This question is about a mathematical operation (the tensor product) but thinking about the motivation that comes from physics. Algebraists motivate the tensor product like that: "given $k$ vector spaces $V_1,\dots,V_k$ over the same field $\Bbb K$ we want to find a new space $S$ and a universal multi-linear map $T$ such that for every vector space $W$ and multi-linear mapping $g : V_1\times\cdots\times V_k\to W$ we have a linear map $f : S\to W$ such that $g = f\circ T$".

Then, they prove this thing exists by constructing it. They take the free vector space $\mathcal{M}=F(V_1\times\cdots\times V_k)$ and consider the subspace $\mathcal{M}_0$ spanned by all elements of the form


and define $S=\mathcal{M}/\mathcal{M_0}$ denoting $S=V_1\otimes\cdots\otimes V_k$ and define $T(v_1,\dots,v_k)=(v_1,\dots,v_k)+\mathcal{M}_0$ and denote this by $T(v_1,\dots,v_k)=v_1\otimes\cdots\otimes v_k$.

That's fine, but tensors appear a lot in physics. In General relativity, in electrodynamics, in classical mechanics, in quantum mechanics, etc. So, if someone asked me: "what's the motivation for that definition of tensor product" and I wished to motivate it through physics, what should be the motivation?

How would I convince myself that the tensor product as defined like that is useful in physics?

I know that one can defined tensors as multi-linear maps, and that is far more intuitive, however I'm interest to see how one would motivate this definition.

  • $\begingroup$ Related question by OP: physics.stackexchange.com/q/82822/2451 $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 17:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think these kinds of questions are difficult to answer. The creator of the physical examples didn't have universal properties in mind when they made their definitions. Once the structures are geometric enough to even admit a metric (and hence bring with it this and that hom sets with composition, which leaves this and that feature invariant), it's reasonable that forming tensor products becomes possible. $\endgroup$
    – Nikolaj-K
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ @NickKidman Might be difficult to answer, but even your comment sketches an excellent answer. I've seen you in particular give some most excellent answers to these kinds of open ended things (when you're not out acting and fighting scientology :) ). I rather think they have become my favourite kind of question on this site yielding some of its very best answers. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 4:57
  • $\begingroup$ @WetSavannaAnimalakaRodVance: Scientology?? I think you're not taking me serious. $\endgroup$
    – Nikolaj-K
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @NickKidman Sorry I'm referring to your summary on your user page! $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 13:20

7 Answers 7


It is essentially impossible to answer the general question of "how does multilinearity come up naturally in physics?" because of the myriad of possible examples that make up the total answer. Instead, let me describe a situation that very loudly cries out for the use of tensor products of two vectors.

Consider the problem of conservation of momentum for a continuous distribution of electric charge and current, which interacts with an electromagnetic field, under the action of no other external force. I will describe it more or less along the lines of Jackson (Classical Electrodynamics, 3rd edition, §6.7) but depart from it towards the end. This will get very electromagneticky for a while, so if you want to skip to the tensors, you can go straight to equation (1).

The rate of change of the total mechanical momentum of the system is the total Lorentz force, given by $$ \frac{ d\mathbf{P}_\rm{mech}}{dt} =\int_V(\rho\mathbf{E}+\mathbf{J}\times \mathbf{B})d\mathbf{x}. $$ To simplify this, one can take $\rho$ and $\mathbf{J}$ from Maxwell's equations: $$ \rho=\epsilon_0\nabla\cdot\mathbf{E} \ \ \ \text{ and }\ \ \ \mathbf{J}=\frac1{\mu_0}\nabla\times \mathbf{B}-\epsilon_0\frac{\partial \mathbf{E}}{\partial t}.$$ (In particular, this means that what follows is only valid "on shell": momentum is only conserved if the equations of motion are obeyed. Of course!)

One can then put these expressions back, to a nice vector calculus work-out, and come up with the following relation: $$ \begin{align}{} \frac{ d\mathbf{P}_\rm{mech}}{dt} +&\frac{d}{dt}\int_V\epsilon_0\mathbf{E}\times \mathbf{B}d\mathbf{x} \\ &= \epsilon_0\int_V \left[ \mathbf{E}(\nabla\cdot \mathbf{E})-\mathbf{E} \times(\nabla \times \mathbf{E}) + c^2 \mathbf{B} (\nabla \cdot \mathbf{B})- c^2 \mathbf{B} \times (\nabla \times \mathbf{B}) \right]d\mathbf{x}. \end{align} $$

The integral on the left-hand side can be identified as the total electromagnetic momentum, and differs from the integral of the Poynting vector by a factor of $1/c^2$. To get this in the proper form for a conservation law, though, such as the one for energy in this setting, $$ \frac{dE_\rm{mech}}{dt} +\frac{d}{dt}\frac{\epsilon_0}{2}\int_V(\mathbf{E}^2 +c^2\mathbf{B}^2)d\mathbf{x} = -\oint_S \mathbf{S}\cdot d\mathbf{a}, $$ we need to reduce the huge, ugly volume integral into a surface integral.

The way to do this, is, of course, the divergence theorem. However, that theorem is for scalars, and what we have so far is a vector equation. To work further then, we need to (at least temporarily) work in some specific basis $\{\mathbf{e}_1,\mathbf{e}_2,\mathbf{e}_3\}$, and write $\mathbf{E}=\sum_i E_i \mathbf{e}_i$. Let's work with the electric field term first; after that the results also apply to the magnetic term. Thus, to start with, $$ \begin{align}{} \int_V \left[ \mathbf{E}(\nabla\cdot \mathbf{E})-\mathbf{E} \times(\nabla \times \mathbf{E}) \right]d\mathbf{x} = \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i \int_V \left[ E_i(\nabla\cdot \mathbf{E})-\mathbf{e}_i\cdot\left(\mathbf{E} \times(\nabla \times \mathbf{E})\right) \right]d\mathbf{x}. \end{align} $$ These terms should be simplified using the vector calculus identities $$ E_i(\nabla\cdot \mathbf{E}) = \nabla\cdot\left(E_i \mathbf{E}\right) - \mathbf{E}\cdot \nabla E_1 $$ and $$ \mathbf{E} \times(\nabla \times \mathbf{E}) = \frac12\nabla(\mathbf{E}\cdot\mathbf{E})-(\mathbf{E}\cdot\nabla)\mathbf{E}, $$ which mean that the whole combination can be simplified as $$ \begin{align}{} \int_V \left[ \mathbf{E}(\nabla\cdot \mathbf{E})-\mathbf{E} \times(\nabla \times \mathbf{E}) \right]d\mathbf{x} = \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i \int_V \left[ \nabla\cdot\left(E_i \mathbf{E}\right) - \mathbf{e}_i\cdot\left( \frac12\nabla(\mathbf{E}\cdot\mathbf{E}) \right) \right]d\mathbf{x}, \end{align} $$ since the terms in $\mathbf{E}\cdot \nabla E_i$ and $\mathbf{e}_i\cdot\left( (\mathbf{E}\cdot\nabla)\mathbf{E}\right)$ cancel. This means we can write the whole integrand as the divergence of some vector field, and use the divergence theorem: $$ \begin{align}{} \int_V \left[ \mathbf{E}(\nabla\cdot \mathbf{E})-\mathbf{E} \times(\nabla \times \mathbf{E}) \right]d\mathbf{x} &= \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i \int_V \nabla\cdot\left[ E_i \mathbf{E} - \frac12 \mathbf{e}_i E^2 \right]d\mathbf{x} \\ & = \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i \oint_S\left[ E_i \mathbf{E} - \frac12 \mathbf{e}_i E^2 \right]\cdot d\mathbf{a}. \tag 1 \end{align} $$

In terms of conservation law structure, we're essentially done, as we've reduced the rate of change of momentum to a surface term. However, it is crying out for some simplification. In particular, this expression is basis-dependent, but it is so close to being basis independent that it's worth a closer look.

The first term, for instance, is simply crying out for a simplification that would look something like $$ \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i \oint_S E_i \mathbf{E}\cdot d\mathbf{a} = \oint_S \mathbf{E}\, \mathbf{E}\cdot d\mathbf{a} $$ if we could only make sense of an object like $\mathbf{E}\, \mathbf{E}$. Even better, if we could make sense of such a combination, then it turns out that the seemingly basis-dependent combination that would come up in the second term, $\sum_i \mathbf{e}_i\,\mathbf{e}_i$, turns out to be basis independent: one can prove that for any two orthonormal bases $\{\mathbf{e}_1, \mathbf{e}_2, \mathbf{e}_3\}$ and $\{\mathbf{e}_1', \mathbf{e}_2', \mathbf{e}_3'\}$, those combinations are the same: $$ \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i\,\mathbf{e}_i = \sum_i \mathbf{e}_i'\,\mathbf{e}_i' $$ as long as the product $\mathbf{u}\,\mathbf{v}$ of two vectors, whatever it ends up being, is linear on each component, which is definitely a reasonable assumption.

So what, then, should this new vector multiplication be? One key to realizing what we really need is noticing the fact that we haven't yet assigned any real physical meaning to the combination $\mathbf{E}\,\mathbf{E}$; instead, we're only ever interacting with it by dotting "one of the vectors of the product" with the surface area element $d\mathbf{a}$, and that leaves a vector $\mathbf{E}\,\mathbf{E}\cdot d\mathbf{a}$ which we can integrate to get a vector, and that requires no new structure.

Let's then write a list of how we want this new product to behave. To keep things clear, let's give it some fancy new symbol like $\otimes$, mostly to avoid unseemly combinations like $\mathbf{u}\,\mathbf{v}$. We want then,

  • a function $\otimes:V\times V\to W$, which takes euclidean vectors in $V=\mathbb R^3$ into some vector space $W$ in which we'll keep our fancy new objects.
  • Combinations of the form $\mathbf{u}\otimes \mathbf{v}$ should be linear in both $\mathbf{u}$ and $\mathbf{v}$.
  • For all vectors $w$ in $V$, and all combinations $(\mathbf{u},\mathbf{v})\in V\times V$, we want the combination $(\mathbf{u}\otimes \mathbf{v})\cdot\mathbf{w}$ to be a vector in $V$. Even more, we want that to be the vector $(\mathbf{v}\cdot\mathbf{w})\mathbf{u}\in V$.

That last one looks actually pretty strong, but there's evidently room for improvement. For one, it depends on the euclidean structure, which is not actually necessary: we can make an equivalent statement that uses the vector space's dual.

  • For all $(\mathbf{u},\mathbf{v})\in V\times V$ and all $f\in V^\ast$, we want $f_\to(\mathbf{u}\otimes \mathbf{v})=f(\mathbf{v})\mathbf{u}\in V$ to hold, where $f_\to$ simply means that $f$ acts on the factor on the right.

Finally, if we're doing stuff with the dual, we can reformulate that in a slightly prettier way. Since two vectors $\mathbf{u},\mathbf{v}\in V$ are equal if and only if $f(\mathbf{u})=f(\mathbf{v})$ for all $f\in V^\ast$, we can give another equivalent statement of the same statement:

  • For all $(\mathbf{u},\mathbf{v})\in V\times V$ and all $f,g\in V^\ast$, we want $g_\leftarrow f_\to(\mathbf{u}\otimes \mathbf{v})=g(\mathbf{u})f(\mathbf{v})\in V$.

[Note, here, that this last rephrasing isn't really that fancy. Essentially, it is saying that the vector equation (1) is really to be interpreted as a component-by-component equality, and that's not really off the mark of how we actually do things.]

I could keep going, but it's clear that this requirement can be rephrased into the universal property of the tensor product, and that rephrasing is a job for the mathematicians. Thus, you can see the story like this: Upon hitting equation (1), we give to the mathematicians this list of requirements. They go off, think for a bit, and come back telling us that such a structure does exist (i.e. there exist rigorous constructions that obey those requirements) and that it is essentially unique, in the sense that multiple such constructions are possible, but they are canonically isomorphic. For a physicist, what that means is that it's OK to write down objects like $\mathbf{u}\otimes \mathbf{v}$ as long as one does keep within the rules of the game.

As far as electromagnetism goes, this means that we can write our conservation law in the form $$ \frac{ d\mathbf{P}_\rm{mech}}{dt} +\frac{d}{dt}\int_V\epsilon_0\mathbf{E}\times \mathbf{B}d\mathbf{x} = \oint_A \mathcal T\cdot d\mathbf{a} $$ where $$ \mathcal T = \epsilon_0\left[ \mathbf{E}\otimes\mathbf{E}+c^2\mathbf{B}\otimes\mathbf{B} -\frac12\sum_i\mathbf{e}_i\otimes\mathbf{e}_i\left(E^2+c^2 B^2\right) \right] $$ is, of course, the Maxwell stress tensor.

I could go on and on about this, but I think this really captures the essence of how and where it happens in physics that a situation is really begging the use of a tensor product. There are other such situations, of course, but this is the clearest one I know.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 In answer to your first paragraph: yes but the fact that both you and Frederico have given thoroughly excellent and enlightening answers shows that this is an excellent question, ill-posed though it may be. Sometimes we just have to grope with our concepts and asking ill posed questions, particularly about motivations, yields some of the best answers on this site IMO. Thanks heaps. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 2:13

I'd like to add another answer to expand on Federico's answer, because quantum mechanics does offer another very clean way of getting directly to the universal property of a tensor product from physical constraints. This universal property is, as you state,

given $k$ vector spaces $V_1,\dots,V_k$ over the same field $\Bbb K$ we want to find a new space $S$ and a universal multilinear map $T$ such that for every vector space $W$ and multilinear mapping $g : V_1\times\cdots\times V_k\to W$ we have a linear map $f : S\to W$ such that $g = f\circ T$.

Say, then, that you have $n$ quantum mechanical systems that you know are described by Hilbert spaces $\mathcal H_1,\ldots,\mathcal H_n$ of their own, and you want to give a coherent description of the whole composite system, whether they're interacting or not. The postulates of quantum mechanics require that there be a Hilbert space that describes the whole system: that is that it be possible, in principle, to superpose any two given states of the global system. Let's call this Hilbert space $\mathcal H$.

The universal map, of course, is simply 'the formation of a composite state': it is simply the map $$T:\mathcal H_1\times\cdots\times\mathcal H_n\to\mathcal H$$ that will give me the state of the global system in $\mathcal H$ if I give it the state of each system in its Hilbert space. Thus far that's all nomenclature. We do require, though, that $T$ be linear in each input, and that's where the physics come in. Say I can prepare systems 2 through $n$ using given preparations, and that I have two distinct states I can prepare system 1 in. Each such state will give a global state in $\mathcal H$. If I now prepare a superposition in system 1, I also want the global system to be in a superposition, because I can see the preparation of systems 2 through $n$ as "addenda" to my superposition procedure in system 1, and it would be inconsistent to have the outcome (the superposition) depend on the presence of other systems.

Finally, let's see what I can get out, physically, from my composite system. The basic physical prediction that I can get from any of the systems, individually, is the set of matrix elements of the form $$\langle \phi|A|\psi\rangle,$$ where I'm measuring on the state $\langle\phi|$ after evolving for some time and possibly multiplying by some observable, which is encoded in some operator $A$. Outcome probabilities, for example, are encoded in the mod-squares of such linear forms, though their phase is also recoverable using suitable measurements.

For our composite system, on the other hand, I need to let the whole system evolve and this may involve interactions. The final amplitude for the evolution-plus-measurement, on the other hand, must be linear in each system, because if I prepare a superposition in one system and leave the others alone the amplitudes must be linear, as the appendage, preparation and measurement of other subsystems can be seen as part of the measurement procedure on each system. Thus, all probability amplitudes of measurements on the whole system must be multilinear functions $g$. Similarly, by construction, this set of multilinears covers all physical amplitudes.

In terms of the composite Hilbert space, though, all I've done is prepare the system in some global state $|\Psi\rangle$, let it evolve for a while, and project it on some global state $\langle \Phi|$, and the amplitude for that, $$\langle\Phi|A|\Psi\rangle,$$ is necessarily a linear function $f=\langle\Phi|A$ on the global Hilbert space $\mathcal H$. Thus we have that all multilinear functions $g$ on the component Hilbert spaces admit a decomposition of the sort $$g=f\circ T,$$ which simply states that all joint measurements on the subsystems are a measurement on the global system. By now, of course, we've provided all the elements for the universal property of the tensor product, so this fixes the structure of $\mathcal H$ and it provides a setting where these requirements come up naturally.


Self containing the discussion in the realm of quantum mechanics, a nice explaination could be the following:

The state of a quantum mechanical system is described by a ray on a complex (separable) hilbert space $\mathcal{H}$. With this I mean that you fix a Hilbert space $\mathcal{H}$ and one state of your system corresponds to a point in $\mathbb{C}\mathbb{P}(\mathcal{H})$.

Physically you usually say this in the following way: two vectors $|\psi_1\rangle$ and $|\psi_2\rangle$ that differ by a multiplicative complex number i.e $|\psi_1\rangle =\alpha |\psi_2\rangle, \ \alpha \in \mathbb{C}$, being in the same ray, descibe the same state. Furthermore you can ask for well normalized states and doing this your $\alpha$ is going to be just a pure phase.

Now, if you have two different systems, each with its hilbert space $\mathcal{H}_1$ and $\mathcal{H}_2$, you often want to build the composite system. I mean with this that you would like to treat the two systems together as just a big one.

Then you should find a hilbert space $\mathcal{H}_{1+2}$ for the total system, and this has to be built with $\mathcal{H}_1$ and $\mathcal{H}_2$.

You can show that neither $\mathcal{H}_1 \times \mathcal{H}_2$ nor $\mathcal{H}_1 \oplus \mathcal{H}_2$ will work for different reasons. If I am not wrong sometimes (in infinite dimensional cases) the cartesian product of two hilbert spaces is not anymore hilbert. While for the direct sum, this is basically made of couple of states of $\mathcal{H}_1$ and $\mathcal{H}_2$ separately and you are not able to discuss interactions between them.

Plus, both the cartesian product and the direct sum of vector spaces do not contain vectors $|w\rangle$ that can not be split in the cartesian product or the direct sum of $|v_1\rangle \in \mathcal{H}_1$ and $|v_2\rangle \in \mathcal{H}_2$. Physically this is terrible since states such as $|w\rangle$ are entagled states, which are experimentally proven to exist.

Therefore you are lead to consider $\mathcal{H}_1 \otimes \mathcal{H}_2$.

For why you need the construction mathematicians do and not the one physicists do, I think a good answer could be the fact that the physicists way does not prove the fact that the tensor product of two given vector (here also hilbert) spaces is unique.

This is extremely important to my personal opinion, since given a system I want to associate him exaclty one well defined hilbert space.

Hope this was useful, but yes, as someone suggested above, it is really hard to answer this kind of questions in a good way.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 In answer to your last sentence: yes but the fact that both you and Emilio have given thoroughly excellent and enlightening answers shows that this is an excellent question, ill-posed though it may be. Sometimes we just have to grope with our concepts and asking ill posed questions, particularly about motivations, yields some of the best answers on this site IMO. Thanks heaps. I especially agree with the second and third last paragraphs about uniqueness and for this kind of reason I see less and less difference between mathematics and much of physics these days. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 2:12

There are several excellent answers here. I propose a simpler one -- at heart, a tensor is just a linear map of tensors to tensors. In particular, it can be a linear map of a vector space to another vector space. There are obviously many circumstances where it might be necessary to take a vector as input, and spit another vector out as output. If the function satisfies ${\vec f}(c\,{\vec v} + d\,{\vec w}) = c\,{\vec f}({\vec v}) + d\,{\vec f}({\vec w})$, for all c,d,v,w then you can represent ${\vec f}({\vec v})$ as some tensor $f({\vec v})^{a} = T^{a}{}_{b}v^{b}$


Let $F$ and $G$ be a finite sets like for instance $F=[m]:=\{1,2,\ldots,m\}$ and $G=[n]$. Let $V$ be the vector space of all functions $f:F\rightarrow \mathbb{R}, x\mapsto f(x)$. Yes I used "$x$" for an element of $\{1,2,\ldots,m\}$, instead of $i,j,\ldots$ So what.

Likewise, let $W$ be the vector space $g:G\rightarrow \mathbb{R}, y\mapsto g(y)$. If all we knew were functions of one variable, math and physics wouldn't have gone very far. So let's now consider functions of two variables $h:F\times G\rightarrow \mathbb{R}, (x,y)\mapsto h(x,y)$. The collection of such functions also forms a vector space. This vector space is the tensor product $V\otimes W$.

Motivation for the tensor product: Just being able to handle dependence in more variables than one.

For example, a single quantum particle in 1D would be described by a function of one variable. This wave function would belong to a Hilbert space $\mathcal{H}$ like $L^2(\mathbb{R})$. Now if you want to talk about a system of two (distinguishable) of these particles, you need wave functions which are functions of two variables and these wave functions will belong to $\mathcal{H}\otimes\mathcal{H}$.

Motivation for the "funny" definition with multilinear maps: Defining the tensor product $V\otimes W$ above wasn't too hard. But it relied on these vector spaces being given to us explicitly as spaces of functions on some sets like $F,G$. What does that mean? Presenting an abstract vector space $V$ as a space of functions means picking a basis in that space. Indeed if $(\mathbf{e}_x)_{x\in F}$ is a basis of $V$, then the map which sends a vector $v\in V$ to the unique function $f$ such that $$ v=\sum_{x\in F} f(x) \mathbf{e}_x $$ is an isomorphism of vector spaces. So in principle you should be able to reduce the construction of $V\otimes W$ to the previous situation via these isomorphisms for $V$ and $W$. The problem is this depends on the choice of bases. The "funny"/apparently unmotivated definition with multilinear maps is just a clever way mathematicians have found in order to give a definition of the tensor product so as not to involve choosing bases. That's all.


In QM, a full description of a composite quantum system requires a value for each possible combination of measured values of each component. For instance, if a system is composed of two subsystems, each of which has N possible outcomes for a measurement, then the composite system is described by N x N possible outcomes. That is exactly what the tensor product is: the space whose basis is built from each combination of states in each subsystem.

Imagine a system composed of two distinguishable balls each of which are red, green, or blue. We could, for instance, specify the state vector of one ball as these probability amplitudes:

Red = 0.70

Green = 0.57

Blue = 0.41

so that the probabilities (the squared probability amplitudes) of each color are red, 0.5; green, 0.33; blue, 0.17. Notice that the probability sums to one.

But in order to specify the state of the two ball system we would need to specify a value for each of the 3 x 3 = 9 combinations of colors, for example:

red, red = 0.33

green, green = 0.33

blue, blue = 0.33

red, green = 0.33

green, red = 0.33

red, blue = 0.33

blue, red = 0.33

green, blue = 0.33

blue, green = 0.33


Another answer in the context of quantum mechanics.

I want to show how the tensor product properties are naturally requested when dealing with the "composition of independent systems" by looking at the observables that must be present in the composite system.

More precisely, you start with two Hilbert spaces $A$ and $B$ describing two systems, so that the observables live in $L(A)$ and $L(B)$ (I will consider just the finite dimensional case, $L(A)$ denotes the set of linear operators on $A$) and search the space $\mathcal{O}$ of the composite system observables guided by a natural principle.

The physical principle one follows is the following: fix $\rho$ and $\sigma$ states in $A$ and $B$, then must exists a corresponding state $\rho \wedge \sigma$ such that, for each $X$ and $Y$ observables for the sistems $A$ and $B$, a corresponding observable $X \wedge Y$ exists for which $\langle X \wedge Y \rangle_{\rho \wedge \sigma} = \langle X \rangle_\rho \langle Y \rangle_\sigma$.

The right member defines a bilinear form on $L(A) \times L(B)$ with values in $\mathbb{R}$, whilst the left member must correspond to a linear functional on $\mathcal{O}$ (the mean value is a linear operation on the observables).

Therefore the universal property of the tensor product impose that $\mathcal{O}$ = $L(A) \otimes L(B) = L(A \otimes B)$ and that $X \wedge Y = X \otimes Y$.


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