Noether's theorem


Variational calculus


physics, mathematical physics, philosophy of physics

Surveys, textbooks and lecture notes

theory (physics), model (physics)

experiment, measurement, computable physics



What is commonly called Noether’s theorem or Noether’s first theorem is a theorem due to Emmy Noether (Noether 1918) which makes precise and asserts that to every continuous symmetry of the Lagrangian physical system (prequantum field theory) there is naturally associated a conservation law stating the conservation of a charge (conserved current) when the equations of motion hold.

For instance the time-translation invariance of a physical system equivalently means that the quantity of energy is conserved, and the space-translation invariant of a physical system means that momentum is preserved.

The original and still most common formulation of the theorem is in terms of variational calculus applied to a local action functional. A modern version of this formulated properly in terms of the variational bicomplex we discuss below in

There is another formulation of the same physical content, but using the formalism of symplectic geometry of phase spaces. In this formulation of physics the relation between symmetries of the Lagrangian and charges/conserved currents happens to be built deep into the formalism in terms of Hamiltonian flows generated by the Poisson bracket with a Hamiltonian function. Accordingly, in this powerful formalism Noether’s theorem becomes almost a tautology. This we discuss in

Lagrangian version

Here we formulate Noether’s theorem for local action functional in terms of the variational bicomplex and the covariant phase space.

Simple schematic idea

Before coming to the precise and general formulation, we indicate here schematically the simple idea which underlies Noether’s first theorem (in its original Lagrangian version).

Consider a local Lagrangian LL and assume for simplicity that it depends only on the first derivatives ϕ\nabla \phi (the gradient) of the fields ϕ\phi, hence

L:ϕL(ϕ,ϕ). L \colon \phi \mapsto L(\phi, \nabla \phi) \,.

(We write ()\nabla \cdot (-) in the following for the divergence.)

Then the variational derivative of LL by the fields is

δL =(δδϕL)δϕ+(δδϕL)δϕ =(δδϕL(δδϕL))(δϕ)+((δδϕL)δϕ), \begin{aligned} \delta L & = \left(\frac{\delta}{\delta \phi} L\right) \delta \phi + \left(\frac{\delta}{\delta \nabla \phi} L\right) \cdot \nabla \delta \phi \\ & = \left( \frac{\delta}{\delta \phi} L - \nabla \cdot \left(\frac{\delta}{\delta \nabla\phi}L\right) \right) \cdot (\delta \phi) + \nabla \cdot \left( \left(\frac{\delta }{\delta \nabla \phi} L\right) \delta \phi \right) \end{aligned} \,,

where in the second step the total derivative was introduced via the product rule of differentiation f(g)=(f)g+(fg)f (\nabla g) = -(\nabla f) g + \nabla (f g).

From this law for the variation of the Lagrangian, one derives both the Euler-Lagrange equations of motion as well as Noether’s theorem by making different assumptions and setting different terms to zero:

  1. Demanding that the variation δϕ\delta \phi vanishes on some boundary of spacetime implies that the rightmost term in the above equation disappears in the variation δS=δL\delta S = \delta \int L of the action functional (by the Stokes theorem) and hence demanding that δS=0\delta S = 0 under variation that vanishes on the boundary is equivalent to demanding the Euler-Lagrange equation

    δδϕL(δδϕL)=0. \frac{\delta}{\delta \phi} L - \nabla \cdot \left(\frac{\delta}{\delta \nabla\phi}L\right) = 0 \,.
  2. On the other hand, assuming that for given δϕ\delta \phi the variation δL\delta L vanishes when these equations of motion hold – hence assuming that δϕ\delta \phi is an on-shell symmetry of LL – is equivalent to assuming that the above expression is zero even without the left term, hence that

((δδϕL)δϕ)=0. \nabla \cdot \left(\left(\frac{\delta }{\delta \nabla\phi} L\right) \delta \phi\right) = 0 \,.

This is the statement of Noether’s theorem. The object

p ϕδϕ(δδϕL)δϕ p_\phi \delta \phi \coloneqq \left(\frac{\delta }{\delta \nabla \phi} L\right) \delta \phi

(here p ϕp_\phi is the canonical momentum of the field ϕ\phi) is called the Noether current and the above says that this is (on-shell) a conserved current precisely if δϕ\delta \phi is a symmetry of the Lagrangian.

This is at least the way that Noether’s theorem has been introduced and is often considered. But this formulation is more restrictive than is natural. Namely it is unnatural to demand of a symmetry that it leaves the Lagrangian entirely invariant, δL=0\delta L = 0:

More generally for the symmetry to be a symmetry of the action functional L\int L over a closed manifold it is sufficient that the Lagrangian changes by a divergence, δL=σ\delta L = \nabla \cdot \sigma, for some term σ\sigma.

(This is really a sign of a higher gauge symmetry, where the symmetry holds only up to a homotopy σ\sigma. It happens for instance for the gauge-coupling term in the Wess-Zumino-Witten model because the WZW term is not strictly invariant under gauge transformations, but instead transforms by a total derivative. See at conserved current – In higher prequantum geometry).

In this more general case the above conservation law induced by the “weak” symmetry becomes

(p ϕδϕσ)=0. \nabla \cdot \left( p_\phi \delta \phi - \sigma \right) = 0 \,.

(This may be regarded as the Legendre transform of σ\sigma.)

Formulation via the variational bicomplex

Let XX be a spacetime of dimension nn, EXE \to X a field bundle, Jet(E)XJet(E) \to X its jet bundle and write

Ω ,(Jet(E)),(d=d H+d V) \Omega^{\bullet,\bullet}(Jet(E)), (d = d_H + d_V)

the corresponding variational bicomplex with d Vd_V being the vertical and d Hd_H the horizontal de Rham differential.


For LΩ n,0(Jet(E))\mathbf{L} \in \Omega^{n,0}(Jet(E)) a local Lagrangian we have a unique decomposition of its de Rham differential

dL=d VL=Ed HΘ d L = d_V L = \mathbf{E} - d_H \Theta

such that E\mathbf{E} is a source form – the Euler-Lagrange form of L\mathbf{L} – and for some ΘΩ n1,0(j E)\Theta \in \Omega^{n-1,0}(j_\infty E).


The dynamical shell Jet(E)\mathcal{E} \hookrightarrow Jet(E) is the zero locus of E\mathbf{E} together with its differential consequences.

The covariant phase space of the Lagrangian is the zero locus

{ϕΓ(E)|E(j ϕ)=0} \{\phi \in \Gamma(E) | \mathbf{E}(j_\infty \phi) = 0\}

that solves the Euler-Lagrange equations of motion.

For ΣX\Sigma \subset X any compact (n1)(n-1)-dimensional submanifold,

δθδ ΣΘ \delta \theta \coloneqq \delta \int_\Sigma \Theta

is the presymplectic structure on covariant phase space.


An infinitesimal variational symmetry of L\mathbf{L} is a vertical vector field vv such that

vL=d Hσ v \mathcal{L}_v \mathbf{L} = d_H \sigma_v

(with v\mathcal{L}_v denoting the Lie derivative) for some

σ vΩ n1,0(Jet(E)). \sigma_v \in \Omega^{n-1,0}(Jet(E)) \,.

By Cartan's magic formula and since vv is assumed vertical while LL is horizontal, this is equivalent to

ι vd VL=d Hσ v. \iota_{v} d_V \mathbf{L} = d_H \sigma_v \,.

A conserved current is an element

jΩ n1,0(Jet(E)) j \in \Omega^{n-1, 0}(Jet(E))

which is horizontally closed on the dynamical shell

(d Hj)| =0. (d_H\, j)|_{\mathcal{E}} = 0 \,.

With the above notions and notation, Noether’s theorem states:


For vT v(j E)v \in T_v(j_\infty E) an infinitesimal variational symmetry according to def. 2, then

j vσ vι vΘ j_v \coloneqq \sigma_v - \iota_v \Theta

is a conserved current, def. 3.


By prop. 1 and def. 2 we have

d H(σ vι vΘ) =ι vd VL+ι vd HΘ =ι vE. \begin{aligned} d_H (\sigma_v - \iota_v \Theta) & = \iota_v d_V \mathbf{L} + \iota_v d_H \Theta \\ & = \iota_v \mathbf{E} \end{aligned} \,.

A symmetry of the Lepage form

ρL+Θ. \rho \coloneqq \mathbf{L} + \Theta \,.

would be defined with the full differential d=d V+d Hd = d_V + d_H:

vρ=d(σ v+κ v), \mathcal{L}_v \rho = d (\sigma_v + \kappa_v) \,,

where σ\sigma is horizontal and κ\kappa is vertical. Decomposing the result into horizontal and vertical components, then for vertical vv this is equivalent to the pair of equations

{ι vE =d H(σ vι vΘ) ι vω =d Hκ v+d Vσ v \left\{ \array{ \iota_v \mathbf{E} & = d_H (\sigma_v - \iota_v \Theta) \\ \iota_v \omega & = d_H \kappa_v + d_V \sigma_v } \right.

The first one expresses the conserved current corresponding to vv as in theorem 1, the second constrains vv to be a Hamiltonian vector field with respect to the presymplectic current.

Hamiltonian/symplectic version – In terms of moment maps

In traditional symplectic geometry

In symplectic geometry the analog of Noether’s theorem is the statement that the moment map of a Hamiltonian action which preserbes a given time evolution is itself conserved by this time evolution.

Souriau called this the symplectic Noether theorem, sometimes it is called the Hamiltonian Noether theorem. A review is for instance in (Butterfield 06).

Let (X,ω)(X,\omega) be a symplectic manifold and let 𝔓𝔬𝔦𝔰𝔰𝔬𝔫(X,ω)\mathbb{R} \to \mathfrak{Poisson}(X,\omega) be a Hamiltonian action with Hamiltonian HC (X)H \in C^\infty(X), thought of as the time evolution of a physical system with phase space (X,ω)(X,\omega).

Then let GG be a Lie group with Lie algebra 𝔤\mathfrak{g} and let 𝔤𝔓𝔬𝔦𝔰𝔰𝔬𝔫(X,ω)\mathfrak{g} \to \mathfrak{Poisson}(X,\omega) be a Hamiltonian action with Hamiltonian/moment map ΦC (X,𝔤 *)\Phi \in C^\infty(X,\mathfrak{g}^\ast). We say this preserves the (time evolution-)Hamiltonian HH if for all ξ𝔤\xi \in \mathfrak{g} the Poisson bracket between the two vanishes,

δ ξH{Φ(ξ),H}=0. \delta_\xi H \coloneqq \{\Phi(\xi), H\} = 0 \,.

In this situation now the statement of Noether’s theorem is that the generators Φ(ξ)\Phi(\xi) of the symmetry are preserved by the time evolution

ddtΦ ξ=0. \frac{d}{d t} \Phi^\xi = 0 \,.

In this symplectic formulation this is immediate, because

ddtΦ ξ={H,Φ ξ}={Φ ξ,H}=0, \frac{d}{d t}\Phi^\xi = \{H,\Phi^\xi\} = - \{\Phi^\xi, H\} = 0 \,,

by the above assumtion that HH is preserved. Hence the “Hamiltonian Noether theorem” is all captured already by the very notion of Hamiltonian action and the statement that the Poisson bracket is skew-symmetric (is a Lie algebra bracket).

Specifically, if one has a global polarization of (X,ω)(X,\omega) with canonical coordinates {q i}\{q^i\} and canonical momenta {p i}\{p_i\} and if the symmetry action is on the canonical coordinates (on configuration space), then for v ξv_\xi the vector field corresponding to the generator ξ\xi the moment map is

Φ ξ=p i(v ξ) i. \Phi^\xi = p_i (v_\xi)^i \,.

On the right this is the term in the form in which the conserved quantity obtained from the Nother theorem is traditionally written (using that given a Lagrangian LL we have p i=δLδ(q˙ i)p_i = \frac{\delta L}{\delta (\dot q^i)}).


The original article is

  • Emmy Noether, Invariante Variationsprobleme Nachrichten der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Math. Phys. Kl, 235 (1918). (gdz)

Lecture notes include

  • Chapter 7, Noether’s theorem (pdf)

  • Máximo Bañados, Ignacio A. Reyes, A short review on Noether’s theorems, gauge symmetries and boundary terms, for students (arXiv:1601.03616)

A comprehensive exposition of both the Lagrangian and the Hamiltonian version of the theorem is in

  • Jeremy Butterfield, On symmetry and conserved quantities in classical mechanics, in Physical Theory and its Interpretation, The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science Volume 72, 2006, pp 43-100(2006) (pdf)

Textbook accounts include

  • Yvette Kosmann-Schwarzbach, Les théorèmes de Noether: invariance et lois de conservation au XXe siècle : avec une traduction de l’article original, “Invariante Variationsprobleme”, Editions Ecole Polytechnique, 2004 (pdf)

  • Alexandre Vinogradov, I. S. Krasilshchik (eds.) Symmetries and Conservation Laws for Differential Equations of Mathematical Physics, vol. 182 of Translations of Mathematical Monographs. American Mathematical Society, Providence, RI, 1999. (pdf)

For 1-parameter groups of symmetries in classical mechanics, the formulation and the proof of Noether's theorem can be found in the monograph

For more general case see for instance the books by Peter Olver.

The Hamitlonian Noether theorem is also reviewed in a broader context of mathematical physics as theorem 7.3.2 in

Discussion in the context of the variational bicomplex includes

Discussion of a generalization to discrete groups of symmetries includes

  • Anthony Ashton, Conservation laws and non-Lie symmetries for linear PDEs, Journal of Non-linear Mathematical Physics, 2013 (web)

The example of conserved currents in Chern-Simons theory is discussed around (5.381) on p. 925 of

  • Vladimir Ivancevic, Tijana Ivancevi, Applied differential geometry: a modern introduction

and also in

  • M. Francaviglia, M. Palese, E. Winterroth, Locally variational invariant field equations and global currents: Chern-Simons theories, Communications in Matheamtical Physics 20 (2012) (pdf)

and for higher dimensional Chern-Simons theory in

  • G.Giachetta, L.Mangiarotti, G.Sardanashvily, Noether conservation laws in higher-dimensional Chern-Simons theory, Mod. Phys. Lett. A18 (2003) 2645-2651 (arXiv:math-ph/0310067)

A formalization of Noether’s theorem in cohesive homotopy type theory is discussed in sections “2.7 Noether symmetries and equivariant structure” and “3.2 Local observables, conserved currents and higher Poisson bracket homotopy Lie algebras” of

A formalization of invariance of Lagrangians in parametric dependent type theory is discussed in

Revised on September 20, 2017 08:55:56 by Urs Schreiber (