Symmetries in Physics
Edited by Katherine Brading
Edited by Elena Castellani
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 2003
Online Publication Date:October 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511535369.010
Subjects: General and Classical Physics
Mathematically, gauge theories are extraordinarily rich – so rich, in fact, that it can be all too easy to lose track of the connections between results, and become lost in a mass of beautiful theorems and properties: indeterminism, constraints, Noether identities, local and global symmetries, and so on.
One purpose of this short article is to provide some sort of a guide through the mathematics, to the conceptual core of what is actually going on. Its focus is on the Lagrangian, variational-problem description of classical mechanics, from which the link between gauge symmetry and the apparent violation of determinism is easy to understand; only towards the end will the Hamiltonian description be considered.
The other purpose is to warn against adopting too unified a perspective on gauge theories. It will be argued that the meaning of gauge freedom in a theory such as general relativity is (at least from the Lagrangian viewpoint) significantly different from its meaning in theories such as electromagnetism. The Hamiltonian framework blurs this distinction, and orthodox methods of quantization obliterate it; this may, in fact, be genuine progress, but it is dangerous to be guided by mathematics into conflating two conceptually distinct notions without appreciating the physical consequences.
The price paid by this article for abandoning the mathematics of gauge theory as far as possible is an inevitable loss of rigour. Virtually nothing will be ‘proved’ below; at most, the shape of proofs will be gestured at and strong plausibility-arguments advanced.