In physics, a conservation law states that a particular measurable property of an isolated physical system does not change as the system evolves over time. Exact conservation laws include conservation of mass-energy, conservation of linear momentum, conservation of angular momentum, and conservation of electric charge. There are also many approximate conservation laws, which apply to such quantities as mass, parity, lepton number, baryon number, strangeness, hypercharge, etc. These quantities are conserved in certain classes of physics processes, but not in all.
A local conservation law is usually expressed mathematically as a continuity equation, a partial differential equation which gives a relation between the amount of the quantity and the "transport" of that quantity. It states that the amount of the conserved quantity at a point or within a volume can only change by the amount of the quantity which flows in or out of the volume.
From Noether's theorem, every differentiable symmetry leads to a conservation law. Other conserved quantities can exist as well.
Conservation laws are fundamental to our understanding of the physical world, in that they describe which processes can or cannot occur in nature. For example, the conservation law of energy states that the total quantity of energy in an isolated system does not change, though it may change form. In general, the total quantity of the property governed by that law remains unchanged during physical processes. With respect to classical physics, conservation laws include conservation of energy, mass (or matter), linear momentum, angular momentum, and electric charge. With respect to particle physics, particles cannot be created or destroyed except in pairs, where one is ordinary and the other is an antiparticle. With respect to symmetries and invariance principles, three special conservation laws have been described, associated with inversion or reversal of space, time, and charge.
Conservation laws are considered to be fundamental laws of nature, with broad application in physics, as well as in other fields such as chemistry, biology, geology, and engineering.
Most conservation laws are exact, or absolute, in the sense that they apply to all possible processes. Some conservation laws are partial, in that they hold for some processes but not for others.
One particularly important result concerning conservation laws is Noether's theorem, which states that there is a one-to-one correspondence between each one of them and a differentiable symmetry of nature. For example, the conservation of energy follows from the time-invariance of physical systems, and the conservation of angular momentum arises from the fact that physical systems behave the same regardless of how they are oriented in space.
A partial listing of physical conservation equations due to symmetry that are said to be exact laws, or more precisely have never been proven to be violated:
Conservation law | Respective Noether symmetry invariance | Number of independent parameters (i.e. dimension of phase space) | ||
---|---|---|---|---|
Conservation of mass-energy E | Time-translation invariance | Poincaré invariance | 1 | translation of time along t-axis |
Conservation of linear momentum p | Space-translation invariance | 3 | translation of space along x,y,z axes | |
Conservation of angular momentum L = r × p | Rotation invariance | 3 | rotation of space about x,y,z axes | |
Conservation of boost 3-vector N = tp - Er | Lorentz-boost invariance | 3 | Lorentz-boost of space-time along x,y,z axes | |
Conservation of electric charge | U(1)_{Q} Gauge invariance | 1 | translation of electrodynamic scalar potential field along V-axis (in phase space) | |
Conservation of color charge | SU(3)_{C} Gauge invariance | 3 | translation of chromodynamic potential field along r,g,b-axes (in phase space) | |
Conservation of weak isospin | SU(2)_{L} Gauge invariance | 1 | translation of weak potential field along axis in phase space | |
Conservation of the difference between baryon and lepton numbers B - L | U(1)_{B-L} Gauge invariance | 1 |
Another exact symmetry is CPT symmetry, the simultaneous inversion of space and time coordinates, together with swapping all particles with their antiparticles; however being a discrete symmetry Noether's theorem does not apply to it. Accordingly the conserved quantity, CPT parity, can usually not be meaningfully calculated or determined.
There are also approximate conservation laws. These are approximately true in particular situations, such as low speeds, short time scales, or certain interactions.
The total amount of some conserved quantity in the universe could remain unchanged if an equal amount were to appear at one point A and simultaneously disappear from another separate point B. For example, an amount of energy could appear on Earth without changing the total amount in the Universe if the same amount of energy were to disappear from some other region of the Universe. This weak form of "global" conservation is really not a conservation law because it is not Lorentz invariant, so phenomena like the above do not occur in nature.^{[1]}^{[2]} Due to special relativity, if the appearance of the energy at A and disappearance of the energy at B are simultaneous in one inertial reference frame, they will not be simultaneous in other inertial reference frames moving with respect to the first. In a moving frame one will occur before the other; either the energy at A will appear before or after the energy at B disappears. In both cases, during the interval energy will not be conserved.
A stronger form of conservation law requires that, for the amount of a conserved quantity at a point to change, there must be a flow, or flux of the quantity into or out of the point. For example, the amount of electric charge at a point is never found to change without an electric current into or out of the point that carries the difference in charge. Since it only involves continuous local changes, this stronger type of conservation law is Lorentz invariant; a quantity conserved in one reference frame is conserved in all moving reference frames.^{[1]}^{[2]} This is called a local conservation law.^{[1]}^{[2]} Local conservation also implies global conservation; that the total amount of the conserved quantity in the Universe remains constant. All of the conservation laws listed above are local conservation laws. A local conservation law is expressed mathematically by a continuity equation, which states that the change in the quantity in a volume is equal to the total net "flux" of the quantity through the surface of the volume. The following sections discuss continuity equations in general.
In continuum mechanics, the most general form of an exact conservation law is given by a continuity equation. For example, conservation of electric charge q is
If we assume that the motion u of the charge is a continuous function of position and time, then
In one space dimension this can be put into the form of a homogeneous first-order quasilinear hyperbolic equation:^{[3]}^{: 43 }
In the one-dimensional space a conservation equation is a first-order quasilinear hyperbolic equation that can be put into the advection form:
In this case since the chain rule applies:
In a space with more than one dimension the former definition can be extended to an equation that can be put into the form:
where the conserved quantity is y(r,t), ⋅ denotes the scalar product, ∇ is the nabla operator, here indicating a gradient, and a(y) is a vector of current coefficients, analogously corresponding to the divergence of a vector current density associated to the conserved quantity j(y):
This is the case for the continuity equation:
Here the conserved quantity is the mass, with density ρ(r,t) and current density ρu, identical to the momentum density, while u(r, t) is the flow velocity.
In the general case a conservation equation can be also a system of this kind of equations (a vector equation) in the form:^{[3]}^{: 43 }
For example, this the case for Euler equations (fluid dynamics). In the simple incompressible case they are:
where:
It can be shown that the conserved (vector) quantity and the current density matrix for these equations are respectively:
where denotes the outer product.
Conservation equations can usually also be expressed in integral form: the advantage of the latter is substantially that it requires less smoothness of the solution, which paves the way to weak form, extending the class of admissible solutions to include discontinuous solutions.^{[3]}^{: 62–63 } By integrating in any space-time domain the current density form in 1-D space:
In a similar fashion, for the scalar multidimensional space, the integral form is:
Moreover, by defining a test function φ(r,t) continuously differentiable both in time and space with compact support, the weak form can be obtained pivoting on the initial condition. In 1-D space it is:
In the weak form all the partial derivatives of the density and current density have been passed on to the test function, which with the former hypothesis is sufficiently smooth to admit these derivatives.^{[3]}^{: 62–63 }