0.6 Operators

A linear map between two vector spaces \mathcal{H} and \mathcal{K} is a function A\colon\mathcal{H}\to\mathcal{K} that respects linear combinations: A(c_1|v_1\rangle+c_2|v_2\rangle)=c_1 A|v_1\rangle+c_2 A|v_2\rangle for any vectors |v_1\rangle,|v_2\rangle and any complex numbers c_1,c_2. We will focus mostly on endomorphisms, that is, maps from \mathcal{H} to \mathcal{H}, and we will call them operators. The symbol \mathbf{1} is reserved for the identity operator that maps every element of \mathcal{H} to itself (i.e. \mathbf{1}|v\rangle=|v\rangle for all |v\rangle\in\mathcal{H}). The product BA of two operators A and B is the operator obtained by first applying A to some ket |v\rangle and then B to the ket which results from applying A: (BA)|v\rangle = B(A|v\rangle). The order does matter: in general, BA\neq AB. In the exceptional case in which AB=BA, one says that these two operators commute. The inverse of A, written as A^{-1}, is the operator that satisfies AA^{-1}=\mathbf{1}=A^{-1}A. For finite-dimensional spaces, one only needs to check one of these two conditions, since any one of the two implies the other, whereas, on an infinite-dimensional space, both must be checked. Finally, given a particular basis, an operator A is uniquely determined by the entries of its matrix: A_{ij}=\langle i|A|j\rangle.

The adjoint, or Hermitian conjugate, of an linear map A, denoted by A^\dagger, is defined by the relation \begin{gathered} \langle i|A^\dagger|j\rangle = \langle j|A|i\rangle^\star \\\text{for all $|i\rangle,|j\rangle\in\mathcal{H}$} \end{gathered} and \dagger turns (n\times m) matrices into (m\times n) matrices.

An operator A is said to be

  • normal if AA^\dagger = A^\dagger A
  • unitary if A^\dagger=A^{-1}
  • Hermitian (or self-adjoint) if A^\dagger = A.

In particular then, being unitary implies being normal, since if A^\dagger=A^{-1} then AA^\dagger=A^\dagger A, since both of these are equal to \mathbf{1}. Note also that unitary and Hermitian operators must be operators, i.e. they are represented by an (n\times n) matrix.

Any physically admissible evolution of an isolated quantum system is represented by a unitary operator.14 Note that unitary operators preserve the inner product: given a unitary operator U and two kets |a\rangle and |b\rangle, and defining |a'\rangle=U|a\rangle and |b'\rangle=U|b\rangle, we have that \begin{gathered} \langle a'|=\langle a|U^\dagger \\\langle b'|=\langle b|U^\dagger \\\langle a'|b'\rangle=\langle a|U^\dagger U|b\rangle=\langle a|\mathbf{1}|b\rangle=\langle a|b\rangle. \end{gathered} Preserving the inner product implies preserving the norm induced by this product, i.e. unit state vectors are mapped to unit state vectors, i.e. unitary operations are the isometries of the Euclidean norm.


  1. This is an axiom, justified by experimental evidence, and also by some sort of mathematical intuition. So, in this book, we take this as a fact that we do not question. It is, however, very interesting to question it: why should we assume this to be true?↩︎