In geometry, a geodesic () is commonly a curve representing in some sense the shortest[a] path (arc) between two points in a surface, or more generally in a Riemannian manifold. The term also has meaning in any differentiable manifold with a connection. It is a generalization of the notion of a "straight line" to a more general setting.
The noun "geodesic"[b] and the adjective "geodetic"[c] come from geodesy, the science of measuring the size and shape of Earth, while many of the underlying principles can be applied to any ellipsoidal geometry. In the original sense, a geodesic was the shortest route between two points on the Earth's surface. For a spherical Earth, it is a segment of a great circle (see also great-circle distance). The term has been generalized to include measurements in much more general mathematical spaces; for example, in graph theory, one might consider a geodesic between two vertices/nodes of a graph.
In a Riemannian manifold or submanifold geodesics are characterised by the property of having vanishing geodesic curvature. More generally, in the presence of an affine connection, a geodesic is defined to be a curve whose tangent vectors remain parallel if they are transported along it. Applying this to the Levi-Civita connection of a Riemannian metric recovers the previous notion.
The shortest path between two given points in a curved space, assumed to be a differential manifold, can be defined by using the equation for the length of a curve (a function f from an open interval of R to the space), and then minimizing this length between the points using the calculus of variations. This has some minor technical problems, because there is an infinite-dimensional space of different ways to parameterize the shortest path. It is simpler to restrict the set of curves to those that are parameterized "with constant speed" 1, meaning that the distance from f(s) to f(t) along the curve equals |s−t|. Equivalently, a different quantity may be used, termed the energy of the curve; minimizing the energy leads to the same equations for a geodesic (here "constant velocity" is a consequence of minimization). Intuitively, one can understand this second formulation by noting that an elastic band stretched between two points will contract its length, and in so doing will minimize its energy. The resulting shape of the band is a geodesic.
It is possible that several different curves between two points minimize the distance, as is the case for two diametrically opposite points on a sphere. In such a case, any of these curves is a geodesic.
Geodesics are commonly seen in the study of Riemannian geometry and more generally metric geometry. In general relativity, geodesics in spacetime describe the motion of point particles under the influence of gravity alone. In particular, the path taken by a falling rock, an orbiting satellite, or the shape of a planetary orbit are all geodesics in curved spacetime. More generally, the topic of sub-Riemannian geometry deals with the paths that objects may take when they are not free, and their movement is constrained in various ways.
This article presents the mathematical formalism involved in defining, finding, and proving the existence of geodesics, in the case of Riemannian manifolds. The article Levi-Civita connection discusses the more general case of a pseudo-Riemannian manifold and geodesic (general relativity) discusses the special case of general relativity in greater detail.
The most familiar examples are the straight lines in Euclidean geometry. On a sphere, the images of geodesics are the great circles. The shortest path from point A to point B on a sphere is given by the shorter arc of the great circle passing through A and B. If A and B are antipodal points, then there are infinitely many shortest paths between them. Geodesics on an ellipsoid behave in a more complicated way than on a sphere; in particular, they are not closed in general (see figure).
In metric geometry, a geodesic is a curve which is everywhere locally a distance minimizer. More precisely, a curve γ : I → M from an interval I of the reals to the metric space M is a geodesic if there is a constant v ≥ 0 such that for any t ∈ I there is a neighborhood J of t in I such that for any t1, t2 ∈ J we have
This generalizes the notion of geodesic for Riemannian manifolds. However, in metric geometry the geodesic considered is often equipped with natural parameterization, i.e. in the above identity v = 1 and
If the last equality is satisfied for all t1, t2 ∈ I, the geodesic is called a minimizing geodesic or shortest path.
In general, a metric space may have no geodesics, except constant curves. At the other extreme, any two points in a length metric space are joined by a minimizing sequence of rectifiable paths, although this minimizing sequence need not converge to a geodesic.
The distance d(p, q) between two points p and q of M is defined as the infimum of the length taken over all continuous, piecewise continuously differentiable curves γ : [a,b] → M such that γ(a) = p and γ(b) = q. In Riemannian geometry, all geodesics are locally distance-minimizing paths, but the converse is not true. In fact, only paths that are both locally distance minimizing and parameterized proportionately to arc-length are geodesics. Another equivalent way of defining geodesics on a Riemannian manifold, is to define them as the minima of the following action or energy functional
The Euler–Lagrange equations of motion for the functional E are then given in local coordinates by
In an appropriate sense, zeros of the second variation along a geodesic γ arise along Jacobi fields. Jacobi fields are thus regarded as variations through geodesics.
By applying variational techniques from classical mechanics, one can also regard geodesics as Hamiltonian flows. They are solutions of the associated Hamilton equations, with (pseudo-)Riemannian metric taken as Hamiltonian.
The local existence and uniqueness theorem for geodesics states that geodesics on a smooth manifold with an affine connection exist, and are unique. More precisely:
The proof of this theorem follows from the theory of ordinary differential equations, by noticing that the geodesic equation is a second-order ODE. Existence and uniqueness then follow from the Picard–Lindelöf theorem for the solutions of ODEs with prescribed initial conditions. γ depends smoothly on both p and V.
In general, I may not be all of R as for example for an open disc in R2. Any γ extends to all of ℝ if and only if M is geodesically complete.
at each point v ∈ TM; here π∗ : TTM → TM denotes the pushforward (differential) along the projection π : TM → M associated to the tangent bundle.
Equation (1) is invariant under affine reparameterizations; that is, parameterizations of the form
where a and b are constant real numbers. Thus apart from specifying a certain class of embedded curves, the geodesic equation also determines a preferred class of parameterizations on each of the curves. Accordingly, solutions of (1) are called geodesics with affine parameter.
Geodesics without a particular parameterization are described by a projective connection.