Physicists   explore   the   universe.   Their investigations, based on scientific processes, range from particles that are smaller than atoms in size to stars that are very far away. In addition to finding the facts by observation and experimentation, physicists attempt to discover the laws that summarise (often as mathematical equations) these facts.

In any physical phenomenon governed by different forces, several quantities may change with time. A remarkable fact is that some special physical quantities, however, remain constant in time. They are the conserved quantities of nature. Understanding these conservation principles is very important to describe the observed phenomena quantitatively.

For motion under an external conservative force, the total mechanical energy i.e. the sum of kinetic and potential energy of a body is a constant. The familiar example is the free fall of an object under gravity. Both the kinetic energy of the object and its potential energy change continuously with time, but the sum remains fixed. If the object is released from rest, the initial potential energy is completely converted into the kinetic energy of the object just before it hits the ground. This law restricted for a conservative force should not be confused with the general law of conservation of energy of an isolated system (which is the basis of the First Law of Thermodynamics).

The concept of energy is central to physics and the expressions for energy can be written for even.’ physical system. When all forms of energy e.g., heat, mechanical energy, electrical energy etc.. are counted, it turns out that energy is conserved. The general law of conservation of energy is true for all forces and for any kind of transformation between different forms of energy. In the falling object example, if you include the effect of air resistance during the fall and see the situation after the object hits the ground and stays there, the total mechanical energy is obviously not conserved. The general law of energy conservation, however. is still applicable. The initial potential energy of the stone gets transformed into other forms of energy : heat and sound. (Ultimately, sound after it is absorbed becomes heat.) The total energy of the system (stone plus the surroundings) remains unchanged.

The law of conservation of energy is thought to be valid across all domains of nature, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. It is routinely applied in the analysis of atomic, nuclear and elementary particle processes. At the other end. all kinds of violent phenomena occur in the universe all the time. Yet the total energy of the universe (the most ideal isolated system possible!) is believed to remain unchanged.

Until the advent of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the law of conservation of mass was regarded as another basic conservation law of nature, since matter was thought to be indestructible. It was (and still is) an important principle used, for example, in the analysis of chemical reactions. A chemical reaction is basically a rearrangement of atoms among different molecules. If the total binding energy of the reacting molecules is less than the total binding energy of the product molecules, the difference appears as heat and the reaction is exothermic. The opposite is true for energy absorbing (endothermic) reactions. However, since the atoms are merely rearranged but not destroyed, the total mass of the reactants is the same as the total mass of the products in a chemical reaction. The changes in the binding energy are too small to be measured as changes in mass.

According to Einstein’s theory, mass m is equivalent to energy E given by the relation E= mc^2, where c is speed of light in vacuum.

In a nuclear process mass gets converted to energy (or vice-versa). This is the energy which is released in a nuclear power generation and nuclear explosions.

Energy is a scalar quantity. But all conserved quantities are not necessarily scalars. The total linear momentum and the total angular momentum (both vectors) of an isolated system are also conserved quantities. These laws can be derived from Newton’s laws of motion in mechanics. But their validity goes beyond mechanics. They are the basic conservation laws of nature in all domains, even in those where Newton’s laws may not be valid.

Besides their great simplicity and generality, the conservation laws of nature are very useful in practice too. It often happens that we cannot solve the full dynamics of a complex problem involving different particles and forces. The conservation laws can still provide useful results. For example, we may not know the complicated forces that act during a collision of two automobiles; yet momentum conservation law enables us to bypass the complications and predict or rule out possible outcomes of the collision. In nuclear and elementary particle phenomena also, the conservation laws are important tools of analysis. Indeed, using the conservation laws of energy and momentum for p-decay. Wolfgang Paul! (1900-1958) correctly predicted in 1931 the existence of a new particle (now called neutrino) emitted in p-decay along with the electron.

Conservation laws have a deep connection with symmetries of nature that you will explore in more advanced courses in physics. For example, an important observation is that the laws of nature do not change with time! If you perform an experiment in your laboratory today and repeat the same experiment (on the same objects under identical conditions) after a year, the results are bound to be the same. It turns out that this symmetry of nature with respect to translation (i.e. displacement) in time is equivalent to the law of conservation of energy. Likewise, space is homogeneous and there is no (intrinsically) preferred location in the universe. To put it more clearly, the laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe. (Caution : the phenomena may differ from place to place because of differing conditions at different locations. For example, the acceleration due to gravity at the moon is one-sixth that at the earth. but the law of gravitation is the same both on the moon and the earth.) This symmetry of the laws of nature with respect to translation in space gives rise to conservation of linear momentum. In the same way isotropy of space (no intrinsically preferred direction in space) underlies the law of conservation of angular momentum". The conservation laws of charge and other attributes of elementary particles can also be related to certain abstract symmetries. Symmetries of space and time and other abstract symmetries play a central role in modem theories of fundamental forces in nature.


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