Action (physics)

In physics, action is an attribute of the dynamics of a physical system from which the equations of motion of the system can be derived. It is a mathematical functional which takes the trajectory, also called path or history, of the system as its argument and has a real number as its result. Generally, the action takes different values for different paths.[1] Action has the dimensions of [energy][time] or [momentum][length], and its SI unit is joule-second.


Hamilton's principle states that the differential equations of motion for any physical system can be re-formulated as an equivalent integral equation. Thus, there are two distinct approaches for formulating dynamical models.

It applies not only to the classical mechanics of a single particle, but also to classical fields such as the electromagnetic and gravitational fields. Hamilton's principle has also been extended to quantum mechanics and quantum field theory—in particular the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics makes use of the concept—where a physical system randomly follows one of the possible paths, with the phase of the probability amplitude for each path being determined by the action for the path.[2]

Solution of differential equation

Empirical laws are frequently expressed as differential equations, which describe how physical quantities such as position and momentum change continuously with time, space or a generalization thereof. Given the initial and boundary conditions for the situation, the "solution" to these empirical equations is one or more functions that describe the behavior of the system and are called equations of motion.

Minimization of action integral

Action is a part of an alternative approach to finding such equations of motion. Classical mechanics postulates that the path actually followed by a physical system is that for which the action is minimized, or more generally, is stationary. In other words, the action satisfies a variational principle: the principle of stationary action (see also below). The action is defined by an integral, and the classical equations of motion of a system can be derived by minimizing the value of that integral.

This simple principle provides deep insights into physics, and is an important concept in modern theoretical physics.

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