Symmetries and conserved quantities in integrated historical-philosophical perspective

Thumbnail Image
If you need an accessible version of this item, please email your request to so that they may create one and provide it to you.



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Mathematical invariances, usually referred to as “symmetries”, are today often regarded as providing a privileged heuristic guideline for understanding natural phenomena, especially those of micro-physics. The rise of symmetries in particle physics has often been portrayed by physicists and philosophers as the “application” of mathematical invariances to the ordering of particle phenomena, but no historical studies exist on whether and how mathematical invariances actually played a heuristic role in shaping microphysics. Moreover, speaking of an “application” of invariances conflates the formation of concepts of new intrinsic degrees of freedom of elementary particles with the formulation of models containing invariances with respect to those degrees of freedom. I shall present here a case study from early particle physics (ca. 1930–1954) focussed on the formation of one of the earliest concepts of a new degree of freedom, baryon number, and on the emergence of the invariance today associated to it. The results of the analysis show how concept formation and “application” of mathematical invariances were distinct components of a complex historical constellation in which, beside symmetries, two further elements were essential: the idea of physically conserved quantities and that of selection rules. I shall refer to the collection of different heuristic strategies involving selection rules, invariances and conserved quantities as the “SIC-triangle” and show how different authors made use of them to interpret the wealth of new experimental data. It was only a posteriori that the successes of this hybrid “symmetry heuristics” came to be attributed exclusively to mathematical invariances and group theory, forgetting the role of selection rules and of the notion of physically conserved quantity in the emergence of new degrees of freedom and new invariances. The results of the present investigation clearly indicate that opinions on the role of symmetries in fundamental physics need to be critically reviewed in the spirit of integrated history and philosophy of science.



modern, theory-ladenness, scientific language, physics, the diverse notions of symmetry and conservation in 20th century physics


Link(s) to data and video for this item

Downstream publication: Borrelli, Arianna. (2015) "The making of an intrinsic property: “Symmetry heuristics” in early particle physics." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Special Issue 50 Integrated History and Philosophy of Science in Practice, 59-70.