Why is the Stress Tensor Symmetrical?

In summary: pling errors and inaccuracies in data can lead to asymmetry in the stress tensor, though this is not always the case.
  • #1
Can someone explain to me why the stress tensor is symmetrical. I understand that Sij=Sji , but can someone give me the assumption or the physical reason why this is true. Thanks.
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  • #2
Continuum mechanics is based essentially on laws of conservation of mass, balance of momentum and balance of moment of momentum, the two latter based on Newton's 2nd. Balance of momentum leads to the Cauchy's equation of motion :

\nabla \cdot \bfseries\sigma + \rho b = \rho \frac{D}{Dt}v

where [itex]\sigma[/itex] is the Cauchy (true) stress tensor. The symmetricity of the Cauchy stress tensor arises from the law of balance of moment of momentum (complete presentations, and best IMO, are typically in thermomechanics books & papers),

\oint (r\times T) dA + \int (r \times \rho b) dV = \frac{D}{Dt} \int (r \times \rho v) dV

(if the presentation looks unfamiliar you can 'tie' it to for example 'typical' presentations in relation to Newton's 2nd in dynamics books)

where r is a vector from an arbitrary point to a material point, V is an arbitrary subsystem volume, A its area, T traction vector, [itex]\rho[/itex] density, b body force vector, v velocity of a material point and I'm using [itex]D/Dt[/itex] for the material derivative operator. Substituting to the above the law of balance of momentum (take the [itex] r\times[/itex] off and got it), the Cauchy's equation of motion and somewhat lengthy manipulation the above reduces to

\int e_{ijk}\sigma_{jk}i_{i}dV=0

where [itex]e_{ijk}[/itex] is the permutation symbol, and since the integrand of the above has to vanish everywhere within the system one arrives at


and writing the permutation symbol open leads to


... so all in all it results from balance of moment of momentum, in a sense it's understandable that it requires the stress tensor to be symmetric considering its role in equilibrium equations.
  • #4
Hi quasi426! :smile:
PerennialII said:

There's a derivation of this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_Tensor#Equilibrium_equations_and_symmetry_of_the_stress_tensor, followed by:
However, in the presence of couple-stresses, i.e. moments per unit volume, the stress tensor is non-symmetric. This also is the case when the Knudsen number is close to one, Kn -> 1, e.g. Non-Newtonian fluid, which can lead to rotationally non-invariant fluids, such as polymers.
  • #5
please beware
if you read the pdf file i attached in my post you can understand it better, I'm not talking about magnetic fields or non-Newtonian fluids. i want to say cauchy principles are not the exact and the most general forms of relation between stress and direction.
please check it again.
  • #6
quasi426 said:
Can someone explain to me why the stress tensor is symmetrical. I understand that Sij=Sji , but can someone give me the assumption or the physical reason why this is true.

Symmetry under spacetime translations implies (by Noether theorem) that the canonical energy-momentum (or stress) tensor

T_{ab} = \frac{\partial L}{\partial \partial_{a} \phi} \partial_{b} \phi - \eta_{ab}L

is conserved;

[tex] \partial^{a} T_{ab} = 0[/tex]

But it is not, in general, symmetric! Well, it is not unique either, for you could define a new tensor

\Theta_{ab} = T_{ab} + \partial^{c} X_{cab}

which is also conserved, [itex]\partial^{a}\Theta_{ab} = 0[/itex], provided that

[tex]X_{cab} = - X_{acb}[/tex]

In a Lorentz invariant theories, we may choose [itex]X_{cab}[/itex] to make [ the new stress tensor] [itex]\Theta_{ab}[/itex] symmetric.

So, your question should have been: Why do we want the stress tensor to be symmetric?

There are two reasons for this:
1) In general relativity, the matter fields couple to gravity via the stress tensor and this is given by the Einstein equations

[tex]R_{ab} - \frac{1}{2} g_{ab} R = - k \Theta_{ab}[/tex]

Since the (geometrical) Ricci tensor [itex]R_{ab}[/itex] and the metric tensor [itex]g_{ab}[/itex] are both symmetric, so [itex]\Theta_{ab}[/itex] must be also.

2) The second reason for requiring a symmetric stress tensor comes from Lorentz symmetry:
Lorentz invariance implies that the ungular momentum tensor;

[tex]\mathcal{M}_{cab} = \Theta_{ca} x_{b} - \Theta_{cb} x_{a}[/tex]

is conserved! But

[tex]\partial^{c} \mathcal{M}_{cab} = \Theta_{ab} - \Theta_{ba}[/tex]

Thus, conservation of ungular momentum requires the stress tensor to be symmetric;

[tex]\Theta_{ab} = \Theta_{ba}[/tex]


Last edited:

1. What is the stress tensor and why is it important?

The stress tensor is a mathematical concept used in physics and engineering to describe the distribution of internal forces within a material. It is important because it helps us understand the behavior of materials under different types of stress, such as tension, compression, and shear.

2. Why is the stress tensor symmetrical?

The stress tensor is symmetrical because it follows the laws of conservation of energy and momentum. In other words, the total force acting on a material in one direction must be balanced by an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction, resulting in a symmetrical distribution of stress.

3. How is symmetry related to the stress tensor?

Symmetry is related to the stress tensor because it ensures that the forces acting on a material are balanced and there is no net force that could cause the material to deform or break. The symmetrical distribution of stress also helps in simplifying the mathematical equations used to describe the behavior of materials under different types of stress.

4. Can the stress tensor be non-symmetrical?

Yes, in certain situations, the stress tensor can be non-symmetrical. This usually occurs when there are external forces acting on the material or when the material is undergoing dynamic changes. However, in most practical scenarios, the stress tensor is assumed to be symmetrical for simplicity and ease of calculation.

5. How is the symmetry of the stress tensor measured?

The symmetry of the stress tensor is measured using mathematical techniques such as matrix algebra and tensor analysis. These methods involve calculating the components of the stress tensor and checking if they satisfy the conditions for symmetry. If the components are equal, the stress tensor is considered to be symmetrical.

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