Self-adjoint operator

Self-adjoint operator

In mathematics, on a finite-dimensional inner product space, a self-adjoint operator is one that is its own adjoint, or, equivalently, one whose matrix is Hermitian, where a Hermitian matrix is one which is equal to its own conjugate transpose. By the finite-dimensional spectral theorem such operators have an orthonormal basis in which the operator can be represented as a diagonal matrix with entries in the real numbers. In this article, we consider generalizations of this concept to operators on Hilbert spaces of arbitrary dimension.

Self-adjoint operators are used in functional analysis and quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics their importance lies in the fact that in the Dirac-von Neumann formulation of quantum mechanics, physical observables such as position, momentum, angular momentum and spin are represented by self-adjoint operators on a Hilbert space. Of particular significance is the Hamiltonian

: H psi = - frac{hbar^2}{2 m} abla^2 psi + V psi

which as an observable corresponds to the total energy of a particle of mass "m" in a real potential field "V". Differential operators are an important class of unbounded operators.

The structure of self-adjoint operators on infinite dimensional Hilbert spaces essentially resembles the finite dimensional case, that is to say, operators are self adjoint if and only if they are unitarily equivalent to real-valued multiplication operators. With suitable modifications, this result can be extended to possibly unbounded operators on infinite dimensional spaces. Since an everywhere defined self adjoint operator is necessarily bounded, one needs be more attentive to the domain issue in the unbounded case. This is explained below in more detail

ymmetric operators

A partially-defined linear operator "A" on a Hilbert space "H" is called symmetric if and only if: langle Ax mid y angle = lang x mid Ay ang for all elements "x" and "y" in the domain of "A". More generally, a partially-defined linear operator "A" from a topological vector space "E" into its continuous dual space "E"∗ is said to be symmetric if: langle Ax mid y angle = lang x mid Ay ang for all elements "x" and "y" in the domain of "A". This usage is fairly standard in the functional analysis literature.

A symmetric "everywhere defined" operator is self-adjoint.By the Hellinger-Toeplitz theorem, a symmetric "everywhere defined" operator is bounded.

Bounded symmetric operators are also called Hermitian.

The previous definition agrees with the one for matrices given in the introduction to this article, if we take as "H" the Hilbert space C"n" with the standard dot product and interpret a square matrix as a linear operator on this Hilbert space. It is however much more general as there are important infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces.

The spectrum of any bounded symmetric operator is real; in particular all its eigenvalues are real, although a symmetric operator may not have any eigenvalues.

A general version of the spectral theorem which also applies to bounded symmetric operators is stated below. If the set of eigenvalues for a symmetric operator is non empty, and the eigenvalues are nondegenerate, then it follows from the definition that eigenvectors corresponding to distinct eigenvalues are orthogonal.Contrary to what is sometimes claimed in introductory physics textbooks, it is possible for symmetric operators to have no eigenvalues at all (although the spectrum of any self adjoint operator is nonempty). The example below illustrates the special case when an (unbounded) symmetric operator does have a set of eigenvectors which constitute a Hilbert space basis. The operator "A" below can be seen to have a compact inverse, meaning that the corresponding differential equation "A" "f" = "g" is solved by some integral, therefore compact, operator "G". The compact symmetric operator "G" then has a countable family of eigenvectors which are complete in L^2 . The same can then be said for "A".

Example. Consider the complex Hilbert space L2 [0,1] and the differential operator

: A = - frac{d^2}{dx^2}

defined on the subspace consisting of all complex-valued infinitely differentiable functions "f" on [0,1] with the boundary conditions:

: f(0) = f(1) = 0 quad

Then integration by parts shows that "A" is symmetric. Its eigenfunctions are the sinusoids

: f_n(x) = sin(n pi x) quad n= 1,2, ldots

with the real eigenvalues "n"2π2; the well-known orthogonality of the sine functions follows as a consequence of the property of being symmetric.

We consider generalizations of this operator below.

Self-adjoint operators

Given a densely defined linear operator "A" on "H", its adjoint "A"* is defined as follows:
* The domain of "A"* consists of vectors "x" in "H" such that

:: y mapsto langle x mid A y angle

: (which is a densely defined "linear" map) is a continuous linear functional. By continuity and density of the domain of "A", it extends to a unique continuous linear functional on all of "H".

* By the Riesz representation theorem for linear functionals, if "x" is in the domain of "A"*, there is a unique vector "z" in "H" such that:: langle x mid A y angle = langle z mid y angle quad forall y in operatorname{dom} A :This vector "z" is defined to be "A"* "x". It can be shown that the dependence of "z" on "x" is linear.

Notice that it is the denseness of the domain of the operator, along with the uniqueness part of Riesz representation, that ensures the adjoint operator is well defined.

A result of Hellinger-Toeplitz type says that an operator having a bounded adjoint is bounded. Therefore the adjoint of a unbounded operator is necessarily unbounded.

The condition for a linear operator on a Hilbert space to be "self-adjoint" is stronger than to be "symmetric".

For any densely defined operator "A" on Hilbert space one can define its adjoint operator "A"*.For a symmetric operator "A", the domain of the operator "A"* contains the domain of the operator "A", and the restriction of the operator "A"* on the domain of "A" coincides with the operator "A", i.e. A subseteq A^* , in other words "A"* is extension of "A". For a self-adjoint operator "A" the domain of "A"* is the same as the domain of "A", and "A"="A"*. See also Extensions of symmetric operators.

Geometric interpretation

There is a useful geometrical way of looking at the adjoint of an operator "A" on "H" as follows: we consider the graph G("A") of "A" defined by

: operatorname{G}(A) = {(xi, A xi): xi in operatorname{dom}(A)} subseteq H oplus H .

Theorem. Let J be the symplectic mapping

: H oplus H ightarrow H oplus H

given by

: operatorname{J}: (xi, eta) mapsto (-eta, xi).

Then the graph of "A"* is the orthogonal complement of JG("A"):

: operatorname{G}(A^*) = (operatorname{J}operatorname{G}(A))^perp= {(x,y) in H oplus H : langle (x,y)|(-Axi,xi) angle = 0 ;;forall xi in operatorname{dom}(A)}

A densely defined operator "A" is symmetric if and only if: A subseteq A^*.

where the subset notation A subseteq A^* is understood to mean G(A) subseteq G(A^*). An operator "A" is self-adjoint if and only if A=A^*; that is, if and only if G(A)=G(A^*).

Example. Consider the complex Hilbert space L2(R), and the operator which multiplies a given function by "x":

: A f(x) = xf(x)

The domain of "A" is the space of all L2 functions for which the right-hand-side is square-integrable. "A" is a symmetric operator without any eigenvalues and eigenfunctions. In fact it turns out that the operator is self-adjoint, as follows from the theory outlined below.

As we will see later, self-adjoint operators have very important spectral properties; they are in fact multiplication operators on general measure spaces.

Spectral theorem

Partially defined operators "A", "B" on Hilbert spaces "H", "K" are unitarily equivalent if and only if there is a unitary operator "U":"H" → "K" such that

* "U" maps dom "A" bijectively onto dom "B",

* B U xi = U A xi ,quad xi in operatorname{dom}A.

A multiplication operator is defined as follows: Let (X, Sigma, mu) be a countably additive measure space and "f" a real-valued measurable function on "X". An operator "T" of the form

: [T psi] (x) = f(x) psi(x) quad

whose domain is the space of ψ for which the right-hand side above is in "L"2 is called a multiplication operator.

Theorem. Any multiplication operator is a (densely defined) self-adjoint operator. Any self-adjoint operator is unitarily equivalent to a multiplication operator.

This version of the spectral theorem for self-adjoint operators can be proved by reduction to the spectral theorem for unitary operators. This reduction uses the "Cayley transform" for self-adjoint operators which is defined in the next section. We might note that if T is multiplication by f, then the spectrum of T is just the essential range of f.

Borel functional calculus

Given the representation of "T" as a multiplication operator, it is easy to characterize the Borel functional calculus: If "h" is a bounded real-valued Borel function on R, then "h"("T") is the operator of multiplication by the composition h circ f . In order for this to be well-defined, we must show that it is the unique operation on bounded real-valued Borel functions satisfying a number of conditions.

Resolution of the identity

It has been customary to introduce the following notation

: operatorname{E}_T(lambda) = mathbf{1}_{(-infty, lambda] } (T)

where mathbf{1}_{(-infty, lambda] } denotes the function which is identically 1 on the interval (-infty, lambda] . The family of projection operators E"T"(λ) is called resolution of the identity for "T". Moreover, the following Stieltjes integral representation for "T" can be proved:

: T = int_{-infty}^{+infty} lambda d operatorname{E}_T(lambda).

The definition of the operator integral above can be reduced to that that of a scalar valued Stieltjes integral using the weak operator topology. In more modern treatments however, this representation is usually avoided, since most technical problems can be dealt with by the functional calculus.

Formulation in the physics literature

In physics, particularly in quantum mechanics, the spectral theorem is expressed in a way which combines the spectral theorem as stated above and the Borel functional calculus using Dirac notation as follows:

If "H" is Hermitian (the name for self-adjoint in the physics literature) and "f" is a Borel function,

:f(H)= int dE midPsi_{E} angle f(E) langle Psi_{E} mid


:H mid Psi_{E} angle = E midPsi_{E} angle

where the integral runs over the whole spectrum of "H". The notation suggests that "H" is diagonalized by the eigenvalues Ψ"E". Such a notation is purely formal. One can see the similarity between Dirac's notation and the previous section. The resolution of the identity(sometimes called projection valued measures) formally resembles the rank-1 projections | Psi_{E} angle langle Psi_{E} |.In the Dirac notation, (projective) measurements are described via eigenvalues and eigenstates, both purely formal objects. As one would expect, this does not survive passage to the resolution of the identity. In the latter formulation, measurements are described using the spectral measure of | Psi angle , if the system is prepared in | Psi angle prior to the measurement. Alternatively, if one would like to preserve the notion of eigenstates and make it rigorous, rather than merely formal, one can replace the state space by a suitable rigged Hilbert space.

If "f"=1, the theorem is referred to as resolution of unity:

:I = int dE mid Psi_{E} angle langle Psi_{E} mid

In the case H_{mathit eff}=H-iGamma is the sum of an Hermitian "H" and a skew-Hermitian (see skew-Hermitian matrix) operator -iGamma, one defines the biorthogonal basis set

: H^*_{mathit eff} mid Psi_{E}^* angle = E^* mid Psi_{E}^* angle

and write the spectral theorem as:

:f(H_{mathit eff})= int dE mid Psi_{E} angle f(E) langle Psi_{E}^* mid

(See Feshbach–Fano partitioning method for the context where such operators appear in scattering theory).

Extensions of symmetric operators

The following question arises in several contexts: if an operator "A" on the Hilbert space "H" is symmetric, when does it have self-adjoint extensions? One answer is provided by the Cayley transform of a self-adjoint operator and the deficiency indices. (We should note here that it is often of technical convenience to deal with closed operators. In the symmetric case, the closedness requirement poses no obstacles, since it is known that all symmetric operators are closable.)

Theorem. Suppose "A" is a symmetric operator. Then there is aunique partially defined linear operator

: operatorname{W}(A) colon operatorname{ran}(A+i) ightarrow operatorname{ran}(A-i)

such that

: operatorname{W}(A)(Ax + ix) = Ax - ix quad x in operatorname{dom}(A).

Here, "ran" and "dom" denote the range and the domain, respectively. W("A") is isometric on its domain. Moreover, the range of 1 − W("A") is dense in "H".

Conversely, given any partially defined operator "U" which is isometric on its domain (which is notnecessarily closed) and such that 1 − "U" is dense, there is a (unique) operator S("U")

: operatorname{S}(U) colon operatorname{ran}(1 - U) ightarrow operatorname{ran}(1+U)

such that

: operatorname{S}(U)(x - Ux)= i(x + U x) quad x in operatorname{dom}(U).

The operator S("U") is densely defined and symmetric.

The mappings W and S are inverses of each other.

The mapping W is called the Cayley transform. It associates a partially defined isometry to any symmetric densely-defined operator. Note that the mappings W and S are monotone: This means that if "B" is a symmetric operator that extends the densely defined symmetric operator "A", then W("B") extends W("A"), and similarly for S.

Theorem. A necessary and sufficient condition for "A" to be self-adjoint is that its Cayley transform W("A") be unitary.

This immediately gives us a necessary and sufficient condition for "A" to have a self-adjoint extension, as follows:

Theorem. A necessary and sufficient condition for "A" to have a self adjoint extension is that W("A") have a unitary extension.

A partially defined isometric operator "V" on a Hilbert space "H" has a unique isometric extension to the norm closure of dom("V"). A partially defined isometric operator with closed domain is called a partial isometry.

Given a partial isometry "V", the deficiency indices of "V" are defined as the dimension of the orthogonal complements of the domain and range:

: n_+(V) = operatorname{dim} operatorname{dom}(V)^{perp}

: n_-(V) = operatorname{dim} operatorname{ran}(V)^{perp}

Theorem. A partial isometry "V" has a unitary extension if and only if the deficiency indices are identical. Moreover, "V" has a "unique" unitary extension if and only if the both deficiency indices are zero.

We see that there is a bijection between symmetric extensions of an operator and isometric extensions of its Cayley transform. An operator which has a unique self-adjoint extension is said to be essentially self-adjoint. Such operators have a well-defined Borel functional calculus. Symmetric operators which are not essentially self-adjoint may still have a canonical self-adjoint extension. Such is the case for "non-negative" symmetric operators (or more generally, operators which are bounded below). These operators always have a canonically defined Friedrichs extension and for these operators we can define a canonical functional calculus. Many operators that occur in analysis are bounded below (such as the negative of the Laplacian operator), so the issue of essential adjointness for these operators is less critical.

elf adjoint extensions in quantum mechanics

In quantum mechanics, observables correspond to self-adjoint operators. By Stone's theorem, self-adjoint operators are precisely the infinitesimal generators of unitary groups of time evolution operators. However, many physical problems are formulated as a time-evolution equation involving differential operators for which the Hamiltonian is only symmetric. In such cases, either the Hamiltonian is essentially self-adjoint, in which case the physical problem has unique solutions or one attempts to find self-adjoint extensions of the Hamiltonian corresponding to different types of boundary conditions or conditions at infinity.

Von Neumann's formulas

Suppose "A" is symmetric; any symmetric extension of "A" is a restriction of "A"*; Indeed if "B" is symmetric

: A subseteq B implies B subseteq B^* subseteq A^*

Theorem. Suppose "A" is a densely defined symmetric operator. Let

: N_+ = operatorname{ran}(A+i)^{perp}

: N_- = operatorname{ran}(A-i)^{perp}


: N_+ = operatorname{ker}(A^*-i)

: N_- = operatorname{ker}(A^*+i)


: operatorname{dom}(A^*) = overline{operatorname{dom}(A)} oplus N_+ oplus N_-

where the decomposition is orthogonal relative to the graph inner product of dom("A"*):

: langle xi | eta angle_mathrm{graph} = langle xi | eta angle + langle A^*xi | A^* eta angle.

These are referred to as von Neumann's formulas in the Akhiezer and Glazman reference.


We first consider the differential operator

: D: phi mapsto frac{1}{i} phi'

defined on the space of complex-valued C functions on [0,1] vanishing near 0 and 1. "D" is a symmetric operator as can be shown by integration by parts. The spaces "N"+, "N" are given respectively by the distributional solutions to the equation

: u' = i u quad

: u' = - i u quad

which are in "L"2 [0,1] . One can show that each one of these solution spaces is 1-dimensional, generated by the functions"x" → "e""ix" and "x" → "e"−"ix" respectively. This shows that "D" is not essentially self adjoint, but does have self-adjoint extensions. These self-adjoint extensions are parametrized by the space of unitary mappings

: N_{+} ightarrow N_{-} ,!

which in this case happens to be the unit circle T.

This simple example illustrates a general fact about self-adjoint extensions of symmetric differential operators "P" on an open set "M". They are determined by the unitary maps between the eigenvalue spaces

: N_pm = {u in L^2(M): P_{operatorname{dist u = pm i u}

where "P"dist is the distributional extension of "P".

We next give the example of differential operators with constant coefficients. Let

: P(vec{x}) = sum_alpha c_alpha x^alpha

be a polynomial on R"n" with "real" coefficients, where α ranges over a (finite) set of multi-indices. Thus

: alpha = (alpha_1, alpha_2, ldots, alpha_n) ,!


: x^alpha = x_1^{alpha_1} x_2^{alpha_2} cdots x_n^{alpha_n}.

We also use the notation

: D^alpha = frac{1}{i^{|alpha| partial_{x_1}^{alpha_1}partial_{x_2}^{alpha_2} cdots partial_{x_n}^{alpha_n}.

Then the operator "P"(D) defined on the space of infinitely differentiable functions of compact support on R"n" by

: P(operatorname{D}) phi = sum_alpha c_alpha D^alpha phi

is essentially self-adjoint on "L"2(R"n").

Theorem. Let "P" a polynomial function on R"n" with real coefficients, F the Fourier transform considered as a unitary map "L"2(R"n") → "L"2(R"n"). Then F* "P"(D) F is essentially self-adjoint and its unique self-adjoint extension is the operator of multiplication by the function "P".

More generally, consider linear differential operators acting on infinitely differentiable complex-valued functions of compact support. If "M" is an open subset of R"n"

: P phi(x) = sum_alpha a_alpha (x) [D^alpha phi] (x) quad

where "a"α are (not necessarily constant) infinitely differentiable functions. "P" is a linear operator

: C_0^infty(M) ightarrow C_0^infty(M). quad

Corresponding to "P" there is another differential operator, the formal adjoint of "P"

: P^{mathrm{*form phi = sum_alpha D^alpha (overline{a_alpha} phi) quad

Theorem. The operator theoretic adjoint "P"* of "P" is a restriction of the distributional extension of the formal adjoint. Specifically:

: operatorname{dom} P^* = {u in L^2(M): P^{mathrm{*formu in L^2(M)}.

Spectral multiplicity theory

The multiplication representation of a self-adjoint operator, though extremely useful, is not a canonical representation. This suggests that it is not easy to extract from this representation a criterion to determine when self-adjoint operators "A" and "B" are unitarily equivalent. The finest grained representation which we now discuss involves spectral multiplicity. This circle of results is called the "Hahn-Hellinger theory of spectral multiplicity".

We first define "uniform multiplicity":

Definition. A self-adjoint operator "A" has uniform multiplicity "n" where "n" is such that 1 ≤ "n" ≤ ωif and only if "A" is unitarily equivalent to the operator M"f" of multiplication by the function "f"(λ) = λ on

: L^2_{mu}(mathbb{R}, mathbf{H}_n)= {psi: mathbb{R} ightarrow mathbf{H}_n: psi mbox{ measurable and } int_{mathbb{R |psi(t)|^2 d mu(t) < infty}

where H"n" is a Hilbert space of dimension "n". The domain of M"f" consists of vector-valued functions ψ on R such that

: int_{mathbb{R |lambda|^2 | psi(lambda)|^2 , d mu(lambda) < infty.

Non-negative countably additive measures μ, ν are mutually singular if and only if they are supported on disjoint Borel sets.

Theorem. Let "A" be a self-adjoint operator on a "separable" Hilbert space "H". Then there is an ω sequence of countably additive finite measures on R (some of which may be identically 0)

: {mu_ell}_{1 leq ell leq omega}

such that the measures are pairwise singular and "A" is unitarily equivalent to the operator of multiplication by the function "f"(λ) = λ on

: igoplus_{1 leq ell leq omega} L^2_{mu_ell}(mathbb{R}, mathbf{H}_ell).

This representation is unique in the following sense: For any two such representations of the same "A", the corresponding measures are equivalent in the sense that they have the same sets of measure 0.

The spectral multiplicity theorem can be reformulated using the language of direct integrals of Hilbert spaces:

Theorem. Any self-adjoint operator on a separable Hilbert space is unitarily equivalent to multiplication by the function λ → λ on

: int_mathbb{R}^oplus H_x d mu(x).

The measure equivalence class of μ (or equivalently its sets of measure 0) is uniquely determined and the measurable family{"H""x"}"x" is determined almost everywhere with respect to μ.

Example: structure of the Laplacian

The Laplacian on R"n"is the operator

: Delta = sum_{i=1}^n partial_{x_i}^2.

As remarked above, the Laplacian is diagonalized by the Fourier transform. Actually it is more natural to consider the "negative" of the Laplacian - Δ since as an operator it is non-negative; (see elliptic operator).

Theorem. If "n"=1, the - Δ has uniform multiplicity mult=2, otherwise - Δ has uniform multiplicity mult=ω. Morover, the measure μmult is Borel measure on [0, ∞).

Pure point spectrum

A self-adjoint operator "A" on "H" has pure point spectrum if and only if "H" has an orthonormal basis {"e""i"}"i" ∈ I consisting of eigenvectors for "A".

Example. The Hamiltonian for the harmonic oscillator has a quadratic potential "V", that is

: -Delta + |x|^2 quad

This Hamiltonian has pure point spectrum; this is typical for bound state Hamiltonians in quantum mechanics. As was pointed out in a previous example, a sufficient condition that an unbounded symmetric operator has eigenvectors which form a Hilbert space basis is that it has a compact inverse.

See also

*Compact operator on Hilbert space
*Theoretical and experimental justification for the Schrödinger equation


* N.I. Akhiezer and I. M. Glazman, "Theory of Linear Operators in Hilbert Space" (two volumes), Pitman, 1981.

* T. Kato, "Perturbation Theory for Linear Operators", Springer, New York, 1966.

* M. Reed and B. Simon, "Methods of Mathematical Physics" vol 2, Academic Press, 1972.

* G. Teschl, "Mathematical Methods in Quantum Mechanics; With Applications to Schrödinger Operators",

* K. Yosida, "Functional Analysis", Academic Press, 1965.

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