Canonical Actions on Bundles – Philosophizing Identity Over Gauge Transformations.


In physical applications, fiber bundles often come with a preferred group of transformations (usually the symmetry group of the system). The modem attitude of physicists is to regard this group as a fundamental structure which should be implemented from the very beginning enriching bundles with a further structure and defining a new category.

A similar feature appears on manifolds as well: for example, on ℜ2 one can restrict to Cartesian coordinates when we regard it just as a vector space endowed with a differentiable structure, but one can allow also translations if the “bigger” affine structure is considered. Moreover, coordinates can be chosen in much bigger sets: for instance one can fix the symplectic form w = dx ∧ dy on ℜ2 so that ℜ2 is covered by an atlas of canonical coordinates (which include all Cartesian ones). But ℜ2 also happens to be identifiable with the cotangent bundle T*ℜ so that we can restrict the previous symplectic atlas to allow only natural fibered coordinates. Finally, ℜ2 can be considered as a bare manifold so that general curvilinear coordinates should be allowed accordingly; only if the full (i.e., unrestricted) manifold structure is considered one can use a full maximal atlas. Other choices define instead maximal atlases in suitably restricted sub-classes of allowed charts. As any manifold structure is associated with a maximal atlas, geometric bundles are associated to “maximal trivializations”. However, it may happen that one can restrict (or enlarge) the allowed local trivializations, so that the same geometrical bundle can be trivialized just using the appropriate smaller class of local trivializations. In geometrical terms this corresponds, of course, to impose a further structure on the bare bundle. Of course, this newly structured bundle is defined by the same basic ingredients, i.e. the same base manifold M, the same total space B, the same projection π and the same standard fiber F, but it is characterized by a new maximal trivialization where, however, maximal refers now to a smaller set of local trivializations.

Examples are: vector bundles are characterized by linear local trivializations, affine bundles are characterized by affine local trivializations, principal bundles are characterized by left translations on the fiber group. Further examples come from Physics: gauge transformations are used as transition functions for the configuration bundles of any gauge theory. For these reasons we give the following definition of a fiber bundle with structure group.

A fiber bundle with structure group G is given by a sextuple B = (E, M, π; F ;>.., G) such that:

  • (E, M, π; F) is a fiber bundle. The structure group G is a Lie group (possibly a discrete one) and λ : G —–> Diff(F) defines a left action of G on the standard fiber F .
  • There is a family of preferred trivializations {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I of B such that the following holds: let the transition functions be gˆ(αβ) : Uαβ —–> Diff(F) and let eG be the neutral element of G. ∃ a family of maps g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G such

    that, for each x ∈ Uαβγ = Uα ∩ Uβ ∩ Uγ

    g(αα)(x) = eG

    g(αβ)(x) = [g(βα)(x)]-1

    g(αβ)(x) . g(βγ)(x) . g(γα)(x) = eG


    (αβ)(x) = λ(g(αβ)(x)) ∈ Diff(F)

The maps g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G, which depend on the trivialization, are said to form a cocycle with values in G. They are called the transition functions with values in G (or also shortly the transition functions). The preferred trivializations will be said to be compatible with the structure. Whenever dealing with fiber bundles with structure group the choice of a compatible trivialization will be implicitly assumed.

Fiber bundles with structure group provide the suitable framework to deal with bundles with a preferred group of transformations. To see this, let us begin by introducing the notion of structure bundle of a fiber bundle with structure group B = (B, M, π; F; x, G).

Let B = (B, M, π; F; x, G) be a bundle with a structure group; let us fix a trivialization {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I and denote by g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G its transition functions. By using the canonical left action L : G —–> Diff(G) of G onto itself, let us define gˆ(αβ) : Uαβ —–> Diff(G) given by gˆ(αβ)(x) = L (g(αβ)(x)); they obviously satisfy the cocycle properties. Now by constructing a (unique modulo isomorphisms) principal bundle PB = P(B) having G as structure group and g(αβ) as transition functions acting on G by left translation Lg : G —> G.

The principal bundle P(B) = (P, M, p; G) constructed above is called the structure bundle of B = (B, M, π; F; λ, G).

Notice that there is no similar canonical way of associating a structure bundle to a geometric bundle B = (B, M, π; F), since in that case the structure group G is at least partially undetermined.

Each automorphism of P(B) naturally acts over B.

Let, in fact, {σ(α)}α∈I be a trivialization of PB together with its transition functions g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G defined by σ(β) = σ(α) . g(αβ). Then any principal morphism Φ = (Φ, φ) over PB is locally represented by local maps ψ(α) : Uα —> G such that

Φ : [x, h]α ↦ [φ(α)(x), ψ(α)(x).h](α)

Since Φ is a global automorphism of PB for the above local expression, the following property holds true in Uαβ.

φ(α)(x) = φ(β)(x) ≡ x’

ψ(α)(x) = g(αβ)(x’) . ψ(β)(x) . g(βα)(x)

By using the family of maps {(φ(α), ψ(α))} one can thence define a family of global automorphisms of B. In fact, using the trivialization {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I, one can define local automorphisms of B given by

Φ(α)B : (x, y) ↦ (φ(α)(x), [λ(ψ(α)(x))](y))

These local maps glue together to give a global automorphism ΦB of the bundle B, due to the fact that g(αβ) are also transition functions of B with respect to its trivialization {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I.

In this way B is endowed with a preferred group of transformations, namely the group Aut(PB) of automorphisms of the structure bundle PB, represented on B by means of the canonical action. These transformations are called (generalized) gauge transformations. Vertical gauge transformations, i.e. gauge transformations projecting over the identity, are also called pure gauge transformations.

Weyl, “To understand nature, start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations . . .”



Gauge transformations appear of primarily descriptive nature only if we consider them in their function as changes of local (in the mathematical sense) changes of trivializations. In this function they are comparable to the transformations of the coordinates in a differentiable manifold, which also seem to have a purely “descriptive” function. But the coordinate changes stand in close relation to (local) diffeomorphisms. Therefore the postulate of coordinate independence of natural laws, or of the Lagrangian density, can and is being restated in terms of diffeomorphism invariance in general relativity. Similarly, the local changes of trivializations may be read as local descriptions.

The question as to whether or not the automorphisms express crucial physical properties  has nothing to do with the specific gauge nature of the groups, but hinges on the more overarching question of physical adequateness and physical content of the theory. The question of whether or why gauge symmetries can express physical content is not much different from the Kretschmann question of whether or why coordinate invariance of the laws, respectively coordinate covariance description of a physical theory, can have physical content. In the latter case the answer to the question has been dealt with in the philosophy of physics literature in great detail. Weyl’s answer is contained in his thoughts on the distinction of physical and mathematical automorphisms.

Let us shed a side-glance at gravitational gauge theories not taken into account by Weyl. In Einstein-Cartan gravity, which later turned out to be equivalent to Kibble-Sciama gravity, the localized rotational degrees of freedom lead to a conserved spin current and a non-symmetric energy tensor. This is a structurally pleasing effect, fitting roughly into the Noether charge paradigm, although with a peculiar “crossover” of the two Noether currents and the currents feeding the dynamical equations, inherited from Einstein gravity and Cartan’s identification of translational curvature with torsion. The rotational current, spin, feeds the dynamical equation of translational curvature; the translational current, energy-momentum, feeds the rotational curvature in the (generalized) Einstein equation. It may acquire physical relevance only if energy densities surpass the order of magnitude 1038 times the density of neutron stars. By this reason the current cannot yet be considered a physically striking effect. It may turn into one, if gravitational fields corresponding to extremely high energy densities acquire empirical relevance. For the time being, the rotational current can safely be neglected, Einstein-Cartan gravity reduces effectively to Einstein gravity, and Weyl’s argument for the symmetry of the energy-momentum tensor remains the most “striking consequence” in the sense of  rotational degrees of freedom.

On the other hand, the translational degrees of freedom give a more direct expression for the Noether currents of energy-momentum than the diffeomorphisms. The physical consequences for the diffeomorphism degrees of freedom reduce to the invariance constraint for the Lagrangian density for Einstein gravity considered as a special case of the Einstein-Cartan theory (with effectively vanishing spin). Besides these minor shifts, it may be more interesting to realize that the approach of Kibble and Sciama agreed nicely with Weyl’s methodological remark that for understanding nature we better “start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations . . . ”. This describes quite well what Sciama and Kibble did. They started to explore the consequences of localizing (in the physical sense) the translational and rotational degrees of freedom of special relativity. Their theory was built around the generalized automorphism group arising from localizing the Poincaré group.

Local Gauge Transformations in Locally Gauge Invariant Relativistic Field Theory


The question arises of whether local space-time symmetries – arbitrary co-ordinate transformations that leave the explicit form of the equations of motion unaffected – also have an active interpretation. As in the case of local gauge symmetry, it has been argued in the literature that the introduction of a force is required to ‘restore’ local symmetry.  In the case of arbitrary co-ordinate transformations, the force invoked is gravity. Once again, we believe that the arguments (though seductive) are wrong, and that it is important to see why. Kosso’s discussion of arbitrary coordinate transformations is analogous to his argument with respect to local gauge transformations. He writes:

Observing this symmetry requires comparing experimental outcomes between two reference frames that are in variable relative motion, frames that are relatively accelerating or rotating….One can, in principle, observe that this sort of transformation has occurred. … just look out of the window and you can see if you are speeding up or turning with respect to some object that defines a coordinate system in the reference frame of the ground…Now do the experiments to see if the invariance is true. Do the same experiments in the original reference frame that is stationary on the ground, and again in the accelerating reference frame of the train, and see if the physics is the same. One can run the same experiments, with mechanical forces or with light and electromagnetic forces, and observe the results, so the invariance should be observable…But when the experiments are done, the invariance is not directly observed. Spurious forces appear in the accelerating system, objects move spontaneously, light bends, and so on. … The physics is different.

In other words, if we place ourselves at rest first in an inertial reference frame, and then in a non-inertial reference frame, our observations will be distinguishable. For example, in the non-inertial reference frame objects that are seemingly force-free will appear to accelerate, and so we will have to introduce extra, ‘spurious’, forces to account for this accelerated motion. The transformation described by Kosso is clearly not a symmetry transformation. Despite that, his claim appears to be that if we move to General Relativity, this transformation becomes a symmetry transformation. In order to assess this claim, let’s begin by considering Kosso’s experiment from the point of view of classical physics.

Suppose that we describe these observations using Newtonian physics and Maxwell’s equations. We would not be surprised that our descriptions differ depending on the choice of coordinate system: arbitrary coordinate transformations are not symmetries of the Newtonian and Maxwell equations of motion as usually expressed. Nevertheless, we are free to re-write Newtonian and Maxwellian physics in generally covariant form. But notice: the arbitrary coordinate transformations now apply not just to the Newtonian particles and the Maxwellian electromagnetic fields, but also to the metric, and this is necessary for general covariance.

Kosso’s example is given in terms of passive transformations – transformations of the coordinate systems in which we re-coordinatise the fields. In the Kosso experiment, however, we re-coordinatise the matter fields without re-coordinatising the metric field. This is not achieved by a mere coordinate transformation in generally covariant classical theory: a passive arbitrary coordinate transformation induces a re-coordinatisation of not only the matter fields but also the metric. The two states described by Kosso are not related by an arbitrary coordinate transformation in generally covariant classical theory. Further, such a coordinate transformation applied to only the matter and electromagnetic fields is not a symmetry of the equations of Newtonian and Maxwellian physics, regardless of whether those equations are written in generally covariant form.

Suppose that we use General Relativity to describe the above observations. Kosso suggests that in General Relativity the observations made in an inertial reference frame will indeed be related by a symmetry transformation to those made in a non-inertial reference frame. He writes:

The invariance can be restored by revising the physics, by adding a specific dynamical principle. This is why the local symmetry is a dynamical symmetry. We can add to the physics a claim about a specific force that restores the invariance. It is a force that exactly compensates for the local transform. In the case of the general theory of relativity the dynamical principle is the principle of equivalence, and the force is gravity. … With gravity included in the physics and with the windows of the train shuttered, there is no way to tell if the transformation, the acceleration, has taken place. That is, there is now no difference in the outcome of experiments between the transformed and untransformed systems. The force pulling objects to the back of the train could just as well be gravity. Thus the physics, all things including gravity considered, is invariant from one locally transformed frame to the next. The symmetry is restored.

This analysis mixes together the equivalence principle with the meaning of invariance under arbitrary coordinate transformations in a way which seems to us to be confused, with the consequence that the account of local symmetry in General Relativity is mistaken.

Einstein’s field equations are covariant under arbitrary smooth coordinate transformations. However, as with generally covariant Newtonian physics, these symmetry transformations are transformations of the matter fields (such as particles and electromagnetic radiation) combined with transformations of the metric. Kosso’s example, as we have already emphasised, re-coordinatises the matter fields without re-coordinatising the metric field. So, the two states described by Kosso are not related by an arbitrary coordinate transformation even in General Relativity. We can put the point vividly by locating ourselves at the origin of the coordinate system: I will always be able to tell whether the train, myself, and its other contents are all freely falling together, or whether there is a relative acceleration of the other contents relative to the train and me (in which case the other contents would appear to be flung around). This is completely independent of what coordinate system I use – my conclusion is the same regardless of whether I use a coordinate system at rest with respect to the train or one that is accelerating arbitrarily. (This coordinate independence is, of course, the symmetry that Kosso sought in the opening quotation above, but his analysis is mistaken.)

What, then, of the equivalence principle? The Kosso transformation leads to a physically and observationally distinct scenario, and the principle of equivalence is not relevant to the difference between those scenarios. What the principle of equivalence tells us is that the effect in the second scenario, where the contents of the train appear to accelerate to the back of the train, may be due to acceleration of the train in the absence of a gravitational field, or due to the presence of a gravitational field in which the contents of the train are in free fall but the train is not. Mere coordinate transformations cannot be used to bring real physical forces in and out of existence.

It is perhaps worthwhile briefly indicating the analogy between this case and the gauge case. Active arbitrary coordinate transformations in General Relativity involve transformations of both the matter fields and the metric, and they are symmetry transformations having no observable consequences. Coordinate transformations applied to the matter fields alone are no more symmetry transformations in General Relativity than they are in Newtonian physics (whether written in generally covariant form or not). Such transformations do have observational consequences. Analogously, local gauge transformations in locally gauge invariant relativistic field theory are transformations of both the particle fields and the gauge fields, and they are symmetry transformations having no observable consequences. Local phase transformations alone (i.e. local gauge transformations of the matter fields alone) are no more symmetries of this theory than they are of the globally phase invariant theory of free particles. Neither an arbitrary coordinate transformation in General Relativity, nor a local gauge transformation in locally gauge invariant relativistic field theory, can bring forces in and out of existence: no generation of gravitational effects, and no changes to the interference pattern.