In classical relativity theory, one generally takes for granted that all there is, and all that happens, can be described in terms of various “matter fields,” each of which is represented by one or more smooth tensor (or spinor) fields on the spacetime manifold M. The latter are assumed to satisfy particular “field equations” involving the spacetime metric g_{ab}.

Associated with each matter field F is a symmetric smooth tensor field T_{ab} characterized by the property that, for all points p in M, and all future-directed, unit timelike vectors ξ^{a} at p, T^{a}_{b}ξ^{b} is the four-momentum density of F at p as determined relative to ξ^{a}.

T_{ab} is called the energy-momentum field associated with F. The four- momentum density vector T^{a}_{b}ξ^{b} at a point can be further decomposed into its temporal and spatial components relative to ξ^{a},

T^{a}_{b}ξ^{b} = (T_{mb}ξ^{m}ξ^{b})ξ^{a} + T_{mb}h^{ma}ξ^{b}

where the first term on the RHS is the energy density, while the second term is the three-momentum density. A number of assumptions about matter fields can be captured as constraints on the energy-momentum tensor fields with which they are associated.

Weak Energy Condition (WEC): Given any timelike vector ξ^{a} at any point in M, T_{ab}ξ^{a}ξ^{b} ≥ 0.

Dominant Energy Condition (DEC): Given any timelike vector ξ^{a} at any point in M, T_{ab}ξ^{a}ξ^{b} ≥ 0 and T^{a}_{b}ξ^{b} is timelike or null.

Strengthened Dominant Energy Condition (SDEC): Given any timelike vector ξ^{a} at any point in M, T_{ab}ξ^{a}ξ^{b} ≥ 0 and, if T_{ab} ≠ 0 there, then T^{a}_{b}ξ^{b} is timelike.

Conservation Condition (CC): ∇_{a}T^{ab} = 0 at all points in M.

The WEC asserts that the energy density of F, as determined by any observer at any point, is non-negative. The DEC adds the requirement that the four-momentum density of F, as determined by any observer at any point, is a future-directed causal (i.e., timelike or null) vector. We can understand this second clause to assert that the energy of F does not propagate with superluminal velocity. The strengthened version of the DEC just changes “causal” to “timelike” in the second clause. It avoids reference to “point particles.” Each of the listed energy conditions is strictly stronger than the ones that precede it.

The CC, finally, asserts that the energy-momentum carried by F is locally conserved. If two or more matter fields are present in the same region of space-time, it need not be the case that each one individually satisfies the condition. Interaction may occur. But it is a fundamental assumption that the composite energy-momentum field formed by taking the sum of the individual ones satisfies it. Energy-momentum can be transferred from one matter field to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The stated conditions have a number of consequences that support the interpretations.

A subset S of M is said to be achronal if there do not exist points p and q in S such that p ≪ q. Let γ : I → M be a smooth curve. We say that a point p in M is a future-endpoint of γ if, for all open sets O containing p, there exists an s_{0} in I such that, ∀ s ∈ I, if s ≥ s_{0}, then γ(s) ∈ O; i.e., γ eventually enters and remains in O. Now let S be an achronal subset of M. The domain of dependence D(S) of S is the set of all points p in M with this property: given any smooth causal curve without (past- or future-) endpoint, if its image contains p, then it intersects S. So, in particular, S ⊆ D(S).

Let S be an achronal subset of M. Further, let T_{ab} be a smooth, symmetric field on M that satisfies both the dominant energy and conservation conditions. Finally, assume T_{ab} = 0 on S. Then T_{ab} = 0 on all of D(S).

The intended interpretation of the proposition is clear. If energy-momentum cannot propagate (locally) outside the null-cone, and if it is conserved, and if it vanishes on S, then it must vanish throughout D(S). After all, how could it “get to” any point in D(S)? According to interpretive principle free massive point particles traverse (images of) timelike geodesics. It turns out that if the energy-momentum content of each body in the sequence satisfies appropriate conditions, then the convergence point will necessarily traverse (the image of) a timelike geodesic.

Let γ: I → M be smooth curve. Suppose that, given any open subset O of M containing γ[I], ∃ a smooth symmetric field T_{ab} on M such that the following conditions hold.

(1) T_{ab} satisfies the SDEC.

(2) T_{ab} satisfies the CC.

(3) T_{ab} = 0 outside of O.

(4) T_{ab} ≠ 0 at some point in O.

Then γ is timelike and can be reparametrized so as to be a geodesic. This might be paraphrased another way. Suppose that for some smooth curve γ , arbitrarily small bodies with energy-momentum satisfying conditions (1) and (2) can contain the image of γ in their worldtubes. Then γ must be a timelike geodesic (up to reparametrization). Bodies here are understood to be “free” if their internal energy-momentum is conserved (by itself). If a body is acted on by a field, it is only the composite energy-momentum of the body and field together that is conserved.

But, this formulation for granted that we can keep the background spacetime metric g_{ab} fixed while altering the fields T_{ab }that live on M. This is justifiable only to the extent that we are dealing with test bodies whose effect on the background spacetime structure is negligible.

We have here a precise proposition in the language of matter fields that, at least to some degree, captures the interpretive principle. Similarly, it is possible to capture the behavior of light, wherein the behavior of solutions to Maxwell’s equations in a limiting regime (“the optical limit”) where wavelengths are small. It asserts, in effect, that when one passes to this limit, packets of electromagnetic waves are constrained to move along (images of ) null geodesics.