One very important discovery has been the link between conservation laws and basic symmetries in nature. For example, empty space possesses the symmetries that it is the same at every location (homogeneity) and in every direction (isotropy); these symmetries in turn lead to the invariance principles that the laws of physics should be the same regardless of changes of position or of orientation in space. The first invariance principle implies the law of conservation of linear momentum, while the second implies conservation of angular momentum. The symmetry known as the homogeneity of time leads to the invariance principle that the laws of physics remain the same at all times, which in turn implies the law of conservation of energy. The symmetries and invariance principles underlying the other conservation laws are more complex, and some are not yet understood.
Three special conservation laws have been defined with respect to symmetries and invariance principles associated with inversion or reversal of space, time, and charge. Space inversion yields a mirror-image world where the "handedness" of particles and processes is reversed; the conserved quantity corresponding to this symmetry is called space parity, or simply parity, P. Similarly, the symmetries leading to invariance with respect to time reversal and charge conjugation (changing particles into their antiparticles) result in conservation of time parity, T, and charge parity, C. Although these three conservation laws do not hold individually for all possible processes, the combination of all three is thought to be an absolute conservation law, known as the CPT theorem, according to which if a given process occurs, then a corresponding process must also be possible in which particles are replaced by their antiparticles, the handedness of each particle is reversed, and the process proceeds in the opposite direction in time. Thus, conservation laws provide one of the keys to our understanding of the universe and its material basis.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.