Physicists are always interested in what properties of a physical system are invariant under symmetries. If it's tricky to see the symmetry then they'll rearrange the system to make the symmetry more obvious.

For example, consider a covariant rank two tensor like $T^{ab}$. In general the components of this tensor will change if the tensor is rotated in 3D. It's hard to see what might be invariant under rotation.

Now consider a symmetric tensor $S^{ab}$. Again, the components of this tensor will change when it is rotated. However, the property of being symmetric is preserved. So from a physicist's point of view this is interesting. Similarly, an antisymmetric tensor $A^{ab}$ remains antisymmetric when rotated.

So we have nice properties that are preserved for these special classes of tensor, but not for $T^{ab}$. But as you probably know, any tensor $T^{ab}$ can be written as a sum of symmetric and antisymmetric parts, $T^{ab}=S^{ab}+A^{ab}$. So now we know that $T^{ab}$ can be written as a sum of two parts, each of which behaves more simply when rotated. This simplifies the analysis of what happens to $T^{ab}$ when it is rotated.

Once we've done that once the obvious question is "can we do this again"? It'd be nice if we could break $T^{ab}$ into more pieces that behave as simply as possible under rotations.

There's another class of tensor that behaves nicely under rotation: the diagonal tensors of the form $\alpha\delta_{ab}$. Under rotations, they simply map to themselves. That's as simple as it gets. There's also a kind of converse class: the symmetric tensors of trace zero. These keep their trace of zero when they are rotated. But here's the nice bit: any symmetric tensor can be written as the sum of a diagonal tensor and a trace-zero symmetric tensor. So now we've broken down $T^{ab}$ into *three* pieces, each of which has a nice invariance property with respect to rotations.

Can we keep going? Well it turns out for covariant rank two tensors in 3D this is as far as we can go. If we try to break up the antisymmetric matrices, say, as the sum of two pieces from a pair of complementary classes, we'll always find that some rotation will move an element of one class into the other. So three classes is as far as we can go. The elements of these classes are the irreducible tensors.

The space of covariant rank two tensors has dimension 9. It is the sum of three spaces: the diagonal tensors (a space of dimension 1), the antisymmetric tensors (dimension 3) and the symmetric trace-zero tensors (dimension 5). 1+3+5=9.

For tensors of different rank, and in different dimensions, you get different irreducible tensors.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-22 17:18 (UCT), posted by SE-user Dan Piponi