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Symmetry Properties of

Newton's Equation

In this chapter we will discuss the symmetry properties of Newtons equations of motion.

These properties are quite simple to state, yet they are very powerful. As an example, New-

tons law of motion has the same form in all inertial framesthis is a symmetry property.

Because of this property we can choose any convenient reference frame to study a mechani-

cal system. There are other deep connections, e.g., conservation laws (conservation of linear

momentum, angular momentum, and energy) are related to certain symmetry properties.

We will discuss some of these issues in this chapter.

Experiments show that Newtons laws are not valid at microscopic scales or at large

speeds. Yet some of the symmetry properties exhibited by Newtons laws are valid even in

those regimes. Hence, symmetries are more fundamental than Newtons laws.

In this chapter we will discuss the following symmetries: space translation, space rotation,

time translation, time reversal, and mirror. We will also describe the symmetry under

Galilean transformation. Let us start with a denition of symmetry.

8.1 Definition of symmetry

When we rotate a cylinder about its axis, the conguration or the view of the cylinder is

unchanged (see Fig. 7.1). However, the conguration of a cube is unchanged only when

it is rotated by 90, 180, or 270 degrees; for any other angle, the nal conguration of the

cube diers from its original one. The rotation about an axis is an operation. Objects

that remain unchanged (or have the same appearance) under a operation are said to be

symmetric under that operation. Formally,

A body is symmetric or invariant under an operation when it has the same appearance

before and after that operation.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 75

Figure 8.1 A cylinder is symmetric under an arbitrary rotation about its axis.

Thus, a cylinder is symmetric under an arbitrary rotation about its axis. A cube is not

symmetric under any arbitrary rotation, but it is symmetric under rotations of 90

, 180

,

and 270

In a similar manner we can also dene symmetries of physical laws. Symmetries for

physical objects can be visualised comparatively easily, but symmetries of physical laws are

more abstract and mathematical. A symmetry of a physical law is stated as follows:

A physical law is symmetric or invariant under a transformation when the mathematical

expression of the law remains the same before and after that transformation.

Physical laws are same everywhere, be it in your city, or some star in the outer space.

Though seemingly obvious, it is an important and powerful feature of physical laws. Con-

trast this with man-made laws in dierent countries, as well as the Aristotelean arguments

that the laws on the Earth and in the heavens are dierent. Physics experiments also show

that the physical laws are invariant under rotation of the apparatus, and shift of timing of

the experiment. We will discuss these features in this chapter.

In the next section we will discuss symmetry of Newtons laws under space translation;

76 Introduction to Mechanics

we show that laws of physics are same everywhere.

8.2 Symmetry of space translation

In this section we will explore whether Newtons equation of motion is invariant under a

shift of a coordinate system, which is equivalent to a shift of the physical apparatus in the

opposite direction. Let us consider two inertial reference frames: I, and I

that is shifted

with relative to I by a vector S = S

x

x (see Fig. 8.1). The transformation rules between

the coordinates of I and I

are

r

= r +S, (8.2.1)

or

x

= x +S

x

; y

= y; z

= z, (8.2.2)

and

t

= t. (8.2.3)

.

y'

x

x'

Q

S

x

y

I

x

F

q

y r

r'

O' O

(x,y)

Figure 1:

Figure 8.2 Two inertial frames I and I

. I

x

wrt I.

In this transformation, time remains unchanged. As an example of this transformation,

consider an experiment in which a test charge q of mass m moves in the eld of a large

stationary charge Q of mass M placed at the origin of the reference frame I (see Fig. 8.2).

The equation of motion of the test particle in the reference frame I is

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 77

m

d

2

r

dt

2

= F, (8.2.4)

where r is the coordinate of the test particle, and

F(r) =

4

0

r

r

3

, (8.2.5)

is the Coulomb force on the test charge (

0

is the permittivity in vacuum).

Now let us derive an equation of motion for the test particle in the reference frame I

.

By taking time derivatives of Eq. (8.2.1) we deduce that the acceleration of the test particle

is the same in both frames:

d

2

r

dt

2

=

d

2

r

dt

2

, (8.2.6)

The masses and the charges of both the particles are also the same in both the reference

frames. Since the force between charges q and Q depends only on the relative separation

between the charged particles (Coulombs law), the electric force acting on the charge q is

same in both the inertial frames, i.e.,

F

=

1

4

0

r

S

|r

S|

3

= F. (8.2.7)

Note that the functional form of F

however that the components dier in I and I

yield

m

d

2

r

dt

2

= F

(8.2.8)

The derivation of Eq. (8.2.8) hinges on the independence of F on the absolute position of

particles; F depends only on the relative separation between the source particle and the test

particle. Naturally, Eq. (8.2.8) would hold for all the forces satisfying the above property.

It is easy to generalise the above result for an arbitrary shift of the coordinate system while

keeping the orientation of the axes of the reference frame unchanged. Hence,

Newtons equation of motion is invariant under a coordinate shift if the force acting

on the particle is independent of the absolute position of the particle (or if the force depends

only on the relative separation between the particles).

A corollary of the above result: if r(t) is the solution of Eq. (8.2.4), then r

(t) S is

the solution of Eq. (8.2.8). Also, the results of an physics experiment would be the same

in both the frames, I and I

; for example, the kinetic energy of the test particle after one

second is the same in both I and I

.

Let us relate the above result to the independence of the physical laws on where an ex-

periment is performed. A translation of an experimental setup is equivalent to a translation

78 Introduction to Mechanics

of the coordinate system by the same amount in the opposite direction (while keeping the

orientation xed). Figure 8.2, in fact, represents two experiments: (1) charge Q at the

origin and q at r, whose equation of motion is Eq. (8.2.4); (2) charge Q at (S

x

, 0, 0) and

q at r

, whose equation of motion is Eq. (8.2.8). Using the above arguments, we conclude

that the equation of motion for both the experiments are the same.

An obvious but important point is that both Q and q should be moved simultaneously.

This is because the four fundamental forces of nature depend only on the relative separation

between the source particle and the test particle; the forces do not depend on the absolute

position of the interacting particles. This is the reason for the aforementioned symmetry

property. As a consequence, Newtons equation of motion is applicable everywhere, i.e.,

there is no preferred place to perform an experiment. This property of space is referred to

as homogeneity of space.

Example 8.1 Consider two reference frames: (a) xyzon the surface of the Earth,

(b) x

one km above the surface of the Earth. Are these two frames equivalent for

experiments involving gravitational eld of the Earth?

Solution We consider the x axis of both the reference frames to be aligned vertically.

Imagine a test particle of mass m placed at height x above the surface of the Earth. The

gravitational force on the test particle in frame (a) is

F =

GMm

x

2

x,

while in the frame (b)

F

=

GMm

(x

+ 1000)

2

x

= F.

Also, r = r

. Therefore, the equation of motion are same in the both the reference frames.

8.3 Symmetry of space rotation

In this section we consider the symmetry operation of space rotation and verify if Newtons

equation of motion is invariant under this operation.

We consider two coordinate systems: I, and I

as shown in Fig. 8.3. The z axis is common to both the coordinate systems. We assume

that a source charge Q of mass M is placed at the origin, and a test charge q of mass m at

the point P. The Coulomb force F on the test charge is given by Eq. (8.2.5).

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 79

.

Q

.

y'

y

I'

I

x

x'

r

q

P

F

y'

x'

y

x

(x,y)

Figure 8.3 Reference frame I

in the two references frame are (x, y, z) and (x

, y

, z

) respectively.

We write down the equation of motion for the test particle. The position vector of the

particle is r, whose components in the reference frame I are (x, y, z). The components of

F in I are (F

x

, F

y

, F

z

), hence, the equation of motion of the test particle in the component

form are

m x = F

x

m y = F

y

m z = F

z

(8.3.1)

The position vector r is same in the frame I

, y

, z

) dier

from those in I. The two sets of components are related to each other by the following

transformation:

x

= xcos +y sin

y

= xsin +y cos .

z

= z (8.3.2)

The inverse transformation of the above is

x = x

cos y

sin ,

y = x

sin +y

cos ,

z = z

(8.3.3)

which corresponds to a rotation of an angle .

80 Introduction to Mechanics

The force acting on the particle is also the same in two the reference frames, but its

components are dierent. To derive a relationship between the components in the two

frames, we transport the vector F to the origin. Clearly, the components of the force

transform in the same way as r, i.e.,

F

x

= F

x

cos +F

y

sin

F

y

= F

x

sin +F

y

cos

F

z

= F

z

(8.3.4)

Note that in Fig. 8.3, F is parallel to r, but it need not be case in a general situation.

Time and mass remain unchanged under rotation. Using Eqs. (8.3.2) and (8.3.4), we

obtain

m x

= m xcos +m y sin

= F

x

cos +F

y

sin

= F

x

m y

= m xsin +m y cos

= F

x

sin +F

y

cos

= F

y

m z

= F

z

. (8.3.5)

Therefore, the form of Newtons equation of motion is the same in both the reference frames.

We can choose any one of them for our analysis. Hence,

Newtons equation of motion is invariant under the rotation of a coordinate system.

Here we have shown invariance of Newtons laws under the rotation about the z-axis. How-

ever, this symmetry property holds for an arbitrary rotation about any axis, but its deriva-

tion is beyond the scope of this book.

Motivated by the aforementioned arguments, Newtons equations of motion are written

in the vector form as

mr = F, (8.3.6)

which is coordinate independent. A coordinate system is chosen for an actual computation

of the quantities like r and F. The dierential equations in component form, Eqs. (8.3.1)

or (8.3.5), are solved based on the choice of a reference frame.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 81

Example 8.2 Consider two reference frames shown in Fig. 8.3. Take = /6. Write

down the transformation rules for the following forces:

1. Coulomb force on a test charge q due to a source charge Q located at the origin.

2. Gravitational force mg y (assuming that the gravity acts along y direction).

Solution (1): The Coulomb force of Eq. (8.2.5) is proportional to r. Therefore

F

x

=

x

r

2

; F

y

=

y

r

2

; F

z

=

z

r

2

, (1)

where = Qq/(4

0

). Hence, using Eq. (8.3.1), we deduce that

F

x

= F

x

cos +F

y

sin =

r

2

3

2

x +

1

2

y

(2)

F

y

= F

x

sin +F

y

cos =

r

2

1

2

x +

3

2

y

. (3)

(2): For the gravitational eld mg y, F

y

= mg, F

x

= F

z

= 0. Therefore, the transfor-

mation rules for the components are

F

x

= F

x

cos +F

y

sin =

1

2

mg, (4)

F

y

= F

x

sin +F

y

cos =

3

2

mg. (5)

Note that Newtons laws are valid for both the reference frames. It is only that the compo-

nents are dierent in the two reference frames.

*******

To understand the independence of the physical laws on the orientation of physical

apparatus, we consider a rotation of the test charge from the point P to the point R while

keeping Q xed, as shown in Fig. 8.4(a). The magnitude of the forces on the test particle

at R diers from that at P. Hence the equation of motion at P and R are dierent, and the

trajectory of the test particle starting from R would dier from that starting from P. In

contrast, if we shift both Q and q by an angle as shown in Fig. 8.4(b), then the magnitude

of the force on the test particle at R is the same as that at P, and its direction is radial.

Therefore, the equations of motion and the trajectories of the test particle at P and R are

the same (trajectories dier only by an angle ). Thus, invariance of physical laws under

rotation of physical apparatus requires a simultaneous rotation of both the source and the

test particle.

82 Introduction to Mechanics

y

Q

q x

P

R

q

y

x

Q q

P

R

Q

q

Figure 8.4 (a) The force at P and R has different magnitude. (b) The force magnitudes

at P and R are the same since both Q and a are rotated.

.

.

.

.

y

x

q

P

y

q

R

P

x p

p

F R

F

F

Figure 8.5 Under rotation, the transformation of the force on the test charge q due

to an electric dipole.

We provide another example to illustrate the above symmetry. We place an electric

dipole p at the origin with its direction along the y axis. The electric eld of the electric

dipole is (to be derived in Section 11.6)

E(r) =

1

4

0

r

3

(3(p r) r p). (8.3.7)

Therefore, the force on the test particle q placed at (r, 0, 0) is

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 83

F(r) =

p

4

0

r

3

. (8.3.8)

When we rotate the the test charge to the point R = (0, r, 0) of Fig. 8.5(a), the force on the

test charge is

F(r) =

2p

4

0

r

3

, (8.3.9)

which diers from Eq. (8.3.8). Therefore, the equations of motion for the test charge at P

and R are dierent, so is its motion. At P, the particle follows a curved path, while at R, it

moves radially outward. Thus the laws of physics dier under the aforementioned rotation

of the test charge from P to R.

To obtain the same result under rotation, we need to rotate the source (the dipole) and

the test particle simultaneously by 90 degrees, as shown in Fig. 8.5(b). Under this rotation,

the force at R is

F(r) =

p

4

0

r

3

. (8.3.10)

Consequently, the equations of motion of the test charge would be the same at P and R.

Also the trajectories of the test particle at P and R would be the same, except a 90 degrees

rotation.

Using the aforementioned arguments, we conclude that the laws of physics are invariant

under rotation of the physical apparatus as long as the whole setup (source + test elements)

is rotated. In other words, the results of an experiment is independent of the orientation of

the physical apparatus. An important ingredient for the above symmetry is the fact that

the fundamental forces of nature depend only on the relative separation between the source

and test particle.

In the next section we will dene a vector and a scalar.

8.4 Modern definition of vectors

The laws of motion remain the same irrespective of the coordinate system we employ.

Therefore, it is sensible to treat r, v, F etc. as objects (vectors) and write the physical

laws in terms of these objects, rather than in terms of their components. When we need to

measure physical quantities, we choose a coordinate system and measure the components

of the relevant vectors.

In school textbooks, vectors are dened as quantities having magnitudes and directions.

This denition is not very useful for a mathematical formulation of physical laws. A modern

denition of vectors stated below is based on symmetry operation of rotation:

Any quantity whose components transform in the same way as the components (x, y, z)

84 Introduction to Mechanics

under rotation is called a vector.

Some examples of vectors are velocity, force, and acceleration. Using the denition of

vectors, it is clear that Newtons law F = ma is invariant under an arbitrary rotation of a

coordinate system.

In addition to vectors, we come across quantities in physics that do not change under

rotation; these quantities are called scalars.

Some examples of scalars are mass of a particle, kinetic energy mv

2

/2, and potential energy.

If A and B are two vectors, then A B is a scalar. The components of the vector A

transform as following under a rotation of a angle about the z-axis:

A

x

= A

x

cos +A

y

sin

A

y

= A

x

sin +A

y

cos .

A

z

= A

z

. (8.4.1)

The components of the vector B transform in a similar manner. It is easy to verify that

A

x

B

x

+A

y

B

y

+A

z

B

z

= A

x

B

x

+A

y

B

y

+A

z

B

z

(8.4.2)

or A

2

= v v

is also a scalar.

There are other physical quantities like the dielectric constant, moment of inertia, etc., which

are neither scalars nor vectors. They are called tensors. For details on tensors, please refer

to Appendix E.

Invariance of Newtons laws under rotation implies that a quantity appearing in the

equations of physics must be scalar, vector, or tensor. Using this result, we can rule out

many expressions. For example, quantities like v

2

+ v

x

, m x = F

y

, and v

2

+ v

x

are not

allowed in any expression of physical laws. These features make symmetry properties very

useful when we formulate physical laws.

8.5 Isotropic scalars and vectors

In Sec. 8.4 we dened vectors and scalars using the transformation rules of Eq. (8.3.2).

In this section we will focus on special kinds of vectors and scalars that show isotropic

behaviour.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 85

The magnitude of the fundamental forces (e.g., gravity and electromagnetic forces) be-

tween two particles depends on the separation between the particles. The direction of the

force is dictated by general symmetry principles. Let us illustrate these statements by the

following examples:

1. The magnitude of the Coulomb force on the test charge of Fig. 8.3 is proportional to

r

2

. The direction of the force at any point is radially outward; any other direction

would yield a preferred direction, which is not allowed due to the isotropy of space.

We can alternatively state that the electric eld of a point charge is isotropic, and the

electric eld due to a charge Q is

E(r) =

Q

4

0

r

2

r. (8.5.1)

Consider the test charge of Fig. 8.3. If we rotate the test charge by an angle while

keeping the source xed at the origin, then the trajectories of the test charge in both

the situation are the same (except a rotation by an angle ). Note that this result is

due to the symmetry of Eq. (8.5.1).

The electric potential of the above point charge is

U(r) =

Q

4

0

r

, (8.5.2)

which is independent of r. Hence, every point on a sphere of radius r has the same

potential.

2. Consider an innitely long line charge of charge density aligned along the z axis of

a coordinate system. The symmetry argument demands that the magnitude of the

electric eld of this charge is independent of the azimuthal angle and z. Hence,

E(r) =

2

0

(8.5.3)

is a choice based on the symmetry arguments. The factors of the above eld are

derived using Gauss law. Also, the electric potential of the above line charge is

U(r) =

2

0

log , (8.5.4)

which implies that every point on a cylinder of radius has the same potential. Note

that the axis of the cylinder coincides with the line charge.

3. The electric eld of an electric dipole p placed at the origin is

86 Introduction to Mechanics

E(r) =

1

4

0

r

3

(3(p r) r p), (8.5.5)

and it is independent of azimuthal angle . The electric potential of dipole is

U(r) =

p r

4

0

r

2

, (8.5.6)

which is symmetric under a azimuthal rotation about the axis of the electric dipole.

We will derive Eqs. (8.5.5) and (8.5.6) in Chapter 11.

The aforementioned scalars and vectors are examples of isotropic vectors or scalar. Note

that a point source has a stronger isotropy than a line charge, which in turn has a stronger

isotropy than an electric dipole.

Recall our discussion of Section 8.3 on the invariance of laws of physics under space

rotation (see Figs. 8.4 and 8.5). In Fig. 8.4(b), the force on the test particle is radially

outward due to the symmetry of the point source discussed above. Similarly, the symmetry

of the electric force of Fig. 8.5(b) also follows from Eq. (8.5.5). The above forms of the

electric eld shows that the ensuing force eld is a function of separation between the

source and test charge, and the direction of the force eld is isotropic. These features play

a critical role in the demonstration that the laws of physics are invariant under the rotation

of physical apparatus.

We also remark that an isotropic scalar eld has a stronger symmetry than a scalar eld.

The electric potential produced by a set of charges is a scalar quantity since its values in the

frames I and I

of Section 8.3 are the same. However, when we rotate our reference point by

an angle (see for example Fig. 8.4(b)), then the aforementioned potential in general would

take a dierent value. However, for an isotropic scalar, the potentials at dierent angles for

a given r are related to each other. For example, for a point source charge Q, the scalar

eld is independent of angle (see Eq. (8.5.2)).

In a similar vein, an isotropic vector eld has a stronger symmetry than an ordinary

vector eld F, for which the transformation rules between the components of F in I and

I

is given by Eq. (8.3.4). Equation (8.3.4) does not provide any information on the force

eld if the reference point (position of the test charge) is rotated to another other point.

However, for an isotropic force eld, the elds at various points with a given r are related

in a straightforward manner, as demonstrated in the aforementioned examples (point and

line charges, and a dipole).

*******************

Example 8.3: Using symmetry arguments, argue that the magnetic eld for a innitely

line current carrying conductor is along the azimuthal direction.

Solution: Without any loss of generality, we assume that the line current is aligned along

the z axis. Isotropy of space requires that the magnetic eld is symmetric under translation

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 87

along z and azimuthal direction. The two choices for the eld are (a) , and (b) z . Note

that is the direction of the electric eld of an innitely long line charge. The magnetic

eld is along z , which is along

.

It is important to note that symmetry argument is not sucient to x the direction

of the magnetic eld. The choice (b) over (a) for the magnetic eld is dictated by the

divergence-free nature of the magnetic eld. Similar, the choice of (a) for the electric eld

due to its curl-free nature. These statements are only passing remarks since they are beyond

the scope of this chapter.

************************

In the next section, we will study the symmetry of time translation.

8.6 Symmetry of time translation

The laws of physics are invariant under time translation, i.e, experiments performed today

and yesterday yield the same results. In this section we demonstrate this result for Newtons

laws.

The symmetry operation of time translation is

t = t

+s (8.6.1)

and

r

= r. (8.6.2)

Clearly,

d

2

r

dt

2

=

d

2

r

dt

2

. (8.6.3)

If we assume that the force is invariant under time translation, i.e.

F = F

, (8.6.4)

then, given md

2

r/dt

2

= F, we can deduce that

m

d

2

r

dt

2

= F

. (8.6.5)

These arguments prove the invariance of Newtons equation of motion under time trans-

lation if the forces are symmetric under time translation.

Experiments till date show that all the fundamental forces of nature are symmetric under

88 Introduction to Mechanics

time translation, i.e., they do not depend on time explicitly. As a result, the equations of

motion based on these forces, as well as the system dynamics and its future, are the same

irrespective of the time of the experiment. For example, in an experiment on two electrons,

we expect to get the same results today and tomorrow; this is because the Coulomb force

between two electrons separated by a xed distance are the same at all times.

The above invariance is not valid if the force is time-dependent. For example, for an

electron in a time-dependent electric eld E

0

sin(t) x, the future of the electron depends

on when we start the motion of the electron. Similarly, the range of a projectile on the

Earth will change if the Earth loses mass as a function of time.

The symmetry of time translation is connected to the conservation of energy. To show

this we consider a force F which can be written as a derivative of a potential U(r), where

r is the position of the particle. The electrostatic force between two charges is an example

of such force. These types of forces or potentials do not depend explicitly on time. In one

dimension, the equation of motion a particle under the inuence of such forces is

m

e

d

2

x

dt

2

= m

e

dv

dt

=

dU(x)

dx

. (8.6.6)

By multiplying both sides by v, and using v = dx/dt, we obtain

d

dt

1

2

mv

2

+U(x)

= 0 (8.6.7)

Hence,

1

2

mv

2

+ U(x), which is is the energy of the system, is constant in time. Thus we

show that the conservation of energy is related to the invariance of Newtons law under

time translation. Here, we the motion of the particle is one-dimensional; in Chapter 11, we

will generalise the above arguments to two and three dimensions.

In the next section we will study time reversal symmetry.

8.7 Symmetry of time reversal

The symmetry under time reversal plays an important role in physics. Imagine a set of

particles moving due to the internal forces. We revert the velocities of each particle after a

certain time T. What will happen to the particles? It can be shown that for gravitational

and electromagnetic forces, the system reverts back to its initial state. This is called time-

reversal symmetry. Let us dene the above symmetry in some detail.

The particles of the aforementioned system start from an initial condition at t = 0 and

reach a nal state at t = t

f

. For example, a particle of the system starts from the point

A of Fig. 8.6(a) at time t = 0, and reaches the point B, whose coordinate is r

f

, at t = t

f

.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 89

At t = t

f

, we reverse the velocity of the particle. Motion of the said particle is shown in

Fig. 8.4(b). This transformation, called time reversal, is

t

= t

f

t (8.7.1)

and

r

= r. (8.7.2)

A question is whether the equation of motion and the trajectory of the particle is the same

for the time-reversed motion. We analyse this issue in the following discussion.

Figure 8.6 (a) Particle starts from the point A at t = 0, and reaches the point B at time

t = t

f

. (b) The velocity of the particle is reversed at B. The particle will reach the point

A if the force remains the same in the reversed path.

A simple mathematical analysis shows that under time reversal

d

2

r

dt

2

=

d

2

r

dt

2

(8.7.3)

If the force in the forward as well as time-reversed case is the same (F

= F) at each point

of the trajectory, then

m

d

2

r

dt

2

= F

. (8.7.4)

Hence, Newtons equation of motion is symmetric under time reversal if the force is invariant

under time reversal.

In the second experiment, the initial position is r

f

, and the initial velocity is v

f

. If the

force acting on the particle remains the same at each point on its path, then the trajectory

traced by the particle will be the same in both the experiments. This result can be shown

from the equation of motion. For the forward motion,

r(t + t) = r(t) +vt, (8.7.5)

90 Introduction to Mechanics

v(t + t) = v(t) +

F

m

t. (8.7.6)

The reversed motion from t = t

f

to t = 0 is given by

r(t) = r(t + t) vt, (8.7.7)

v(t) = v(t + t) +

F

m

t. (8.7.8)

If F

= F, then the Eqs. (8.7.5-8.7.6) and Eqs. (8.7.7-8.7.8) are equivalent. Hence, the

equations of motion are symmetric under time reversal if the forces at a point during the

forward and the time-reversed case are the same.

A B

C D

v

0

F F

F F

V

f

V

f

(a)

(b)

Figure 8.7 (a) A block moves on a frictional surface from A (v = v

0

) and to B (v = V

f

).

(b) At B, we reverse the velocity. The block reaches C with a velocity lower than v

0

, thus

violating time reversal symmetry.

The above symmetry hinges on the invariance of relevant forces under time reversal. Ex-

periments show that gravity and electromagnetic forces are invariant under time reversal.

Surprisingly there is a small violation of the time-reversal symmetry in nuclear interactions.

Time-reversal symmetry is also broken for some of the macroscopic forces like friction.

In Fig. 8.7, we illustrate this asymmetry for the friction force. A block starts its motion on

the frictional track from the point A with a velocity v

0

, and reaches the point B where its

velocity is V

f

. We reverse the motion of the block at B. If V

f

is suciently large, then the

block will reach C (same as A), but with a velocity lower than v

0

. If friction is suciently

strong, the block may also stop before reaching C. In other words, the original trajectory

and the time-reversed trajectory are not the same in the presence of friction. This is because

F = F

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 91

In the next section we consider mirror reection symmetry.

8.8 Symmetry under mirror reflection

The symmetry under mirror reection has profound implications in physics. Figure 8.8

exhibits a gunman and his mirror image. From the gure it is impossible to gure out

which among (a) and (b) is the gunman, and which is his image; (a) could be a right-

handed gunman, (b) his image; or (b) could be a left-handed gunman, and (a) his image.

This phenomenon is called the symmetry of mirror reection.

(a) (b)

Figure 8.8 A gunman and his image.

Till 1957, physicists thought that the laws of physics are symmetric under mirror re-

ection. Suppose we perform two experiments A and B such that the experiment B uses

instruments that are exact replica of the mirror image of the instruments of the experiment

A. The instruments having no handedness will be identical in both A and B, but the

experimental parts having handedness (like coil, screws, etc.) will be dierent in the two

setups. If a coil is right-handed in experiment A, then the corresponding coil in experiment

B will be left-handed, and vice versa. If the symmetry under mirror reection is obeyed by

physical laws, then the results of the two experiments would be the same.

We expect the laws of physics to be symmetric under mirror reection. As an example,

the projectile motion and its mirror reection in Fig. 8.9 are indistinguishable from the laws

of physics. That is, from the gure we cannot deduce which among (a) and (b) is the real

experiment, and which is its mirror image.

The reality however is dierent in some special situations, as we will show below.

92 Introduction to Mechanics

(A) (B)

g g

Figure 8.9 Projectile motion and its mirror image

(a) (b)

Figure 8.10 Transformation under mirror reflection.

Proper and pseudo vectors

When a mirror is placed as an xz plane, as shown in Fig. 8.10, the symmetry of mirror

reection is mathematically expressed as

z

= z, y

= y, x

= x; t

= t. (8.8.1)

We use right-handed coordinate system for both coordinate systems. Since the velocity

and acceleration of a particle are, respectively, the rst and second time derivatives of the

position vector r, we conclude that the velocity and acceleration of the particle transform

in the same manner as r. Hence

v

x

= v

x

, v

y

= v

y

, v

z

= v

z

. (8.8.2)

a

x

= a

x

, a

y

= a

y

, a

z

= a

z

. (8.8.3)

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 93

A vector that transforms as above is called proper vector or real vector.

A cross product of two proper vectors transforms very dierently under mirror transfor-

mation. Let us consider two proper vectors A and B. A cross product of these two vectors

is

C = AB

= (A

y

B

z

A

z

B

y

) x + (A

z

B

x

A

x

B

z

) y + (A

x

B

y

A

y

B

x

) z (8.8.4)

Since A and B are proper vectors, the rules of mirror reections of Eq. (8.8.1) yield

C

x

= C

x

, C

y

= C

y

, C

z

= C

z

(8.8.5)

A vector that transforms like C is called pseudo vector or axial vector. Thus,

Crossproduct of two proper vectors is a pseudo vector.

Two corollaries of the above statements are

A cross product of a proper vector and a pseudo vector is a proper vector.

A crossproduct of two pseudo vectors is a proper vectors.

Some of the examples of pseudo vectors are

1. Angular momentum L = rp since the linear momentum p = mv is a proper vector.

2. Spin angular momentum of a body.

3. Angular velocity , which is dened using v = r.

4. Magnetic eld B. Note that the Bio-Savart law states that the magnetic eld is

generated using

B =

0

4

Idl r

r

3

(8.8.6)

where I is the current, dl is the length element of the wire, and r is the distance

between the point of observation and the length element.

94 Introduction to Mechanics

F

V V

F

(a) (b)

Figure 8.11 (A) Motion of a particle under the influence of a force which is a proper

vector; (B) Mirror image of A.

F

B

B

V

F

V (a) (b)

Figure 8.12 (A) Motion of a particle experiencing v B force (a proper vector); (B) Mirror

image of A.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 95

V

F

V

F

(a) (b)

Figure 8.13 (A) Motion of a particle under the influence of a force which is a pseudo

vector; (B) Mirror image of A.

In a similar manner, we can dene a pseudo scalar. A dot product of two proper vectors or

two pseudo vectors does not change sign under mirror reection. However, a dot product

of a proper vector and a pseudo vector changes sign under mirror reection. Hence the

denition,

A scalar that does not change sign under mirror reection is called a proper scalar, while

a scalar that changes sign under mirror reection is called a pseudo scalar.

Now we can combine all the above ideas to explore if Newtons laws are invariant under

mirror reection. If the force transforms as proper vector:

F

z

= F

z

, F

y

= F

y

, F

x

= F

x

(8.8.7)

then

ma

= F

. (8.8.8)

Hence, Newtons law of motion is invariant under mirror transformation.

Note that the equations describing physical laws are such that if left side of a equation

is a proper (pseudo) vector, then the right side of the equation would also be a proper

(pseudo) vector. In the discussion so far, the linear momentum is treated as proper vector

since it is written as mv. Therefore, we may expect F = mdp/dt to be a proper vector, as

suggest in Eq. (8.8.8). Hence the velocity and force would appear as in Fig. 8.11; a force

on a particle would increase the speed of the particle by a same amount in both A and B.

This form of motion is observed in experiments involving gravitational and electromagnetic

forces (see Figs. 8.9, 8.12). If Fig. 8.12(a) represents the motion of a charged particle in a

96 Introduction to Mechanics

magnetic eld, then Fig. 8.12(b) would be its mirror image, and vice versa. Note that the

magnetic eld is pseudo vector.

Now let us consider a system in which the force, for some reasons, is a pseudo vector.

For such system, motion would be as shown in Fig. 8.13. The force in A would increase

the speed of the particle, while in B, it will decrease its speed. Thus, the system A and its

mirror image in B are not mirror symmetric. Of course, our usual form of linear momentum

cannot yield such a force, but a more complex form of linear momentum in weak nuclear

force exhibit such behaviour, as demonstrated by Wu and her collaborators in 1957.

In a nuclear physics experiment involving beta decay, Wu and her coworkers observed

that electrons are emitted preferentially opposite to the direction of the spin of the Cobalt-

60 nucleus (see Fig. 8.14(a)). Note that the spin vector perpendicular to the mirror does

not change sign under mirror reection, but the velocity vector does. Hence in the mirror

image, the electrons would move preferentially in the direction of the spin, as shown in

Fig. 8.12(b). Thus the law that the beta particles have a preferential velocity opposite to

their spin is violated in the mirror reection. This is how mirror symmetry is violated in a

beta decay experiment.

Mathematically, the violation of the mirror symmetry is due to a nonzero value of the

pseudo scalar Q = S v, where S is the spin of the Cobalt-60 nucleus, and v is the velocity

of the electron. Naturally, the sign of Q in the experiment and in the mirror are opposite

to each other. Such quantities vanish in experiments respecting mirror symmetry. You can

verify that the potentials involving gravitational and electromagnetic interactions are proper

scalars. The potential of weak nuclear force however is a combination of a proper scalar

and a pseudo scalar. This kind of potential was rst proposed by Marshak and Sudarshan,

and Feynman and Gell-mann in 1957.

v

S S

v

(b) (a)

e e

Figure 8.14 (a) In a beta decay experiment, the emitted electrons have a preferential

velocity opposite to the spin direction of the nucleus. (b) In the mirror image, the directions

of the velocity and spin are preferentially aligned, thus breaking the mirror symmetry.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 97

In the macroscopic world we nd many instances of mirror asymmetry. For example, the

DNA helix, proteins, our hands, have denite handedness. These asymmetries are believed

to have arisen due to various processes (sometime chance) of nature. The reader could nd

more details in advanced texts.

Example 8.4 Discuss the symmetries of the electric eld of a point charge Q.

Solution If the position of Q and a test charge are R and r respectively, then the electric

eld at the test charge is

E(r) =

Q

4

0

|r R|

3

(r R)

The above eld is unchanged (a) if we shift both charge Q and the test charge by s (space

translation); (b) if we shift the time by any amount (time translation); (c) under time

reversal; (d) if we x the origin at the source charge and rotate the axis by any angle (space

rotation); note that the electric eld E is radial, and its magnitude is only function of r;

(e) if we keep a mirror passing through the point charge Q.

Example 8.4 Discuss the symmetries of the electric eld due to an innite charged sheet.

Solution We consider the charged sheet to be the yz-plane, then the electric eld

E = E

0

x, where E

0

is a constant. The eld E is symmetric under (a) translation along the

x-axis; (b) rotation about any axis perpendicular to the yz-plane; (c) time translation; (d)

time reversal; (e) mirror operation when the mirror coincides with the charged sheet.

Note that if we rotate or translate the whole assembly (source and test charge), then the

eld remains symmetric. In (a-e), we kept the source xed and studied the symmetries of

the generated electric eld.

8.9 Invariance under Galilean transformation

We discussed in Chapter 2 that Newtons laws of motion are applicable in all inertial frames.

That is, Newtons laws of motion are invariant under transformations that take us from one

inertial frame to another. Let us prove this result.

We take reference frames I and I

, with I

reference frame I. The transformation rules connecting the coordinates of the two reference

frames are

x = x

+Ut

t = t

y = y

98 Introduction to Mechanics

z = z

(8.9.1)

Note that absolute space and absolute time are inherently assumed in the above transfor-

mations.

We assume that the mass and the force remain the same in both the frames of reference,

i.e., m = m

and F = F

. Clearly

v = v

+U x,

a = a

(8.9.2)

Hence

m

= F

. (8.9.3)

Therefore, Newtons laws are invariant under the above transformation, which is called

Galilean transformation in honour of its rst proposer, Galileo. Note that Newtons rst

law is the law of inertia, which was proposed by Galileo before Newton.

Both the reference frames I and I

both the reference frames. Let us state some simple observations consistent with Galilean

invariance.

1. Consider a closed tram (reference frame I

Inside the train, a ball is thrown upward with a velocity v. The ball returns to the

original position in time T = 2v/g. In the platform frame (reference frame I), the

ball to return to the bottom in the the same time T, but after covering a horizontal

distance of UT. Thus, the time interval between two events is always the same in all

inertial frames.

2. A stick is placed horizontally in the aforementioned train. We can measure the length

of the stick very easily in the train using a ruler. To measure the length of the stick

from the platform, we need to take a photograph of the stick. In principle, we can

perform this measurement by shining many lasers simultaneously and recording the

reections. If the hypothesis of absolute space is correct, then the length of the stick

would be the same in both the reference frames.

Galilean transformation is consistent with the assumption of absolute space and absolute

time. Einstein later showed that the time dierence between two events are not necessarily

the same in I and I

two reference frames. Hence, Galilean symmetry is not obeyed in nature. Einstein showed

that Lorentzian symmetry rather than Galilean symmetry is an exact symmetry of nature.

Lorentzian symmetry will be discussed in Chapter 20 when we study relativity.

We will show below that Newtons law are not applicable in reference frames that are

accelerating relative to a inertial frame.

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 99

8.10 Accelerating frames of reference

Consider an inertial reference frame I, and a noninertial frame I

with an acceleration A x. Naturally, Newtons law

F = ma (8.10.1)

is valid in the inertial frame I. We assume that the origin of I and I

coincide at t = 0, and

the initial velocity of I

are

x = x

+

1

2

At

2

t = t

y = y

z = z

m = m

F = F

(8.10.2)

By taking time derivatives of the position vector, we obtain

v = v

+At x (8.10.3)

a = a

+A x (8.10.4)

A substitution of the above relationships in Newtons equation ma = F yields

ma

+mA x = F

or

ma

= F

mA x (8.10.5)

Thus, the equations of motion are not the same in I and I

Hence, Newtons laws are not invariant under the transformation of Eq. (8.10.2). Since

ma

= F

. However

if we postulate a pseudo force mA x, then a modied equation of motion of the form of

Eq. (8.10.5) can be applied.

Let us summarise various symmetry principles discussed in this chapter. The rst three

symmetry operations discussed are space translation, space rotation, and time translation.

The four fundamental forces are invariant under these transformations, hence Newtons laws

are symmetric under these operations. These symmetry properties yield three conservation

100 Introduction to Mechanics

laws: Conservation of linear momentum due to the symmetry of space translation, conser-

vation of angular momentum due to the symmetry of space rotation, and conservation of

energy due to the symmetry of time translation. In Section 8.5 we provided arguments con-

necting the conservation of energy with the symmetry of time translation. In later chapters

we will discuss conservation laws in more detail.

Mirror and time-reversal symmetries are approximate symmetries of nature. They do

not hold for interactions involving nuclear forces.

Galilean symmetry is a key symmetry of Newtons laws of motion. Experiments show

that this symmetry works very well in experiments involving speeds much less than that of

light. Einstein discovered that Lorentzian symmetry (discussed in Chapter 20) rather than

the Galilean symmetry is valid for experiments in which particles move with speeds close

to that of light.

With these comments we close our discussion on the symmetries of Newtons laws. In

the next chapter we will apply Newtons laws to two-dimensional motion.

Exercises

1. Consider forces that are invariant under coordinate shift of S = S

x

x + S

y

y + S

z

z.

Show that the Newtons laws are invariant under the translation by S.

2. We discussed many symmetry properties in the present chapter. Which of the sym-

metry properties are obeyed for the following forces? Keep the source xed.

(a) Gravitational force between a source (a heavy point particle) and a test particle.

(b) Force on a test particle due an innite line charge (source).

(c) Gravitational eld on a test particle due to an innite material plate (source).

(d) Gravitational force acting on a test particle on the surface of the Earth (source).

(e) Weak nuclear force.

3. Describe the symmetry properties of the following forces.

(a) Frictional force.

(b) Force between two current-carrying innitely long parallel wires.

4. In reference frame I, a particle located at (0,1,0) is experiencing a force F

0

( x + y).

Compute the components of particles position vector and the force in a reference

frame I

5. Show that AB transforms as a vector given that A and B are vectors.

6. Which of the following quantities transform as vector r under rotation about the

z-axis?

Symmetry Properties of Newton's Equation 101

(a) (x

2

, y

2

, z

2

)

(b) (x, y, z)

(c) (xy, yz, zx)

(d) (xz, yz, z

2

)

(e) (y, x, z)

(f) (x/r, y/r, z/r), where r =

x

2

+y

2

+z

2

.

7. Equation (5.1.1) of Chapter 5 describes the motion of a particle falling under gravity.

The gravitational force is independent of time.

(a) Show that if x(t) is the solution of Eq. (5.1.1), then x(t + t

0

) is a also solution

of the equation.

(b) Interpret the above result as measurements in two reference frames whose refer-

ence time is shifted. Show that the distance travelled in time interval t is the

same in both the reference frames.

(c) Using the above, eliminate one of constants (x

0

or v

0

) from the solution x(t+t

0

).

(d) Obtain the constant of motion of the system by eliminating t+t

0

from the above.

8. Perform similar analysis as Exercise 7 for a simple oscillator whose motion is described

by Eq. (5.1.9).

9. Consider a driven oscillator driven by a force F

0

cos(

f

t) (see Section 5.4). Is time

translation symmetry valid for this oscillator? Argue your result.

10. Consider a ball falling under gravitational eld. Prove that this system is invariant

under time reversal.

11. Classify the following objects as scalar, vector, or none of these:

(a) (AB) C

(b) A

2

x

A

2

y

+A

2

z

(c) (A B)C

(d) (A B)(C

x

+C

y

+C

z

)

12. Among the following quantities, identify proper vectors, pseudo vectors, proper scalars,

pseudo scalars, mixed vectors (proper+pseudo), and mixed scalars:

(a) kinetic energy

(b) electric eld

(c) magnetic eld

(d) gravitation potential

(e) electromagnetic potential

(f) spin of the Earth

102 Introduction to Mechanics

(g) electric dipole moment

(h) magnetic dipole moment

(i) L v

(j) L v +v

2

(k) L v

(l) E+B

(m) EB

In the above, L is the angular momentum, v is the velocity, E is the electric eld, and

B is the magnetic elds.

13. Which of the following forces would violate mirror symmetry:

(a) F = qv B

(b) F = qv E

(c) F = qv B+mg

(d) F = E+B

(e) F = EB

In the above, E is the electric eld, B is the magnetic elds, and g is the acceleration

due to gravity.

14. Parity transformation is dened as r

= r, or x

= x, y

= y, z

= z. Show that

the parity transformation is equivalent to a combination of rotation about the z axis

by an angle , and a mirror refection about a mirror coinciding the xy plane. Also

show that violation of mirror symmetry implies violation of parity symmetry.

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