Finite element exterior calculus: From hodge theory to numerical stability

Douglas N. Arnold, Richard S. Falk, Ragnar Winther

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

371 Scopus citations


This article reports on the confluence of two streams of research, one emanating from the fields of numerical analysis and scientific computation, the other from topology and geometry. In it we consider the numerical discretization of partial differential equations that are related to differential complexes so that de Rham cohomology and Hodge theory are key tools for exploring the well-posedness of the continuous problem. The discretization methods we consider are finite element methods, in which a variational or weak formulation of the PDE problem is approximated by restricting the trial subspace to an appropriately constructed piecewise polynomial subspace. After a brief introduction to finite element methods, we develop an abstract Hilbert space framework for analyzing the stability and convergence of such discretizations. In this framework, the differential complex is represented by a complex of Hilbert spaces, and stability is obtained by transferring Hodgetheoretic structures that ensure well-posedness of the continuous problem from the continuous level to the discrete. We show stable discretization is achieved if the finite element spaces satisfy two hypotheses: they can be arranged into a subcomplex of this Hilbert complex, and there exists a bounded cochain projection from that complex to the subcomplex. In the next part of the paper, we consider the most canonical example of the abstract theory, in which the Hilbert complex is the de Rham complex of a domain in Euclidean space. We use the Koszul complex to construct two families of finite element differential forms, show that these can be arranged in subcomplexes of the de Rham complex in numerous ways, and for each construct a bounded cochain projection. The abstract theory therefore applies to give the stability and convergence of finite element approximations of the Hodge Laplacian. Other applications are considered as well, especially the elasticity complex and its application to the equations of elasticity. Background material is included to make the presentation self-contained for a variety of readers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)281-354
Number of pages74
JournalBulletin of the American Mathematical Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2010


  • De Rham cohomology
  • Exterior calculus
  • Finite element exterior calculus
  • Hodge laplacian
  • Hodge theory
  • Mixed finite elements


Dive into the research topics of 'Finite element exterior calculus: From hodge theory to numerical stability'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this