Expectation value (quantum mechanics)


Expectation value (quantum mechanics)

In quantum mechanics, the expectation value is the predicted mean value of the result of an experiment. It is a fundamental concept in all areas of quantum physics.

Operational definition

Quantum physics shows an inherent statistical behaviour: The measured outcome of an experiment will generally not be the same if the experiment is repeated several times. Only the statistical mean of the measured values, averaged over a large number of runs of the experiment, is a repeatable quantity. Quantum theory does not, in fact, predict the result of individual measurements, but only their statistical mean. This predicted mean value is called the "expectation value".

While the computation of the mean value of experimental results is very much the same as in classical statistics, its mathematical representation in the formalism of quantum theory differs significantly from classical measure theory.

Formalism in quantum mechanics

In quantum theory, an experimental setup is described by the observable A to be measured, and the state sigma of the system. The expectation value of A in the state sigma is denoted as langle A angle_sigma.

Mathematically, A is a self-adjoint operator on a Hilbert space. In the most commonly used case in quantum mechanics, sigma is a pure state, described by a normalized [This article always takes psi to be of norm 1. For non-normalized vectors, psi has to be replaced with psi / |psi| in all formulas.] vector psi in the Hilbert space. The expectation value of A in the state psi is defined as

(1) langle A angle_psi = langle psi | A | psi angle .

If dynamics is considered, either the vector psi or the operator A is taken to be time-dependent, depending on whether the Schrödinger picture or Heisenberg picture is used. The time-dependence of the expectation value does not depend on this choice, however.

If A has a complete set of eigenvectors phi_j, with eigenvalues a_j, then (1) can be expressed as

(2) langle A angle_psi = sum_j a_j |langle psi | phi_j angle|^2 .

This expression is similar to the arithmetic mean, and illustrates the physical meaning of the mathematical formalism: The eigenvalues a_j are the possible outcomes of the experiment, [It is assumed here that the eigenvalues are non-degenerate.] and their corresponding coefficient |langle psi | phi_j angle|^2 is the probability that this outcome will occur; it is often called the "transition probability".

A particularly simple case arises when A is a projection, and thus has only the eigenvalues 0 and 1. This physically corresponds to a "yes-no" type of experiment. In this case, the expectation value is the probability that the experiment results in "1", and it can be computed as

(3) langle A angle_psi = | A psi |^2.

In quantum theory, also operators with non-discrete spectrum are in use, such as the position operator Q in quantum mechanics. This operator does not have eigenvalues, but has a completely continuous spectrum. In this case, the vector psi can be written as a complex-valued function psi(x) on the spectrum of Q (usually the real line). For the expectation value of the position operator, one then has the formula

(4) langle Q angle_psi = int , x , |psi(x)|^2 , dx.

A similar formula holds for the momentum operator P, in systems where it has continuous spectrum.

All the above formulae are valid for pure states sigma only. Prominently in thermodynamics, also "mixed states" are of importance; theseare described by a positive trace-class operator ho = sum_i ho_i | psi_i angle langle psi_i |, the "statistical operator" or "density matrix". The expectation value then can be obtained as

(5) langle A angle_ ho = mathrm{Trace} ( ho A) = sum_i ho_i langle psi_i | A | psi_i angle= sum_i ho_i langle A angle_{psi_i} .

General formulation

In general, quantum states sigma are described by positive normalized linear functionals on the set of observables, mathematically often taken to be a C* algebra. The expectation value of an observable A is then simply given by

(6) langle A angle_sigma = sigma(A).

If the algebra of observables acts irreducibly on a Hilbert space, and if sigma is a "normal functional", that is, it is continuous in the ultraweak topology, then it can be written as

: sigma (cdot) = mathrm{Trace} ( ho ; cdot)

with a positive trace-class operator ho of trace 1. This gives formula (5) above. In the case of a pure state, ho= |psi anglelanglepsi| is a projection onto a unit vector psi. Then sigma = langle psi |cdot ; psi angle, which gives formula (1) above.

A is assumed to be a self-adjoint operator. In the general case, its spectrum will neither be entirely discrete nor entirely continuous. Still, one can write A in a spectral decomposition,

:A = int a , mathrm{d}P(a)

with a projector-valued measure P. For the expectation value of A in a pure state sigma=langlepsi | cdot , psi angle, this means

:langle A angle_sigma = int a ; mathrm{d} langle psi | P(a) psi angle,

which may be seen as a common generalization of formulas (2) and (4) above.

In non-relativistic theories of finitely many particles (quantum mechanics, in the strict sense), the states considered are generally normal. However, in other areas of quantum theory, also non-normal states are in use: They appear, for example. in the form of KMS states in quantum statistical mechanics of infinitely extended media, [cite book
last = Bratteli
first = Ola
authorlink =
coauthors = Robinson, Derek W
title = Operator Algebras and Quantum Statistical Mechanics 1
publisher = Springer
date = 1987
location =
pages =
url =
doi =
id = 2nd edition
isbn = 978-3540170938
] and as charged states in quantum field theory. [cite book
last = Haag
first = Rudolf
authorlink = Rudolf Haag
coauthors =
title = Local Quantum Physics
publisher = Springer
date = 1996
location =
pages = Chapter IV
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 3-540-61451-6
] In these cases, the expectation value is determined only by the more general formula (6).

Example in configuration space

As an example, let us consider a quantum mechanical particle in one spatial dimension, in the configuration space representation. Here the Hilbert space is mathcal{H} = L^2(mathbb{R}), the space of square-integrable functions on the real line. Vectors psiinmathcal{H} are represented by functions psi(x), called wave functions. The scalar product is given by langle psi_1| psi_2 angle = int psi_1(x)^ast psi_2(x) , mathrm{d}x. The wave functions have a direct interpretation as a probability distribution:

: p(x) dx = psi^*(x)psi(x) dx

gives the probability of finding the particle in an infinitesimal interval of length dx about some point x.

As an observable, consider the position operator Q, which acts on wavefunctions psi by

: (Q psi) (x) = x psi(x).

The expectation value, or mean value of measurements, of Q performed on a very large number of "identical" independent systems will be given by

: langle Q angle_psi = langle psi | Q psi angle =int_{-infty}^{infty} psi^ast(x) , x , psi(x) , mathrm{d}x= int_{-infty}^{infty} x , p(x) , mathrm{d}x .

It should be noted that the expectation only exists if the integral converges, which is not the case for all vectors psi. This is because the position operator is unbounded, and psi has to be chosen from its domain of definition.

In general, the expectation of any observable can be calculated by replacing Q with the appropriate operator. For example, to calculate the average momentum, one uses the momentum operator "in configuration space", P = -ihbar,d/dx. Explicitly, its expectation value is

: langle P angle_psi = -ihbar int_{-infty}^{infty} psi^ast(x) , frac{dpsi}{dx}(x) , mathrm{d}x.

Not all operators in general provide a measureable value. An operator that has a pure real expectation value is called an observable and its value can be directly measured in experiment.

See also

* Heisenberg's uncertainty principle
* Virial theorem

Notes and references

Further reading

The expectation value, in particular as presented in the section "Formalism in quantum mechanics", is covered in most elementary textbooks on quantum mechanics.

For a discussion of conceptual aspects, see:

* cite book
last = Isham
first = Chris J
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Lectures on Quantum Theory: Mathematical and Structural Foundations
publisher = Imperial College Press
date = 1995
location =
pages =
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 978-1860940019


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