Parabolic-equation method

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A method for the approximate solution of a high-frequency diffraction problem (see Diffraction, mathematical theory of). As a rule it is necessary to resort to the parabolic-equation method for the determination of a wave field in those domains where the ray method cannot be employed because the field of rays suffers from a singularity in one sense or another. Consider, for example, the incidence of a plane wave on a perfectly reflecting convex body. The wave phenomenon is described by the Helmholtz equation


Here the point is located outside the bounded convex domain , on the boundary of which the Dirichlet boundary condition is satisfied. It is assumed that has everywhere positive curvature. The solution can be represented as , where satisfies the radiation conditions. The solution of such a problem exists and is unique.

In the high-frequency range ( "large" ) it is important to construct a formal small wavelength solution to this problem (i.e. roughly speaking, an expansion that formally satisfies all the conditions of the problem, while successive terms are of increasingly high order of smallness as ). It is possible to show that, in the case under consideration, a formal solution will be an asymptotic expansion of the classical solution.

The ray method allows one to construct the unknown small wavelength expansion everywhere, except in the shadow zone (see Fig.). Rays of the incident wave shadow penumbra region

Figure: p071200a

The expression for the wave field constructed with the aid of the ray method loses smoothness on the boundary between shadow zone and illuminated zone (the half-lines and in the figure). In a neighbourhood of (and ) the small wavelength asymptotic expansion of the wavefield is no longer given by the ray formulas. A neighbourhood of (and ) is usually called a penumbra region.

Of key importance for the construction of a formal solution to the problem given above is an examination of the points and where the rays of the incident wave are the boundary curve . The point is taken as the origin of coordinates, and the positive -axis separates the shadow zone and the illuminated zone.

One introduces new coordinates and in a neighbourhood of . A point is determined by its distance along from . It is assumed that (respectively, ) in the shadow zone (respectively, in the illuminated zone). If , the point is characterized by its distance from and the coordinates of the projection of on . With respect to the coordinates and , the Helmholtz equation takes the form


( is the radius of curvature of at the point ). Through the MacLaurin series for ,

it is possible to replace all the coefficients of equation (2) by their formal expansions in powers of and . Substituting the coordinates

in equations (2), one arrives at


By equating to zero the coefficients of the successive powers of , one obtains the following sequence of recurrence relations (which is typical for the method of boundary layers, cf. also Boundary-layer theory):

Here the first equation is a "parabolic" equation, leading to the name parabolic-equation method:


Basically, equation (4) is an equation of Schrödinger type. The coefficients in the operator are polynomials in and . For the formal satisfaction of the boundary condition it is sufficient to require that . The other boundary conditions require that for large , , the sequence (3) formally becomes the expansion of the ray method. For it is possible to derive an explicit formula (the so-called Fock formula), having the form of a Fourier integral:

where is expressed comparatively simply in terms of Airy functions. Methods of matching asymptotics enable one to obtain formulas for the wave field in all shadow and penumbra regions.

In the case of creeping waves and of whispering gallery modes, corresponding "parabolic" equations have been deduced and their solutions are expressed in terms of Airy functions. The development of the theory of lasers made it necessary to consider waves concentrated in a neighbourhood of isolated rays. Selecting the corresponding phase coefficient and carrying out further constructions analogous to the constructions of the boundary-layer method, a "parabolic" equation is obtained, in terms of the solution of which the wave field is expressed in a first approximation. In this case the "parabolic" equation will be the Schrödinger equation with a quadratic potential. The parabolic-equation method finds application also in the calculation of the wave field in shallow water, in statistical non-homogeneous media and in many other problems. Analogues of the parabolic-equation method are used in the theory of non-linear waves.


[1] V.A. [V.A. Fok] Fock, "Electromagnetic diffraction and propagation problems" , Pergamon (1965) (Translated from Russian)
[2] V.M. Babich, V.S. Buldyrev, "Asymptotic methods in the diffraction of short waves" , Moscow (1972) (In Russian) (Translation forthcoming: Springer)
[3] V.M. [V.M. Babich] Babič, N.Y. [N.Ya. Kirpichnikova] Kirpičnikova, "The boundary-layer method in diffraction problems" , Springer (1979) (Translated from Russian)



[a1] N. Maruvitz, "Radiation and scattering of waves" , Prentice-Hall (1973)
How to Cite This Entry:
Parabolic-equation method. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:
This article was adapted from an original article by V.M. Babich (originator), which appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098. See original article