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Canonical Transformations

Michael Fowler

Point Transformations

It’s clear that Lagrange’s equations are correct for any reasonable choice of parameters labeling the

system configuration. Let’s call our first choice q = ( q1 , qn ) . Now transform to a new set, maybe even

time dependent, Qi = Qi ( q, t ) . The derivation of Lagrange’s equations by minimizing the action still

works, so Hamilton’s equations must still also be OK too. This is called a point transformation: we’ve

just moved to a different coordinate system, we’re relabeling the points in configuration space (but

possibly in a time-dependent way).

In the Hamiltonian approach, we’re in phase space with a coordinate system having positions and

momenta on an equal footing. It is therefore possible to think of more general transformations than the

point transformation (which was restricted to the position coordinates).

= i ( pi , qi , t ) ,

Qi Q= Pi Pi ( pi , qi , t ) ,

In those original variables, the equations of motion had the nice canonical Hamilton form,

qi =

∂H / ∂pi , p i =

−∂H / ∂qi .

Things won’t usually be that simple in the new variables, but it does turn out that many of the “natural”

transformations that arise in dynamics, such as that corresponding to going forward in time, do preserve

the form of Hamilton’s canonical equations, that is to say

∂H ′ / ∂Pi , Pi =

A transformation that retains the canonical form of Hamilton’s equations is said to be canonical.

In this section, we go back to considering the full action (not the abbreviated--fixed energy--action used

earlier).

Now, we've established that Hamilton’s equations in the original parameterization follow from

minimizing the action in the form

2

δ ∫ ∑ pi dqi − Hdt =

0.

i

For a canonical transformation, by definition the new variables must also satisfy Hamilton's equations,

so, working backwards, action minimization must be expressible in the new variables exactly as in the

old ones:

δ ∫ ∑ PdQ

i

′

i − H dt =

0.

i

Now, we’ve previously stated that two actions lead to the same equations of motion if the integrands

differ by the total differential of some function F of coordinates, momenta and time. (That’s because in

adding such a function to the integrand, the function’s contribution to the integral is just the difference

between its values at the two (fixed) ends, so in varying the path between the ends to minimize the total

integral and so generate the equations of motion, this exact differential dF makes no contribution.)

That is to say, the two action integrals will be minimized on the same path through phase space provided

the integrands differ by an exact differential:

∑ p dq − Hdt

i

i = ∑ PdQ − H ′dt + dF .

i

i

i i

F is called the generating function of the transformation. Rearranging the equation above,

=

dF ∑ p dq − ∑ PdQ + ( H ′ − H ) dt.

i

i i

i

i i

Notice that the differentials here are dqi , dQi , dt , so these are the natural variables for expressing the

generating function.

∂F ( q, Q , t ) ∂F ( q, Q, t ) ∂F ( q, Q , t )

pi == , Pi − , H′ =

H+ .

∂qi ∂Qi ∂t

Let’s reemphasize here that a canonical transformation will in general mix up coordinates and

momenta—they are the same kind of variable, from this Hamiltonian perspective. They can even be

exchanged: for a system with one degree of freedom, for example, the transformation

Q = p, P = − q

is a perfectly good canonical transformation (check out Hamilton’s equations in the new variables), even

though it turns a position into a momentum and vice versa!

If this particular transformation is applied to a simple harmonic oscillator, the Hamiltonian remains the

=

same (we’re taking H 1

2 (p 2

+ q 2 ) ) so the differential dF of the generating function (given above) has

no H ′ − H term, it is just

3

dF ( q,=

Q ) pdq − PdQ.

F ( q, Q ) = Qq,

from which

as required.

oscillator is q =

2 P sin Q , p 2 P cos Q.

You will investigate this in homework.

This F ( q, Q , t ) is only one example of a generating function—in discussing Liouville’s theorem later,

we’ll find it convenient to have a generating function expressed in the q 's and P 's. We get that

generating function, often labeled Φ ( q, P, t ) , from F ( q, Q , t ) by a Legendre transformation:

d Φ ( q, P, t ) = d ( F + ∑ PQ

i i) = ∑ p dq + ∑ Q dP + ( H ′ − H ) dt.

i i i i

∂Φ ( q, P, t ) ∂Φ ( q, P, t ) ∂Φ ( q, P, t )

p= , Q= , H=′ H + ..

∂qi ∂Pi ∂t

i i

Evidently, we can similarly use the Legendre transform to find generating functions depending on the

other possible mixes of old and new variables: p, Q , and p, P .

It will become evident with a few examples: it is often possible to transform to a set of variables where

the equations of motion are a lot simpler, and, for some variables, trivial. The canonical approach also

gives a neat proof of Liouville’s theorem, which we’ll look at shortly.

First, note that if Hamilton’s equations have the standard canonical form

∂H ∂H

qi = [ H , qi ] = , p i = [ H , pi ] = −

∂pi ∂qi

with respect to a pair of variables p, q then those variables are said to be canonically conjugate.

[ f , g ] p ,q = [ f , g ]P ,Q .

4

[Qi , Qk ] p ,q 0,=

= [ Pi , Pk ] p ,q 0,=

[ Pi , Qk ] p ,q δ ik .

We'll show the method by taking just one pair of variables p, q, and a generating function F ( q, Q ) .

Then

∂P ∂Q ∂P ∂Q

[ P, Q ] p ,q − .

=

∂p q ∂q p ∂q p ∂p q

( ∂F / ∂q )Q , P ( q, Q ) =

− ( ∂F / ∂Q ) q , so

∂P ∂P ∂Q

∂p = ∂Q ∂p

q q q

and

∂P ∂P ∂P ∂Q

= + .

∂q p ∂q Q ∂Q q ∂q p

∂Q ∂P ∂Q ∂ 2 F ∂Q ∂p

[Q , P ] =

− ==

= 1.

∂p q ∂q Q ∂p q ∂q∂Q ∂p q ∂Q q

These basic results can then be used to prove the general Poisson bracket is independent of the

parametrization of phase space, details in Goldstein and elsewhere.

Landau, on the other hand, offers a one-line proof of the invariance of the Poisson bracket of two

dynamical functions f ( pi , qi ) , g ( pi , qi ) under a canonical transformation: imagine a fictitious system

having g as its Hamiltonian. Then [ f , g ] p ,q is just df / dt , and cannot depend on the coordinate

system used, so must equal [ f , g ]P ,Q .

(1) (1) (2) (2)

The transformation from the variables qi , pi at time t1 to qi , pi at a later time t2 has to be

canonical, since the system obeys Hamilton’s (canonical!) equations at all times.

(1) (2)

In fact, the variation of the action along the true path from qi at time t1 to qi at t2 with respect to

final and initial coordinates and times was found earlier to be

( 2

) ∑ p( )dq( ) − ∑ p( )dq( ) + H ( )dt

dS qi( ) , qi( ) , t2 , t=

1

1

i

i

2

i

2

i

i

1

i

1 2

2 − H ( )dt1 ,

1

5

and, comparing that expression with the differential form of a canonical transformation corresponding

to F ( q → Q , p → P ) in the discussion above, which was

i

i i

i

i i

1 2

we see that the action itself is the generating function for the canonical transformation from the

(1) (1) (2) (2)

variables qi , pi at time t1 to the set qi , pi at the later time t2 , actually − S generates the forward

motion in time, the equivalent variables in the two equations above being

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