College Math Teaching

August 11, 2011

Quantum Mechanics and Undergraduate Mathematics XIII: simplifications and wave-particle duality

In an effort to make the subject a bit more accessible to undergraduate mathematics students who haven’t had much physics training, we’ve made some simplifications. We’ve dealt with the “one dimensional, non-relativistic situation” which is fine. But we’ve also limited ourselves to the case where:
1. state vectors are actual functions (like those we learn about in calculus)
2. eigenvalues are discretely distributed (e. g., the set of eigenvalues have no limit points in the usual topology of the real line)
3. each eigenvalue corresponds to a unique eigenvector.

In this post we will see what trouble simplifications 1 and 2 cause and why they cannot be lived with. Hey, quantum mechanics is hard!

Finding Eigenvectors for the Position Operator
Let X denote the “position” operator and let us seek out the eigenvectors for this operator.
So X\delta = x_0 \delta where \delta is the eigenvector and x_0 is the associated eigenvalue.
This means x\delta = x_0\delta which implies (x-x_0)\delta = 0 .
This means that for x \neq x_0, \delta = 0 and \delta can be anything for x = x_0 . This would appear to allow the eigenvector to be the “everywhere zero except for x_0 ” function. So let \delta be such a function. But then if \psi is any state vector, \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \overline{\delta}\psi dx = 0 and \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \overline{\delta}\delta dx = 0 . Clearly this is unacceptable; we need (at least up to a constant multiple) for \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \overline{\delta}\delta dx = 1

The problem is that restricting our eigenvectors to the class of functions is just too restrictive to give us results; we have to broaden the class of eigenvectors. One way to do that is to allow for distributions to be eigenvectors; the distribution we need here is the dirac delta. In the reference I linked to, one can see how the dirac delta can be thought of as a sort of limit of valid probability density functions. Note: \overline{\delta} = \delta .

So if we let \delta_0 denote the dirac that is zero except for x = x_0 , we recall that \int_{\infty}^{\infty} \delta_0 \psi dx = \psi(x_0) . This means that the probability density function associated with the position operator is P(X = x_0) = |\psi(x_0)|^2

This has an interesting consequence: if we measure the particle’s position at x = x_0 then the state vector becomes \delta_0 . So the new density function based on an immediate measurement of position would be P( X = x_0) = |\langle \delta_0, \delta_0 \rangle|^2 = 1 and P(X = x) = 0 elsewhere. The particle behaves like a particle with a definite “point” position.

Momentum: a different sort of problem

At first the momentum operator P\psi = -i \hbar \frac{d\psi}{dx} seems less problematic. Finding the eigenvectors and eigenfunctions is a breeze: if \theta_0 is the eigenvector with eigenvalue p_0 then:
\frac{d}{dx} \theta_0 = \frac{i}{\hbar}p_0\theta_0 has solution \theta_0 = exp(i p_0 \frac{x}{\hbar}) .
Do you see the problem?

There are a couple of them: first, this provides no restriction on the eigenvalues; in fact the eigenvalues can be any real number. This violates simplification number 2. Secondly, |\theta_0|^2 = 1 therefore |\langle \theta_0, \theta_0 \rangle |^2 = \infty . Our function is far from square integrable and therefore not a valid “state vector” in its present form. This is where the famous “normalization” comes into play.

Mathematically, one way to do this is to restrict the domain (say, limit the non-zero part to x_0 < x < x_1 ) and multiply by an appropriate constant.

Getting back to our state vector: exp(ip_0 \frac{x}{\hbar}) = cos(\frac{p_0 x}{\hbar}) + i sin(\frac{p_0 x}{\hbar}) . So if we measure momentum, we have basically given a particle a wave characteristic with wavelength \frac{\hbar}{p_0} .

Now what about the duality? Suppose we start by measuring a particle’s position thereby putting the state vector in to \psi = \delta_0 . Now what would be the expectation of momentum? We know that the formula is E(P) = -i\hbar \int-{-\infty}^{infty} \delta_0 \frac{\partial \delta_0}{\partial x} dx . But this quantity is undefined because \frac{\partial \delta_0}{\partial x} is undefined.

If we start in a momentum eigenvector and then wish to calculate the position density function (the expectation will be undefined), we see that |\theta_0|^2 = 1 which can be interpreted to mean that any position measurement is equally likely.

Clearly, momentum and position are not compatible operators. So let’s calculate XP - PX
XP \phi = x(-i\hbar \frac{d}{dx} \phi) = -xi\hbar \frac{d}{dx} \phi and PX\phi = -i \hbar\frac{d}{dx} (x \phi) = -i \hbar (\phi + x \frac{d}{dx}\phi) hence (XP - PX)\phi = i\hbar \phi . Therefore XP-PX = i\hbar . Therefore our generalized uncertainty relation tells us \Delta X \Delta P \geq \frac{1}{2}h
(yes, one might object that \Delta X really shouldn’t be defined….) but this uncertainty relation does hold up. So if one uncertainty is zero, then the other must be infinite; exact position means no defined momentum and vice versa.

So: exact, pointlike position means no defined momentum is possible (hence no wave like behavior) but an exact momentum (pure wave) means no exact pointlike position is possible. Also, remember that measurement of position endows a point like state vector of \delta_0 which destroys the wave like property; measurement of momentum endows a wave like state vector \theta_0 and therefore destroys any point like behavior (any location is equally likely to be observed).


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: