Cross Product - Cross Product and Handedness

Cross Product and Handedness

When measurable quantities involve cross products, the handedness of the coordinate systems used cannot be arbitrary. However, when physics laws are written as equations, it should be possible to make an arbitrary choice of the coordinate system (including handedness). To avoid problems, one should be careful to never write down an equation where the two sides do not behave equally under all transformations that need to be considered. For example, if one side of the equation is a cross product of two vectors, one must take into account that when the handedness of the coordinate system is not fixed a priori, the result is not a (true) vector but a pseudovector. Therefore, for consistency, the other side must also be a pseudovector.

More generally, the result of a cross product may be either a vector or a pseudovector, depending on the type of its operands (vectors or pseudovectors). Namely, vectors and pseudovectors are interrelated in the following ways under application of the cross product:

  • vector × vector = pseudovector
  • pseudovector × pseudovector = pseudovector
  • vector × pseudovector = vector
  • pseudovector × vector = vector.

So by the above relationships, the unit basis vectors i, j and k of an orthonormal, right-handed (Cartesian) coordinate frame must all be pseudovectors (if a basis of mixed vector types is disallowed, as it normally is) since i × j = k, j × k = i and k × i = j.

Because the cross product may also be a (true) vector, it may not change direction with a mirror image transformation. This happens, according to the above relationships, if one of the operands is a (true) vector and the other one is a pseudovector (e.g., the cross product of two vectors). For instance, a vector triple product involving three (true) vectors is a (true) vector.

A handedness-free approach is possible using exterior algebra.

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