Categories: Mathematics, Physics.

Dirac delta function

The Dirac delta function δ(x)\delta(x), often just the delta function, is a function (or, more accurately, a Schwartz distribution) that is commonly used in physics. It is an infinitely narrow discontinuous “spike” at x=0x = 0 whose area is defined to be 1:

δ(x){+ifx=00ifx0andεεδ(x)dx=1\begin{aligned} \boxed{ \delta(x) \equiv \begin{cases} +\infty & \mathrm{if}\: x = 0 \\ 0 & \mathrm{if}\: x \neq 0 \end{cases} \quad \mathrm{and} \quad \int_{-\varepsilon}^\varepsilon \delta(x) \dd{x} = 1 } \end{aligned}

It is sometimes also called the sampling function, thanks to its most important property: the so-called sampling property:

f(x)δ(xx0)dx=f(x)δ(x0x)dx=f(x0)\begin{aligned} \boxed{ \int f(x) \: \delta(x - x_0) \: dx = \int f(x) \: \delta(x_0 - x) \: dx = f(x_0) } \end{aligned}

δ(x)\delta(x) is thus quite an effective weapon against integrals. This may not seem very useful due to its “unnatural” definition, but in fact it appears as the limit of several reasonable functions:

δ(x)=limn+ ⁣{nπexp(n2x2)}=limn+ ⁣{nπ11+n2x2}=limn+ ⁣{sin(nx)πx}\begin{aligned} \delta(x) = \lim_{n \to +\infty} \!\Big\{ \frac{n}{\sqrt{\pi}} \exp(- n^2 x^2) \Big\} = \lim_{n \to +\infty} \!\Big\{ \frac{n}{\pi} \frac{1}{1 + n^2 x^2} \Big\} = \lim_{n \to +\infty} \!\Big\{ \frac{\sin(n x)}{\pi x} \Big\} \end{aligned}

The last one is especially important, since it is equivalent to the following integral, which appears very often in the context of Fourier transforms:

δ(x)=limn+ ⁣{sin(nx)πx}=12πexp(ikx)dkF^{1}\begin{aligned} \delta(x) = \lim_{n \to +\infty} \!\Big\{\frac{\sin(n x)}{\pi x}\Big\} = \frac{1}{2\pi} \int_{-\infty}^\infty \exp(i k x) \dd{k} \:\:\propto\:\: \hat{\mathcal{F}}\{1\} \end{aligned}

When the argument of δ(x)\delta(x) is scaled, the delta function is itself scaled:

δ(sx)=1sδ(x)\begin{aligned} \boxed{ \delta(s x) = \frac{1}{|s|} \delta(x) } \end{aligned}

Because it is symmetric, δ(sx)=δ(sx)\delta(s x) = \delta(|s| x). Then by substituting σ=sx\sigma = |s| x:

δ(sx)dx=1sδ(σ)dσ=1s\begin{aligned} \int \delta(|s| x) \dd{x} &= \frac{1}{|s|} \int \delta(\sigma) \dd{\sigma} = \frac{1}{|s|} \end{aligned}

An even more impressive property is the behaviour of the derivative of δ(x)\delta(x):

f(ξ)δ(xξ)dξ=f(x)\begin{aligned} \boxed{ \int f(\xi) \: \delta'(x - \xi) \dd{\xi} = f'(x) } \end{aligned}

Note which variable is used for the differentiation, and that δ(xξ)=δ(ξx)\delta'(x - \xi) = - \delta'(\xi - x):

f(ξ)dδ(xξ)dxdξ=ddxf(ξ)δ(xξ)dx=f(x)\begin{aligned} \int f(\xi) \: \dv{\delta(x - \xi)}{x} \dd{\xi} &= \dv{}{x}\int f(\xi) \: \delta(x - \xi) \dd{x} = f'(x) \end{aligned}

This property also generalizes nicely for the higher-order derivatives:

f(ξ)dnδ(xξ)dxndξ=dnf(x)dxn\begin{aligned} \boxed{ \int f(\xi) \: \dvn{n}{\delta(x - \xi)}{x} \dd{\xi} = \dvn{n}{f(x)}{x} } \end{aligned}


  1. O. Bang, Applied mathematics for physicists: lecture notes, 2019, unpublished.