Are those square brackets standard notation in Physics?

Yes. See, for example Sean Carroll notes. At least I can tell you from two other classic references using that notation, "General Relativity" by Wald (1984) and "A First Introducion to General Relativity" by Schutz (2009 for the most recent edition)

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If I am in a non-curved $\mathbb M$ Minkowski $(1, 3)$ space where I have no curvature (since $\eta_{\mu\nu}$ is $\mathop{diag}(1, -1, -1, -1)$?), I was thingking that $\partial_\mu = \nabla_\mu$. Can I write $\nabla_\mu$ instead of my partial derivatives or do they mean something different?

You can use them indifferently *in that case*. However, **NOT if you switch to non-cartesian coordinates** (e.g. Spherical coordinates), because in that case the connection coefficients are not zero in general, *even in the absence of curvature*, and so the covariant derivatives may differ from the ordinary partial derivatives, even in flat space.

I would simply avoid mixing the symbols or, in the future, it will cost you some extra effort to undo the habit, when you learn about GR and curved spaces.

These are the definitions:

$\partial_\mu V^{\nu} = \frac{\partial}{\partial x^{\mu}}V^{\nu}$

$\nabla_\mu V^{\nu} = \frac{\partial}{\partial x^{\mu}}V^{\nu}+\Gamma^{\nu}_{\mu\alpha}V^{\alpha} $

The so-called connection coefficients are the $\Gamma^{\nu}_{\mu\alpha}$. Their definition consists on a certain combination of partial derivatives of the elements of the metric. In a flat space *and cartesian coordinates* you can ignore them: they are zero since the elements of the metric are all just constant numbers, $(1,-1,-1,-1)$. It doesn't mean however, that they are zero in Special Relativity in general: the diagonal elements of the metric tensor in spherical coordinates for instance, are functions of the coordinates, namely, $(1, -1, -r^2, -r^2 sin^2 \theta)$ although the space is flat.

If you are interested in getting used to covariant derivatives and tensor calculations in general, without investing too much effort, I suggest you the last chapter (specially the solved problems) of the classic, small book "Vector Calculus" (M.R. Spiegel) from the Schaum series. And, for getting a feeling of the geometrical meaning of the connection coefficients, google for "Parallel Transport". The Schutz book mentioned above has also a very nice explanation.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-06-14 13:03 (UCT), posted by SE-user Eduardo Guerras Valera