The Cross Product

The cross product of two vectors is another vector (whereas the dot product was just another number—a scalar). The cross product vector is perpendicular to both of the factor vectors. Typically, books will say that we need 3d vectors (vectors with 3 components) to talk about the cross product, which is true, sort of, but we can give 3d vectors a third component of zero to see how the cross product works with 2d-ish vectors, like below.

At the right, we show the vector (1, 3, 0), the vector (–2, 0, 0), and the cross product of those two vectors (in that order), which is the cross product vector (0, 0, 6).

Since we’re calling it a product, we’ll want to know how we built that product. So, let’s talk about that.

Deconstructing the Cross Product

The cross product vector is built using three determinants, as shown below.

For the x-component of the cross product vector, we deconstruct the factor vectors into 2d vectors made up of the y- and z-components. Then we find the determinant of those two 2d vectors (the area of the parallelogram they form, if any). We do the same for each of the other components of the cross product vector—if we’re working on the y-component of the cross product vector, then we create two 2d vectors from the x- and z-components of the factor vectors and find their parallelogram area, or determinant. And the same for the third component of the cross product vector. (Notice, though, that we reverse the sign of the second component of the cross product vector. It’s not evident here, because it’s zero.)

We’ll look more into the intuition behind this later. It is not immediately obvious why three simple area calculations (the determinants) should be able to deliver a vector that is exactly perpendicular to the two factor vectors (which is an indication that we don’t know everything there is to know about the seemingly dirt-simple concept of area!). But the cross product has a lot of fascinating connections to and uses in physics and engineering—and computer graphics.

I’ll leave you with this exercise to determine the cross product, or a vector perpendicular to this little ramp. The blue vector is (0, 4, 1), and the red vector is
(–2, 0, 0).


Published by

Josh Fisher

Instructional designer, software development in K-12 mathematics education.