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Symmetries and transformations What is a symmetry? We have talked about several examples, so perhaps we should define pre- cisely what we mean by it. Symmetry is a mathematical statement of some very specific regularity ina system. A system has a symmetry if there some transformation you can make that leaves the system looking exactly as it did before. We tend to regard things with many symmetries as pretty, like the kalaidoscope that we saw at the beginning of lecture, which has many planes of symmetry. In the case of mechanics, we have an even more specific meaning in mind. Let us now consider a class of symmetries in which we make some transformation of the coordinates describing @ system at a fixed time. What this means mathematically is that we define a new set of coordinates as functions of the original coordinates. The transformation is then a symmetry if the physics looks exactly the same in terms of the new coordinates as it did in the old coordinates. We talked briefly about such a transformation when we discussed the double pendulum with two equal masses in lecture 2, The Lagrangian for the double pendulum for small oscillations looks approximately like ay This has the property that it is unchanged if we interchange :r, and sr». This is the mathematical statement of the obvious physical symmetry of the system. ‘The symmetry of the double pendulum is an example of a diserete symmetry, so-called because the symmetry is an all or nothing sort of thing. The transformation cannot be made bigger or smaller - itis fixed by the structure of the symmetry. Icis more even interesting to consider symmetries in which the symmetry transformation can be made arbitrarily small. Such a thing is called a continuous symmetry, because by putting arbitrarily small transformations together, we can get a whole set of transformations which, unlike the symmetry of the double pendulum, depend on a parameter that can be continuously varied. Here is the general theoretical setup (we'll give some examples shortly). Consider a system of n degrees of freedom described by coordinates q, for j = 1 ton. Let’s assume that there is a symmetry in which cach of the coordinates changes only a tiny bit, proportional to an infinitesimal Parameter, ¢ and that the changes involve only the current configuration of the system. What we ‘mean precisely by infinitesimal that ¢ is sufficiently small that we can always ignore terms of order ¢. ‘Translating what we have just assumed into mathematics, we consider a symmetry in which the coordinates q; are transformed as follows: GG HU te hala) (12) ‘That is each of the coordinates changes by « times a function s,,(q) of the gs. The rg, (q) tells you how the variable q; changes under the transformation. The transformation (12) is a symmetry of the Lagrangian if Ga) = L(a.4) (13) Example: space translations for one particle Here is a simple (pethaps even boring) example. Consider a particle with mass m moving along the x-axis in a potential. When does this system have a symmetry under the infinitesimal transfor- mation +e (14) ‘This transformation has the form of (12) with x(x) = 1. The Lagrangian looks like this: Lx,#) dni (5) ‘The condition that (14) is a symmetry is then Lie, 4) (16) Because i(.r) is just a constant, we have an and so (16) becomes Late L(a,%) (is) for infinitesimal «. Because the # doesn’t change and kinetic energy is the same on both sides, so this condition only effects V - V(x +6) =V(z) 19) But because this is supposed to be true for any infinitesimal «, we can use the Taylor expansion (surprise, surprise) to rewrite (19) as V(x +6) =V(2) + V(x) + (2) = V(r) (20) If this is to be satisfied for infinites al e, we must have so that V(x) is just a constant and the particle has no force on it at all. In this case, mv is a con- served momentum. We will see how this connection between symmetry and conserved momentum, generalizes to more complicated (and more interesting) situations, Another reason that I wanted to look at this simple system in detail is to emphasize the dif- ference between continuous and discrete symmetries. Suppose that instead of being constant, the potential in (15) is V (a) = ~Byc0s(/6) (22) where Eo and € are constants. This system also has a symmetry under space translations of the form (23) for any integer n. But here we clearly cannot conclude that V(r) is constant because we started with an example with the symmetry that is not constant. Except at special points where the particle is in equilibrium, there is a force on it. There is no conserved momentum (though energy is still conserved because the Lagrangian does not depend explicitly on t). The difference between this, and the previous example is that this is a discrete symmetry. The changes in x that leave the Lagrangian invariant are a discrete set. They cannot be varied continuous, and they cannot be made infinitesimally small. Thus we cannot use the Taylor expansion argument to conclude that V(e) is constant. Space translations for two particles Space translation symmetry becomes interesting and important when there is more than one par- ticle, Let us now consider a one-dimensional system of 2 particles, with positions zr; and :r2, so that q; =, for j= 1 to 2. A space translation in the 2 direction just adds the same infinitesimal constant, ¢, to both 27; and ry — so the transformation has the form +e (24) Notice that this satisfies (12), with q, = 1, a2 of any Lagrangian that depends only on iy and : ry and tip, (2) = Pezg(at) = 1. This is a symmetry and the difference between x, — x2, for example (wr — 22) 25) (26) It is a symmetry of the potential energy because the es cancel when we subtract one coordinate from another, so that Bp -#y= (+6) -(m +022. on Putting (26) and (27) together implies Let) = L(x,é) 28) This system has a conserved momentum, p= mir + mate 2) because the forces that come from the potential energy obey Newton’s third law. This in turn is related to the fact that the potential energy depends only on 27)—2r2, which in turn is related to the symmetry. We will see that this connection between a continuous symmetry and the existence of a conserved momentum is a general thing,