In quantum mechanics, the two pictures of Schroedinger and Heisenberg are taken as equivalent, where in the former wavefunctions are time variants and operators are not, and in the latter it is the other way around. I think it is important to understand equivalences in physics in general, but this one I have never grasped.

  • I wonder, based on what criteria we see them as equivalent?

  • Is there a simplified way of mathematically showing (or at least hinting at) how they are describing the same thing?

  • $\begingroup$ the expectation values and propabilities don't differ in both pictures, and that's what one can measure. $\endgroup$ – image Mar 30 '15 at 17:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The equivalence between the pictures comes simply from the duality between quantum states and observables: the states are the dual (as a Banach space) of the algebra of observables, and the latter is in turn (if it is von Neumann) the dual of the normal states. The duality of Banach spaces implies that if you have an evolution on the normal states, i.e. a map from time to the endomorphisms on the normal states (Schrödinger picture), by duality you automatically get an evolution on observables (Heisenberg picture), and again by duality you get the evolution on the whole space of states. $\endgroup$ – yuggib Mar 30 '15 at 17:25

I will try to make it as simple and intuitive as possible. In the Schrödinger picture, the expectation value of a given operator $\hat{\xi}$ (which itself is frozen in time) is defined as follows (with $\psi(t)$ the wavefunction of our system at time $t$):

$$\langle \hat{\xi} (t) \rangle = \langle \psi (t) \lvert \hat{\xi} \rvert \psi(t) \rangle$$

Which is just the average value of the observable corresponding to $\hat{\xi}$ if a measurement is made at time $t.$ Now exactly because the expectation value creates a direct link between what we predict with our theory in QM with what we observe experimentally, then logically however one goes about defining quantum mechanics, we should obtain the same values for $\langle \hat{\xi} (t) \rangle$ to ensure that we're going to predict the correct experimentally expected values (and hence be able to claim then that the two pictures are equivalent).

To show this equivalence, we first use an important property of the unitary time evolution operator, namely

$$\psi(t_1) = \hat{U}(t_1,t_0) \psi(t_0)$$

i.e. we propagate our wavefunction in time be acting $\hat{U}$ on it. With this, we can now redefine the wavefunction at time $t$ as its value at time $t=0$ upon which we act $\hat{U}(t,0).$ So we rewrite (by a simple substitution) our original expression for $\langle \hat{\xi} (t) \rangle$ as:

$$ \langle \psi (t) \lvert \hat{\xi} \rvert \psi(t) \rangle = \langle \psi (0) \lvert \hat{U}^{\dagger}(t,0) \hat{\xi} \hat{U}(t,0)\rvert \psi(0) \rangle $$ From the above you can already see the freedom of choice, i.e. to decide to act the time operators either on the wavefunctions or on the operator, by choosing the latter we get:

$$ \langle \psi (0) \lvert \left(\hat{U}^{\dagger}(t,0) \hat{\xi} \hat{U}(t,0)\right)\rvert \psi(0) \rangle = \langle \psi (0) \lvert \hat{\xi}(t) \rvert \psi(0) \rangle $$ Hence we have successfully shown that the time dependence can also be implemented in the operators, instead of wavefunctions while obtaining the same expectation values for our chosen observable, so let's call $\psi(0) = \psi_h$ with $h$ for Heisenberg, and similarly $\hat{\xi}(t) = \hat{\xi}_h(t).$ With this notation then you can easily relate the operator in the Schrödinger picture with that of the Heisenberg picture by:

$$\hat{\xi}_h(t)=\hat{U}^{\dagger}(t,0) \hat{\xi}_{\rm Schrödinger} \hat{U}(t,0)$$ Finally, from here you can straightforwardly obtain the expression of Heisenberg's equation of motion (although you didn't ask for it, but we've come all this way, may as well show it...):

Take the time derivative of $\hat{\xi}_h(t)$ (using the last equation derived) and by using the relation $d\hat{U}/dt=-\frac{i}{\hbar}\hat{H}\hat{U}$ (and also that $[\hat{H},\hat{U}]=0$):

$$ \begin{align*} \frac{d\hat{\xi}_h (t)}{dt} &= \frac{d\hat{U}^{\dagger}}{dt} \hat{\xi} \hat{U} + \hat{U}^{\dagger} \hat{\xi}\frac{d\hat{U}}{dt} \\ &= \frac{-1}{i\hbar}(\hat{U}^{\dagger}\hat{H}\hat{\xi}\hat{U}-\hat{U}^{\dagger}\hat{\xi}\hat{H}\hat{U})\\ &=\frac{1}{i\hbar}[\hat{\xi}_h (t),\hat{H}]. \end{align*} $$


On their non-equivalence. Yes, this is largely a folklore result. There are many ways for them to be non-equivalent. A few examples




More generally, in curved spacetimes, the Heisenberg Picture treats all coordinates on equal ground, while the Schrödinger Picture has, as a precondition, that there be a universal time variable with respect to which states evolve. There may not be or (if there is) it may lead to a fundamental inconsistency. Indeed, the Problem of Time is, itself, is that very inconsistency: a proof by contradiction that the condition is false and that, hence, no Schrödinger Picture exists at all. So, they are inequivalent in that setting.

The formal equivalence of the two pictures also neglects half the foundation of quantum theory itself. There are not one but two von Neumann postulates to consider: the Evolution Postulate (states evolve in accordance with the Schrödinger equation) and the Projection Postulate (a state upon measurement coughs up an eigenvalue and collapses to an eigenstate, in accordance with Born's Rule). It seems everybody keeps forgetting about that other postulate.

The equivalence of the picture only applies to the first postulate. The Heisenberg Picture version of Evolution, of course, being the Heisenberg Equations. There is no equivalence between the two pictures for the second postulate -- because there is no Heisenberg Picture version of the Born Rule at all! If you try to formulate one, you will see revealed an interesting new infrastructure, that is not present in the Schrödinger Picture, but which is required to properly handle multiple applications of the Born Rule in the Heisenberg Picture. Contained in it is a distinguished "now" and a sense of time flowing with respect to it. But the "flow" is not within the Evolution postulate; rather it is stemming from the Projection postulate!

The question of what the Born Rule is and how it is to be handled, interpreted, explained or explained away is the crux of what's called the Measurement Problem. The different answers to this question then produce the different Interpretations of quantum theory (Bohm, Many Minds, Many Worlds, Consistent Histories, Physical Collapse, each of which may be threaded by the analyses provided of Decoherence).

Here, too, there is a gap. The same question asked of the Born Rule is now passed down to each of their putative replacements: what's the Heisenberg Picture version? And is there even one at all? For instance: Many Worlds and Bohm.


Preliminaries Recall that a representation of an algebra on a Hilbert space is a map from the algebra to the bounded operators on a certain Hilbert space. Also recall the Heisenberg canonical commutation relations $$[q_i,p_k]=i\delta_{ik}I$$ A representation of such relations is a set of operators on some Hilbert space that satisfy to the same commutation relations. A typical example is the Schrödinger representation, which in one dimension is realised by the multiplication operator $q=M_s$ and the differentiation operator $p=-i\frac{\text d}{\text ds}$ on the Hilbert space $L^2(\mathbb R)$ with Lebesgue measure.

The equivalence of the different pictures is a consequence of von Neumann's uniqueness theorem, which states that every irreducible representation of the Heisenberg's uncertainty relations is unitarily equivalent to the Schrödinger's representation. So if you start with Heisenberg's matrix mechanics, that is you assume that you have a representation by (infinite) matrices of the canonical commutation relations, then there exists a unitary that "translate" the action of these matrices over some Hilbert space into the action of the Schrödinger operators $q$ and $p=-i\hbar\nabla_q$ on the Hilbert space $L^2(\mathbb R^n)$ with Lebesgue measure. The place where these two different pictures meet is the Dirac notation involving bras and kets. One way of actually proving this is a la Dirac-Dixmier, which involves studying the spectrum of the quantum harmonic oscillator and proving that the Hamiltonian is essentially selfadjoint as a consequence of Nelson's criterion.

The rough idea behind the result is that uniqueness of the Schrödinger's representation follows roughly from the fact that the Weyl algebra stemming from the Weyl's operator is isomorphic to the C*-algebra of compact operators on a infinite-dimensional separable Hilbert space, which is known to only have one class of unitary equivalence of irreducible representations. This can be constructed using the magic positive type function on the Heisenberg group $$\phi(z,t)=e^{-\frac{\Vert z\Vert^2}4+it},\qquad(z,t)\in\mathbb C^n\ltimes\mathbb R.$$

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the answer, although I understood close to nothing from it (too terse), I do not know why some had downvoted it without saying why they're unsatisfied with it. $\endgroup$ – user929304 Apr 1 '15 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ It may be that my answer actually tackles another kind of equivalence, namely that between matrix mechanics and the wavefunction picture. However the two things are not too far apart, as in the Heisenberg pictures you can identify the matrices with the operators and the you look at the time evolution of these matrices. Anyway I'll a few more details in the answer $\endgroup$ – Phoenix87 Apr 1 '15 at 12:16

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