Symmetries and solutions

Here is an underemphasized way to frame the relationship between trajectories and symmetries (in the sense of Noether’s theorem)You can find this presentation in “A short review on Noether’s theorems, gauge symmetries and boundary terms” by Máximo Bañados and Ignacio A. Reyes (H/t Godfrey Miller). a  . Consider the space of all possible trajectories q(t) for a system, a real-valued Lagrangian functional L[q(t)] on that space, the “directions” \delta q(t) at each point, and the corresponding functional gradient \delta L[q(t)]/\delta q(t) in each direction. Classical solutions are exactly those trajectories q(t) such that the Lagrangian L[q(t)] is stationary for perturbations in any direction \delta q(t), and continuous symmetries are exactly those directions \delta q(t) such that the Lagrangian L[q(t)] is stationary for any trajectory q(t). That is,

(1)   \begin{align*} q(t) \mathrm{\,is\, a\,}\mathbf{solution}\quad \qquad &\Leftrightarrow \qquad \frac{\delta L[q(t)]}{\delta q(t)} = 0 \,\,\,\, \forall \delta q(t)\\ \delta q(t) \mathrm{\,is\, a\,}\mathbf{symmetry} \qquad &\Leftrightarrow \qquad \frac{\delta L[q(t)]}{\delta q(t)} = 0 \,\,\,\, \forall q(t). \end{align*}

There are many subtleties obscured in this cartoon presentation, like the fact that a symmetry \delta q(t), being a tangent direction on the manifold of trajectories, can vary with the tangent point q(t) it is attached to (as for rotational symmetries). If you’ve never spent a long afternoon with a good book on the calculus of variations, I recommend it.

Footnotes

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  1. You can find this presentation in “A short review on Noether’s theorems, gauge symmetries and boundary terms” by Máximo Bañados and Ignacio A. Reyes (H/t Godfrey Miller).
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