Symmetry (physics)
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In physics, a symmetry of a physical system is a physical or mathematical feature of the system (observed or intrinsic) that is preserved or remains unchanged under some transformation.
A family of particular transformations may be continuous (such as rotation of a circle) or discrete (e.g., reflection of a bilaterally symmetric figure, or rotation of a regular polygon). Continuous and discrete transformations give rise to corresponding types of symmetries. Continuous symmetries can be described by Lie groups while discrete symmetries are described by finite groups (see Symmetry group).
These two concepts, Lie and finite groups, are the foundation for the fundamental theories of modern physics. Symmetries are frequently amenable to mathematical formulations such as group representations and can, in addition, be exploited to simplify many problems.
Arguably the most important example of a symmetry in physics is that the speed of light has the same value in all frames of reference, which is known in mathematical terms as the Poincaré group, the symmetry group of special relativity. Another important example is the invariance of the form of physical laws under arbitrary differentiable coordinate transformations, which is an important idea in general relativity.
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Symmetry as a kind of invariance[edit]
Invariance is specified mathematically by transformations that leave some property (e.g. quantity) unchanged. This idea can apply to basic realworld observations. For example, temperature may be homogeneous throughout a room. Since the temperature does not depend on the position of an observer within the room, we say that the temperature is invariant under a shift in an observer's position within the room.
Similarly, a uniform sphere rotated about its center will appear exactly as it did before the rotation. The sphere is said to exhibit spherical symmetry. A rotation about any axis of the sphere will preserve how the sphere "looks".
Invariance in force[edit]
The above ideas lead to the useful idea of invariance when discussing observed physical symmetry; this can be applied to symmetries in forces as well.
For example, an electric field due to an electrically charged wire of infinite length is said to exhibit cylindrical symmetry, because the electric field strength at a given distance r from the wire will have the same magnitude at each point on the surface of a cylinder (whose axis is the wire) with radius r. Rotating the wire about its own axis does not change its position or charge density, hence it will preserve the field. The field strength at a rotated position is the same. This is not true in general for an arbitrary system of charges.
In Newton's theory of mechanics, given two bodies, each with mass m, starting at the origin and moving along the xaxis in opposite directions, one with speed v_{1} and the other with speed v_{2} the total kinetic energy of the system (as calculated from an observer at the origin) is ^{1}⁄_{2}m(v_{1}^{2} + v_{2}^{2}) and remains the same if the velocities are interchanged. The total kinetic energy is preserved under a reflection in the yaxis.
The last example above illustrates another way of expressing symmetries, namely through the equations that describe some aspect of the physical system. The above example shows that the total kinetic energy will be the same if v_{1} and v_{2} are interchanged.
Local and global symmetries[edit]
Symmetries may be broadly classified as global or local. A global symmetry is one that holds at all points of spacetime, whereas a local symmetry is one that has a different symmetry transformation at different points of spacetime; specifically a local symmetry transformation is parameterised by the spacetime coordinates. Local symmetries play an important role in physics as they form the basis for gauge theories.
Continuous symmetries[edit]
The two examples of rotational symmetry described above  spherical and cylindrical  are each instances of continuous symmetry. These are characterised by invariance following a continuous change in the geometry of the system. For example, the wire may be rotated through any angle about its axis and the field strength will be the same on a given cylinder. Mathematically, continuous symmetries are described by continuous or smooth functions. An important subclass of continuous symmetries in physics are spacetime symmetries.
Spacetime symmetries[edit]
Group theory → Lie groups Lie groups 


Continuous spacetime symmetries are symmetries involving transformations of space and time. These may be further classified as spatial symmetries, involving only the spatial geometry associated with a physical system; temporal symmetries, involving only changes in time; or spatiotemporal symmetries, involving changes in both space and time.
 Time translation: A physical system may have the same features over a certain interval of time ; this is expressed mathematically as invariance under the transformation for any real numbers t and a in the interval. For example, in classical mechanics, a particle solely acted upon by gravity will have gravitational potential energy when suspended from a height above the Earth's surface. Assuming no change in the height of the particle, this will be the total gravitational potential energy of the particle at all times. In other words, by considering the state of the particle at some time (in seconds) and also at , say, the particle's total gravitational potential energy will be preserved.
 Spatial translation: These spatial symmetries are represented by transformations of the form and describe those situations where a property of the system does not change with a continuous change in location. For example, the temperature in a room may be independent of where the thermometer is located in the room.
 Spatial rotation: These spatial symmetries are classified as proper rotations and improper rotations. The former are just the 'ordinary' rotations; mathematically, they are represented by square matrices with unit determinant. The latter are represented by square matrices with determinant −1 and consist of a proper rotation combined with a spatial reflection (inversion). For example, a sphere has proper rotational symmetry. Other types of spatial rotations are described in the article Rotation symmetry.
 Poincaré transformations: These are spatiotemporal symmetries which preserve distances in Minkowski spacetime, i.e. they are isometries of Minkowski space. They are studied primarily in special relativity. Those isometries that leave the origin fixed are called Lorentz transformations and give rise to the symmetry known as Lorentz covariance.
 Projective symmetries: These are spatiotemporal symmetries which preserve the geodesic structure of spacetime. They may be defined on any smooth manifold, but find many applications in the study of exact solutions in general relativity.
 Inversion transformations: These are spatiotemporal symmetries which generalise Poincaré transformations to include other conformal onetoone transformations on the spacetime coordinates. Lengths are not invariant under inversion transformations but there is a crossratio on four points that is invariant.
Mathematically, spacetime symmetries are usually described by smooth vector fields on a smooth manifold. The underlying local diffeomorphisms associated with the vector fields correspond more directly to the physical symmetries, but the vector fields themselves are more often used when classifying the symmetries of the physical system.
Some of the most important vector fields are Killing vector fields which are those spacetime symmetries that preserve the underlying metric structure of a manifold. In rough terms, Killing vector fields preserve the distance between any two points of the manifold and often go by the name of isometries.
Discrete symmetries[edit]
A discrete symmetry is a symmetry that describes noncontinuous changes in a system. For example, a square possesses discrete rotational symmetry, as only rotations by multiples of right angles will preserve the square's original appearance. Discrete symmetries sometimes involve some type of 'swapping', these swaps usually being called reflections or interchanges.
 Time reversal: Many laws of physics describe real phenomena when the direction of time is reversed. Mathematically, this is represented by the transformation, . For example, Newton's second law of motion still holds if, in the equation , is replaced by . This may be illustrated by recording the motion of an object thrown up vertically (neglecting air resistance) and then playing it back. The object will follow the same parabolic trajectory through the air, whether the recording is played normally or in reverse. Thus, position is symmetric with respect to the instant that the object is at its maximum height.
 Spatial inversion: These are represented by transformations of the form and indicate an invariance property of a system when the coordinates are 'inverted'. Said another way, these are symmetries between a certain object and its mirror image.
 Glide reflection: These are represented by a composition of a translation and a reflection. These symmetries occur in some crystals and in some planar symmetries, known as wallpaper symmetries.
C, P, and T symmetries[edit]
The Standard model of particle physics has three related natural nearsymmetries. These state that the universe in which we live should be indistinguishable from one where a certain type of change is introduced.
 Csymmetry (charge symmetry), a universe where every particle is replaced with its antiparticle
 Psymmetry (parity symmetry), a universe where everything is mirrored along the three physical axes
 Tsymmetry (time reversal symmetry), a universe where the direction of time is reversed. Tsymmetry is counterintuitive (surely the future and the past are not symmetrical) but explained by the fact that the Standard model describes local properties, not global ones like entropy. To properly reverse the direction of time, one would have to put the big bang and the resulting lowentropy state in the "future." Since we perceive the "past" ("future") as having lower (higher) entropy than the present (see perception of time), the inhabitants of this hypothetical timereversed universe would perceive the future in the same way as we perceive the past, and vice versa.
These symmetries are nearsymmetries because each is broken in the presentday universe. However, the Standard Model predicts that the combination of the three (that is, the simultaneous application of all three transformations) must be a symmetry, called CPT symmetry. CP violation, the violation of the combination of C and Psymmetry, is necessary for the presence of significant amounts of baryonic matter in the universe. CP violation is a fruitful area of current research in particle physics.
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Supersymmetry[edit]
A type of symmetry known as supersymmetry has been used to try to make theoretical advances in the standard model. Supersymmetry is based on the idea that there is another physical symmetry beyond those already developed in the standard model, specifically a symmetry between bosons and fermions. Supersymmetry asserts that each type of boson has, as a supersymmetric partner, a fermion, called a superpartner, and vice versa. Supersymmetry has not yet been experimentally verified: no known particle has the correct properties to be a superpartner of any other known particle. Currently LHC is preparing for a run which tests supersymmetry.
Mathematics of physical symmetry[edit]
The transformations describing physical symmetries typically form a mathematical group. Group theory is an important area of mathematics for physicists.
Continuous symmetries are specified mathematically by continuous groups (called Lie groups). Many physical symmetries are isometries and are specified by symmetry groups. Sometimes this term is used for more general types of symmetries. The set of all proper rotations (about any angle) through any axis of a sphere form a Lie group called the special orthogonal group . (The 3 refers to the threedimensional space of an ordinary sphere.) Thus, the symmetry group of the sphere with proper rotations is . Any rotation preserves distances on the surface of the ball. The set of all Lorentz transformations form a group called the Lorentz group (this may be generalised to the Poincaré group).
Discrete groups describe discrete symmetries. For example, the symmetries of an equilateral triangle are characterized by the symmetric group .
An important type of physical theory based on local symmetries is called a gauge theory and the symmetries natural to such a theory are called gauge symmetries. Gauge symmetries in the Standard model, used to describe three of the fundamental interactions, are based on the SU(3) × SU(2) × U(1) group. (Roughly speaking, the symmetries of the SU(3) group describe the strong force, the SU(2) group describes the weak interaction and the U(1) group describes the electromagnetic force.)
Also, the reduction by symmetry of the energy functional under the action by a group and spontaneous symmetry breaking of transformations of symmetric groups appear to elucidate topics in particle physics (for example, the unification of electromagnetism and the weak force in physical cosmology).
Conservation laws and symmetry[edit]
The symmetry properties of a physical system are intimately related to the conservation laws characterizing that system. Noether's theorem gives a precise description of this relation. The theorem states that each continuous symmetry of a physical system implies that some physical property of that system is conserved. Conversely, each conserved quantity has a corresponding symmetry. For example, spatial translation symmetry (i.e. homogeneity of space) gives rise to conservation of (linear) momentum, and temporal translation symmetry (i.e. homogeneity of time) gives rise to conservation of energy.
The following table summarizes some fundamental symmetries and the associated conserved quantity.
Class  Invariance  Conserved quantity 
Proper orthochronous Lorentz symmetry 
translation in time (homogeneity) 
energy 
translation in space (homogeneity) 
linear momentum  
rotation in space (isotropy) 
angular momentum  
Discrete symmetry  P, coordinate inversion  spatial parity 
C, charge conjugation  charge parity  
T, time reversal  time parity  
CPT  product of parities  
Internal symmetry (independent of spacetime coordinates) 
U(1) gauge transformation  electric charge 
U(1) gauge transformation  lepton generation number  
U(1) gauge transformation  hypercharge  
U(1)_{Y} gauge transformation  weak hypercharge  
U(2) [ U(1) × SU(2) ]  electroweak force  
SU(2) gauge transformation  isospin  
SU(2)_{L} gauge transformation  weak isospin  
P × SU(2)  Gparity  
SU(3) "winding number"  baryon number  
SU(3) gauge transformation  quark color  
SU(3) (approximate)  quark flavor  
S(U(2) × U(3)) [ U(1) × SU(2) × SU(3) ] 
Standard Model 
Mathematics[edit]
Continuous symmetries in physics preserve transformations. One can specify a symmetry by showing how a very small transformation affects various particle fields. The commutator of two of these infinitesimal transformations are equivalent to a third infinitesimal transformation of the same kind hence they form a Lie algebra.
A general coordinate transformation (also known as a diffeomorphism) has the infinitesimal effect on a scalar, spinor and vector field for example:
for a general field, . Without gravity only the Poincaré symmetries are preserved which restricts to be of the form:
where M is an antisymmetric matrix (giving the Lorentz and rotational symmetries) and P is a general vector (giving the translational symmetries). Other symmetries affect multiple fields simultaneously. For example, local gauge transformations apply to both a vector and spinor field:
where are generators of a particular Lie group. So far the transformations on the right have only included fields of the same type. Supersymmetries are defined according to how the mix fields of different types.
Another symmetry which is part of some theories of physics and not in others is scale invariance which involve Weyl transformations of the following kind:
If the fields have this symmetry then it can be shown that the field theory is almost certainly conformally invariant also. This means that in the absence of gravity h(x) would restricted to the form:
with D generating scale transformations and K generating special conformal transformations. For example, N=4 superYangMills theory has this symmetry while General Relativity doesn't although other theories of gravity such as conformal gravity do. The 'action' of a field theory is an invariant under all the symmetries of the theory. Much of modern theoretical physics is to do with speculating on the various symmetries the Universe may have and finding the invariants to construct field theories as models.
In string theories, since a string can be decomposed into an infinite number of particle fields, the symmetries on the string world sheet is equivalent to special transformations which mix an infinite number of fields.
See also[edit]
 Conservation law
 Conserved current
 Coordinatefree
 Covariance and contravariance
 Diffeomorphism
 Fictitious force
 Galilean invariance
 Gauge theory
 General covariance
 Harmonic coordinate condition
 Inertial frame of reference
 Lie group
 List of mathematical topics in relativity
 Lorentz covariance
 Noether's theorem
 Poincaré group
 Special relativity
 Spontaneous symmetry breaking
 Standard model
 Standard model (mathematical formulation)
 Symmetry breaking
 Wheeler–Feynman TimeSymmetric Theory
References[edit]
General readers[edit]
 Leon Lederman and Christopher T. Hill (2005) Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books.
 Schumm, Bruce (2004) Deep Down Things. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
 Victor J. Stenger (2000) Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes. Buffalo NY: Prometheus Books. Chpt. 12 is a gentle introduction to symmetry, invariance, and conservation laws.
 Anthony Zee (2007) Fearful Symmetry: The search for beauty in modern physics, 2nd ed. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691009469. 1986 1st ed. published by Macmillan.
Technical readers[edit]
 Brading, K., and Castellani, E., eds. (2003) Symmetries in Physics: Philosophical Reflections. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  (2007) "Symmetries and Invariances in Classical Physics" in Butterfield, J., and John Earman, eds., Philosophy of Physic Part B. North Holland: 133168.
 Debs, T. and Redhead, M. (2007) Objectivity, Invariance, and Convention: Symmetry in Physical Science. Harvard Univ. Press.
 John Earman (2002) "Laws, Symmetry, and Symmetry Breaking: Invariance, Conservations Principles, and Objectivity." Address to the 2002 meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association.
 G. Kalmbach H.E.: Quantum Mathematics: WIGRIS. RGN Publications, Delhi, 2014
 Mainzer, K. (1996) Symmetries of nature. Berlin: De Gruyter.
 Mouchet, A. "Reflections on the four facets of symmetry: how physics exemplifies rational thinking". European Physical Journal H 38 (2013) 661 hal.archivesouvertes.fr:hal00637572
 Thompson, William J. (1994) Angular Momentum: An Illustrated Guide to Rotational Symmetries for Physical Systems. Wiley. ISBN 047155264X.
 Bas Van Fraassen (1989) Laws and symmetry. Oxford Univ. Press.
 Eugene Wigner (1967) Symmetries and Reflections. Indiana Univ. Press.
External links[edit]
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Symmetry"—by K. Brading and E. Castellani.
 Pedagogic Aids to Quantum Field Theory Click on link to Chapter 6: Symmetry, Invariance, and Conservation for a simplified, stepbystep introduction to symmetry in physics.