multipole moments, we may also consider the case when the radius   of the observation point is less than the radius   of the charge. In that case, we may write


which can be written as


where the interior spherical multipole moments are defined as the complex conjugate of irregular solid harmonics


The two cases can be subsumed in a single expression if   and   are defined to be the lesser and greater, respectively, of the two radii   and  ; the potential of a point charge then takes the form, which is sometimes referred to as Laplace expansion


General spherical multipole momentsEdit

It is straightforward to generalize these formulae by replacing the point charge   with an infinitesimal charge element   and integrating. The functional form of the expansion is the same


where the general multipole moments are defined



The potential Φ(r) is real, so that the complex conjugate of the expansion is equally valid. Taking of the complex conjugate leads to a definition of the multipole moment which is proportional to Ylm, not to its complex conjugate. This is a common convention, see molecular multipoles for more on this.

Interior spherical multipole momentsEdit

Similarly, the interior multipole expansion has the same functional form


with the interior multipole moments defined as


Interaction energies of spherical multipolesEdit

A simple formula for the interaction energy of two non-overlapping but concentric charge distributions can be derived. Let the first charge distribution   be centered on the origin and lie entirely within the second charge distribution  . The interaction energy between any two static charge distributions is defined by


The potential   of the first (central) charge distribution may be expanded in exterior multipoles


where   represents the   exterior multipole moment of the first charge distribution. Substitution of this expansion yields the formula


Since the integral equals the complex conjugate of the interior multipole moments   of the second (peripheral) charge distribution, the energy formula reduces to the simple form


For example, this formula may be used to determine the electrostatic interaction energies of the atomic nucleus with its surrounding electronic orbitals. Conversely, given the interaction energies and the interior multipole moments of the electronic orbitals, one may find the exterior multipole moments (and, hence, shape) of the atomic nucleus.

Special case of axial symmetryEdit

The spherical multipole expansion takes a simple form if the charge distribution is axially symmetric (i.e., is independent of the azimuthal angle  ). By carrying out the   integrations that define   and  , it can be shown the multipole moments are all zero except when  . Using the mathematical identity


the exterior multipole expansion becomes


where the axially symmetric multipole moments are defined


In the limit that the charge is confined to the  -axis, we recover the exterior axial multipole moments.

Similarly the interior multipole expansion becomes


where the axially symmetric interior multipole moments are defined


In the limit that the charge is confined to the  -axis, we recover the interior axial multipole moments.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit