Superposition principle

# Superposition principle

Overview
In physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

and systems theory
Systems theory
Systems theory is the transdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems at all nesting levels in all fields of research...

, the superposition principle , also known as superposition property, states that, for all linear system
Linear system
A linear system is a mathematical model of a system based on the use of a linear operator.Linear systems typically exhibit features and properties that are much simpler than the general, nonlinear case....

s, the net response at a given place and time caused by two or more stimuli is the sum of the responses which would have been caused by each stimulus individually. So that if input A produces response X and input B produces response Y then input (A + B) produces response (X + Y).
Discussion

Recent Discussions
Encyclopedia
In physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

and systems theory
Systems theory
Systems theory is the transdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems at all nesting levels in all fields of research...

, the superposition principle , also known as superposition property, states that, for all linear system
Linear system
A linear system is a mathematical model of a system based on the use of a linear operator.Linear systems typically exhibit features and properties that are much simpler than the general, nonlinear case....

s, the net response at a given place and time caused by two or more stimuli is the sum of the responses which would have been caused by each stimulus individually. So that if input A produces response X and input B produces response Y then input (A + B) produces response (X + Y).

Mathematically, for a linear system
Linear system
A linear system is a mathematical model of a system based on the use of a linear operator.Linear systems typically exhibit features and properties that are much simpler than the general, nonlinear case....

, F, defined by F(x) = y, where x is some sort of stimulus (input) and y is some sort of response (output), the superposition (i.e., sum) of stimuli yields a superposition of the respective responses:.
The superposition principle holds because, by definition, a linear system
Linear system
A linear system is a mathematical model of a system based on the use of a linear operator.Linear systems typically exhibit features and properties that are much simpler than the general, nonlinear case....

In mathematics the term additive function has two different definitions, depending on the specific field of application.In algebra an additive function is a function that preserves the addition operation:for any two elements x and y in the domain. For example, any linear map is additive...

. Superposition may sometimes imply linearity, depending on whether homogeneity
Homogeneous function
In mathematics, a homogeneous function is a function with multiplicative scaling behaviour: if the argument is multiplied by a factor, then the result is multiplied by some power of this factor. More precisely, if is a function between two vector spaces over a field F, and k is an integer, then...

is included or implied in the definition of superposition.

In the field of electrical engineering
Electrical engineering
Electrical engineering is a field of engineering that generally deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. The field first became an identifiable occupation in the late nineteenth century after commercialization of the electric telegraph and electrical...

, where the x and y signals are allowed to be complex-valued (as is common in signal processing
Signal processing
Signal processing is an area of systems engineering, electrical engineering and applied mathematics that deals with operations on or analysis of signals, in either discrete or continuous time...

), a linear system
Linear system
A linear system is a mathematical model of a system based on the use of a linear operator.Linear systems typically exhibit features and properties that are much simpler than the general, nonlinear case....

must satisfy the superposition property, which requires the system to be additive
In mathematics the term additive function has two different definitions, depending on the specific field of application.In algebra an additive function is a function that preserves the addition operation:for any two elements x and y in the domain. For example, any linear map is additive...

and homogeneous
Homogeneous function
In mathematics, a homogeneous function is a function with multiplicative scaling behaviour: if the argument is multiplied by a factor, then the result is multiplied by some power of this factor. More precisely, if is a function between two vector spaces over a field F, and k is an integer, then...

. An additive system satisfies . A homogeneous system satisfies ,
where a is a scalar.
Often the additivity and homogeneity conditions for superposition are combined into a single condition, defined as,
for scalars a1 and a2.

This principle has many applications in physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

and engineering
Engineering
Engineering is the discipline, art, skill and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that safely realize improvements to the lives of...

because many physical systems can be modeled as linear systems. For example, a beam
Beam (structure)
A beam is a horizontal structural element that is capable of withstanding load primarily by resisting bending. The bending force induced into the material of the beam as a result of the external loads, own weight, span and external reactions to these loads is called a bending moment.- Overview...

can be modeled as a linear system where the input stimulus is the load
Structural loads or actions are forces, deformations or accelerations applied to a structure or its components.Loads cause stresses, deformations and displacements in structures. Assessment of their effects is carried out by the methods of structural analysis...

on the beam and the output response is the deflection of the beam. Because physical systems are generally only approximately linear, the superposition principle is only an approximation of the true physical behavior; it provides insight for typical operational regions for these systems.

The superposition principle applies to any linear system, including algebraic equations, linear differential equations, and systems of equations of those forms. The stimuli and responses could be numbers, functions, vectors, vector field
Vector field
In vector calculus, a vector field is an assignmentof a vector to each point in a subset of Euclidean space. A vector field in the plane for instance can be visualized as an arrow, with a given magnitude and direction, attached to each point in the plane...

s, time-varying signals, or any other object which satisfies certain axioms
Vector space
A vector space is a mathematical structure formed by a collection of vectors: objects that may be added together and multiplied by numbers, called scalars in this context. Scalars are often taken to be real numbers, but one may also consider vector spaces with scalar multiplication by complex...

. Note that when vectors or vector fields are involved, a superposition is interpreted as a vector sum.

## Relation to Fourier analysis and similar methods

By writing a very general stimulus (in a linear system) as the superposition of stimuli of a specific, simple form, often the response becomes easier to compute,

For example, in Fourier analysis, the stimulus is written as the superposition of infinitely many sinusoids. Due to the superposition principle, each of these sinusoids can be analyzed separately, and its individual response can be computed. (The response is itself a sinusoid, with the same frequency as the stimulus, but generally a different amplitude
Amplitude
Amplitude is the magnitude of change in the oscillating variable with each oscillation within an oscillating system. For example, sound waves in air are oscillations in atmospheric pressure and their amplitudes are proportional to the change in pressure during one oscillation...

and phase
Phase (waves)
Phase in waves is the fraction of a wave cycle which has elapsed relative to an arbitrary point.-Formula:The phase of an oscillation or wave refers to a sinusoidal function such as the following:...

.) According to the superposition principle, the response to the original stimulus is the sum (or integral) of all the individual sinusoidal responses.

As another common example, in Green's function analysis
Green's function
In mathematics, a Green's function is a type of function used to solve inhomogeneous differential equations subject to specific initial conditions or boundary conditions...

, the stimulus is written as the superposition of infinitely many impulse functions, and the response is then a superposition of impulse response
Impulse response
In signal processing, the impulse response, or impulse response function , of a dynamic system is its output when presented with a brief input signal, called an impulse. More generally, an impulse response refers to the reaction of any dynamic system in response to some external change...

s.

Fourier analysis is particularly common for wave
Wave
In physics, a wave is a disturbance that travels through space and time, accompanied by the transfer of energy.Waves travel and the wave motion transfers energy from one point to another, often with no permanent displacement of the particles of the medium—that is, with little or no associated mass...

s. For example, in electromagnetic theory, ordinary light
Light
Light or visible light is electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye, and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light has wavelength in a range from about 380 nanometres to about 740 nm, with a frequency range of about 405 THz to 790 THz...

is described as a superposition of plane wave
Plane wave
In the physics of wave propagation, a plane wave is a constant-frequency wave whose wavefronts are infinite parallel planes of constant peak-to-peak amplitude normal to the phase velocity vector....

s (waves of fixed frequency
Frequency
Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency.The period is the duration of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency...

, polarization, and direction). As long as the superposition principle holds (which is often but not always; see nonlinear optics
Nonlinear optics
Nonlinear optics is the branch of optics that describes the behavior of light in nonlinear media, that is, media in which the dielectric polarization P responds nonlinearly to the electric field E of the light...

), the behavior of any light wave can be understood as a superposition of the behavior of these simpler plane wave
Plane wave
In the physics of wave propagation, a plane wave is a constant-frequency wave whose wavefronts are infinite parallel planes of constant peak-to-peak amplitude normal to the phase velocity vector....

s.

## Application to waves

Waves are usually described by variations in some parameter through space and time—for example, height in a water wave, pressure
Pressure
Pressure is the force per unit area applied in a direction perpendicular to the surface of an object. Gauge pressure is the pressure relative to the local atmospheric or ambient pressure.- Definition :...

in a sound wave, or the electromagnetic field
Electromagnetic field
An electromagnetic field is a physical field produced by moving electrically charged objects. It affects the behavior of charged objects in the vicinity of the field. The electromagnetic field extends indefinitely throughout space and describes the electromagnetic interaction...

in a light wave. The value of this parameter is called the amplitude
Amplitude
Amplitude is the magnitude of change in the oscillating variable with each oscillation within an oscillating system. For example, sound waves in air are oscillations in atmospheric pressure and their amplitudes are proportional to the change in pressure during one oscillation...

of the wave, and the wave itself is a function
Function (mathematics)
In mathematics, a function associates one quantity, the argument of the function, also known as the input, with another quantity, the value of the function, also known as the output. A function assigns exactly one output to each input. The argument and the value may be real numbers, but they can...

specifying the amplitude at each point.

In any system with waves, the waveform at a given time is a function of the sources
Wave equation
The wave equation is an important second-order linear partial differential equation for the description of waves – as they occur in physics – such as sound waves, light waves and water waves. It arises in fields like acoustics, electromagnetics, and fluid dynamics...

(i.e., external forces, if any, that create or affect the wave) and initial conditions of the system. In many cases (for example, in the classic wave equation
Wave equation
The wave equation is an important second-order linear partial differential equation for the description of waves – as they occur in physics – such as sound waves, light waves and water waves. It arises in fields like acoustics, electromagnetics, and fluid dynamics...

), the equation describing the wave is linear. When this is true, the superposition principle can be applied.
That means that the net amplitude caused by two or more waves traversing the same space, is the sum of the amplitudes which would have been produced by the individual waves separately. For example, two waves traveling towards each other will pass right through each other without any distortion on the other side. (See image at top.)

### Wave interference

The phenomenon of interference between waves is based on this idea. When two or more waves traverse the same space, the net amplitude at each point is the sum of the amplitudes of the individual waves. In some cases, such as in noise-cancelling headphone
Noise-cancelling headphones reduce unwanted ambient sounds by means of active noise control . This involves using one or more microphones placed near the ear, and electronic circuitry which uses the microphone signal to generate an "antinoise" signal...

s, the summed variation has a smaller amplitude
Amplitude
Amplitude is the magnitude of change in the oscillating variable with each oscillation within an oscillating system. For example, sound waves in air are oscillations in atmospheric pressure and their amplitudes are proportional to the change in pressure during one oscillation...

than the component variations; this is called destructive interference. In other cases, such as in Line Array
Line array
A line array is a loudspeaker system that is made up of a number of loudspeaker elements coupled together in a line segment to create a near-line source of sound...

, the summed variation will have a bigger amplitude than any of the components individually; this is called constructive interference.
 combined waveform wave 1 wave 2 Two waves in phase Two waves 180° out of phase

### Departures from linearity

In most realistic physical situations, the equation governing the wave is only approximately linear. In these situations, the superposition principle only approximately holds. As a rule, the accuracy of the approximation tends to improve as the amplitude of the wave gets smaller. For examples of phenomena that arise when the superposition principle does not exactly hold, see the articles nonlinear optics
Nonlinear optics
Nonlinear optics is the branch of optics that describes the behavior of light in nonlinear media, that is, media in which the dielectric polarization P responds nonlinearly to the electric field E of the light...

and nonlinear acoustics
Nonlinear acoustics
Non-linear acoustics is a branch of physics dealing with sound waves being distorted as they travel.-Introduction:A sound wave propagates through a material as a localized pressure change...

.

### Quantum superposition

In quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

, a principal task is to compute how a certain type of wave propagates
Wave propagation
Wave propagation is any of the ways in which waves travel.With respect to the direction of the oscillation relative to the propagation direction, we can distinguish between longitudinal wave and transverse waves....

and behaves. The wave is called a wavefunction
Wavefunction
Not to be confused with the related concept of the Wave equationA wave function or wavefunction is a probability amplitude in quantum mechanics describing the quantum state of a particle and how it behaves. Typically, its values are complex numbers and, for a single particle, it is a function of...

, and the equation governing the behavior of the wave is called Schrödinger's wave equation. A primary approach to computing the behavior of a wavefunction is to write that wavefunction as a superposition (called "quantum superposition
Quantum superposition
Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. It holds that a physical system exists in all its particular, theoretically possible states simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations.Mathematically, it...

") of (possibly infinitely many) other wavefunctions of a certain type—stationary state
Stationary state
In quantum mechanics, a stationary state is an eigenvector of the Hamiltonian, implying the probability density associated with the wavefunction is independent of time . This corresponds to a quantum state with a single definite energy...

s whose behavior is particularly simple. Since Schrödinger's wave equation is linear, the behavior of the original wavefunction can be computed through the superposition principle this way. See Quantum superposition
Quantum superposition
Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. It holds that a physical system exists in all its particular, theoretically possible states simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations.Mathematically, it...

.

## Boundary value problems

A common type of boundary value problem is (to put it abstractly) finding a function y that satisfies some equation
with some boundary specification
For example, in Laplace's equation
Laplace's equation
In mathematics, Laplace's equation is a second-order partial differential equation named after Pierre-Simon Laplace who first studied its properties. This is often written as:where ∆ = ∇² is the Laplace operator and \varphi is a scalar function...

with Dirichlet boundary conditions
Dirichlet problem
In mathematics, a Dirichlet problem is the problem of finding a function which solves a specified partial differential equation in the interior of a given region that takes prescribed values on the boundary of the region....

, F would be the Laplacian operator in a region R, G would be an operator that restricts y to the boundary of R, and z would be the function that y is required to equal on the boundary of R.

In the case that F and G are both linear operators, then the superposition principle says that a superposition of solutions to the first equation is another solution to the first equation:
IF THEN

while the boundary values superpose:
Using these facts, if a list can be compiled of solutions to the first equation, then these solutions can be carefully put into a superposition such that it will satisfy the second equation. This is one common method of approaching boundary value problems.

## Other example applications

• In electrical engineering
Electrical engineering
Electrical engineering is a field of engineering that generally deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. The field first became an identifiable occupation in the late nineteenth century after commercialization of the electric telegraph and electrical...

, in a linear circuit
Linear circuit
A linear circuit is an electronic circuit in which, for a sinusoidal input voltage of frequency f, any output of the circuit is also sinusoidal with frequency f...

, the input (an applied time-varying voltage signal) is related to the output (a current or voltage anywhere in the circuit) by a linear transformation. Thus, a superposition (i.e., sum) of input signals will yield the superposition of the responses. The use of Fourier analysis on this basis is particularly common. For another, related technique in circuit analysis, see Superposition theorem
Superposition theorem
The superposition theorem for electrical circuits states that the response in any branch of a bilateral linear circuit having more than one independent source equals the algebraic sum of the responses caused by each independent source acting alone, while all other independent sources are replaced...

.

• In physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

, Maxwell's equations
Maxwell's equations
Maxwell's equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electrodynamics, classical optics, and electric circuits. These fields in turn underlie modern electrical and communications technologies.Maxwell's equations...

imply that the (possibly time-varying) distributions of charges
Electric charge
Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

and currents
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

are related to the electric
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

and magnetic field
Magnetic field
A magnetic field is a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude ; as such it is a vector field.Technically, a magnetic field is a pseudo vector;...

s by a linear transformation. Thus, the superposition principle can be used to simplify the computation of fields which arise from given charge and current distribution. The principle also applies to other linear differential equations arising in physics, such as the heat equation
Heat equation
The heat equation is an important partial differential equation which describes the distribution of heat in a given region over time...

.

• In mechanical engineering
Mechanical engineering
Mechanical engineering is a discipline of engineering that applies the principles of physics and materials science for analysis, design, manufacturing, and maintenance of mechanical systems. It is the branch of engineering that involves the production and usage of heat and mechanical power for the...

, superposition is used to solve for beam and structure deflections of combined loads when the effects are linear (i.e., each load does not affect the results of the other loads, and the effect of each load does not significantly alter the geometry of the structural system).

• In hydrogeology
Hydrogeology
Hydrogeology is the area of geology that deals with the distribution and movement of groundwater in the soil and rocks of the Earth's crust, . The term geohydrology is often used interchangeably...

, the superposition principle is applied to the drawdown
Drawdown (hydrology)
In water-related science and engineering there are two similar but distinct definitions in use for drawdown.*In subsurface hydrogeology, drawdown is the change in hydraulic head observed at a well in an aquifer, typically due to pumping a well as part of an aquifer test or well test.*In surface...

of two or more water well
Water well
A water well is an excavation or structure created in the ground by digging, driving, boring or drilling to access groundwater in underground aquifers. The well water is drawn by an electric submersible pump, a trash pump, a vertical turbine pump, a handpump or a mechanical pump...

s pumping in an ideal aquifer
Aquifer
An aquifer is a wet underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well. The study of water flow in aquifers and the characterization of aquifers is called hydrogeology...

.

• In process control
Process control
Process control is a statistics and engineering discipline that deals with architectures, mechanisms and algorithms for maintaining the output of a specific process within a desired range...

, the superposition principle is used in model predictive control
Model predictive control
Model Predictive Control, or MPC, is an advanced method of process control that has been in use in the process industries such as chemical plants and oil refineries since the 1980s...

.

• The superposition principle can be applied when small deviations from a known solution to a nonlinear system are analyzed by linearization
Linearization
In mathematics and its applications, linearization refers to finding the linear approximation to a function at a given point. In the study of dynamical systems, linearization is a method for assessing the local stability of an equilibrium point of a system of nonlinear differential equations or...

.

• In music
Music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

, theorist Joseph Schillinger
Joseph Schillinger
Joseph Schillinger was a composer, music theorist, and composition teacher. He was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine and died in New York City.-Life and career:...

used a form of the superposition principle as one basis of his Theory of Rhythm
Rhythm
Rhythm may be generally defined as a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions." This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or...

in his Schillinger System of Musical Composition.

• Impulse response
Impulse response
In signal processing, the impulse response, or impulse response function , of a dynamic system is its output when presented with a brief input signal, called an impulse. More generally, an impulse response refers to the reaction of any dynamic system in response to some external change...

• Green's function
Green's function
In mathematics, a Green's function is a type of function used to solve inhomogeneous differential equations subject to specific initial conditions or boundary conditions...

• Quantum superposition
Quantum superposition
Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. It holds that a physical system exists in all its particular, theoretically possible states simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations.Mathematically, it...

• Interference
• Coherence (physics)
Coherence (physics)
In physics, coherence is a property of waves that enables stationary interference. More generally, coherence describes all properties of the correlation between physical quantities of a wave....

• Convolution
Convolution
In mathematics and, in particular, functional analysis, convolution is a mathematical operation on two functions f and g, producing a third function that is typically viewed as a modified version of one of the original functions. Convolution is similar to cross-correlation...