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I understand that unitary representations arise naturally in quantum mechanics when groups act on the Hilbert space in a way that preserves probability.

I don't understand what details make unitary representations different from other representations. It seems as though physicists talk explicitly about "unitary representations" all the time.

Are there some theorems or examples that show why working with a "unitary" representation ought to be notable?

I've heard that compact Lie groups have only finite dimensional unitary representations, but seeing as so many important Lie groups in physics are non-compact this doesn't seem like the most vital reason.

Thank you

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  • $\begingroup$ Would Mathematics be a better home for this question? $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Jul 27 '17 at 18:11
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Since the Hamiltonian is hermitian, and the time evolution of a system is $U(t)=e^{-itH/\hbar}$, $U(t)$ is automatically unitary. Moreover, unitary transformations play the role of rotations in 3d space, in the sense that they preserve the inner product: $$ \langle \phi\vert \psi\rangle = \langle \phi'\vert\psi'\rangle\, ,\qquad \vert\psi'\rangle=U\vert\psi\rangle\, ,\quad \vert\phi'\rangle=U\vert\phi\rangle $$ and thus they preserve the physical predictions of quantum theory, which depends on $\vert \langle \phi\vert \psi\rangle\vert^2 = \vert \langle \phi'\vert \psi'\rangle\vert^2$. This makes the predictions independent of the choice of initial basis vectors, much like the predictions of classical physics are independent of the initial choice of directions of the basis vectors.

This conclusion is applicable to compact or non-compact groups.

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