# What are pure states and density operators?

I am not sure that I precisely understand what pure states are. It is my understanding that:

The principle behind density operators is that the state of a quantum mechanical system is described by a probability distribution on some subset $\{\phi_i\}$ of its Hilbert space $\mathcal{H}$ called the pure states. The pure states are not necessarily an orthonormal basis for the space.

The density operator, $\rho$, is one where if $\psi\in \mathcal{H}$ is some state then $\langle \psi | \rho|\psi\rangle$ equals the probability of the system exhibiting the statistical behavior described by $\psi.$ $\rho$ is often represented in terms of the pure states: $$\rho = \sum_i p_i |\phi_i\rangle \langle \phi_i|$$ One special thing about this representation of $\rho$ that the $p_i$ are real, nonnegative probabilities. In particular, the above equation is not a complex linear combination. (In contrast to, say, its representation in terms of other bases for $\mathcal{H}$).

We say that a system is in a pure state if $\mathrm{Tr}\rho=1$ and it is in a mixed state if $\mathrm{Tr}\rho<1$

I think I might be missing the point of why some states are called 'pure' while others are identified as 'mixed.'

Is the choice of pure states for any given quantum mechanical system unique or at least canonical? If so then how?

• Alright so if i understand properly, the 'state' of a system is actually a Hermitian operator on $\mathcal{H}$, not an element itself. A pure state is an operator of the form $|\psi \rangle \langle \psi |$ for some $\psi \in \mathcal{H}$. Is that correct? Nov 13, 2016 at 4:27
• Yes, that's exactly right. In the special case of a pure state $| \psi \rangle$ (not entangled with anything external), the state $| \psi \rangle \langle \psi |$ is just the projection operator into the subspace of constant multiples of $| \psi \rangle$. But in the simple case of a pure state, you don't really need to use this projector - you can just get away with working with the ket $| \psi \rangle$ itself. Nov 13, 2016 at 4:31