Principle of covariance

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In physics, the principle of covariance emphasizes the formulation of physical laws using only certain physical quantities such that their measurements in different frames of reference can be unambiguously correlated (via Lorentz transformations).

Mathematically, the physical quantities must transform covariantly, that is, under a certain representation of the group of coordinate transformations between admissible frames of reference of the physical theory.[1] This group is referred to as the covariance group.

Principle of covariance does not require invariance of the physical laws under the group of admissible transformations although in most cases the equations are actually invariant. However, in the theory of weak interactions the equations are not invariant under reflections (but are, of course, still covariant).

Covariance in Newtonian mechanics

In Newtonian mechanics the admissible frames of reference are inertial frames with relative velocities much smaller than the speed of light. Time is then absolute and the transformations between admissible frames of references are Galilean transformations which (together with rotations, translations, and reflections) form the Galilean group. The covariant physical quantities are Euclidean scalars, vectors, and tensors. An example of a covariant equation is Newton's second law,

where the covariant quantities are the mass of a moving body (scalar), the velocity of the body (vector), the force acting on the body, and the invariant time .

Covariance in special relativity

In special relativity the admissible frames of reference are all inertial frames. The transformations between frames are the Lorentz transformations which (together with the rotations, translations, and reflections) form the Poincaré group. The covariant quantities are four-scalars, four-vectors etc., of the Minkowski space (and also more complicated objects like bispinors and others). An example of a covariant equation is the Lorentz force equation of motion of a charged particle in an electromagnetic field (a generalization of the second Newton's law)

where and are the mass and charge of the particle (invariant 4-scalars); is the invariant interval (4-scalar); is the 4-velocity (4-vector); and is the electromagnetic field strength tensor (4-tensor).

Covariance in general relativity

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See also


  1. E.J.Post, Formal Structure of Electromagnetics: General Covariance and Electromagnetics, Dover publications