How long-range coherence is encoded in the Weyl quasicharacteristic function

In this post, I derive an identity showing the sense in which information about coherence over long distances in phase space for a quantum state \rho is encoded in its quasicharacteristic function \mathcal{F}_{\rho}, the (symplectic) Fourier transform of its Wigner function. In particular I show

(1)   \begin{align*} \int \mathrm{d}^2 \gamma |\langle \alpha|\rho|\beta\rangle|^2 = (|\mathcal{F}_\rho|^2 \ast |G|^2)(\beta-\alpha) \end{align*}

where |\alpha\rangle and |\beta\rangle are coherent states, \gamma:=(\alpha+\beta)/2 is the mean phase space position of the two states, “\ast” denotes the convolution, and G(\alpha) = e^{-|\alpha|^2} is the (Gaussian) quasicharacteristic function of the ground state of the Harmonic oscillator.


The quasicharacteristic function for a quantum state \rho of a single degree of freedom is defined as

    \[\mathcal{F}_\rho(\xi) := \mathrm{Tr}[\rho D_\xi] = \langle\rho,D_\xi\rangle_{\mathrm{HS}},\]

where D_\xi = e^{i \xi \wedge R} is the Weyl phase-space displacement operator, \xi = (\xi_{\mathrm{x}},\xi_{\mathrm{p}}) \in \mathbf{R}^2 are coordinates on “reciprocal” (i.e., Fourier transformed) phase space, R:=(X,P) is the phase-space location operator, X and P are the position and momentum operators, “\langle \cdot,\cdot\rangle_{\mathrm{HS}}” denotes the Hilbert-Schmidt inner product on operators, \langle A,B\rangle_{\mathrm{HS}}:=\mathrm{Tr}[A^\dagger B], and “\wedge” denotes the symplectic form, \alpha\wedge\beta := \alpha_{\mathrm{x}}\beta_{\mathrm{p}} - \alpha_{\mathrm{p}}\beta_{\mathrm{x}}. (Throughout this post I use the notation established in Sec. 2 of my recent paper with Felipe Hernández.) It has variously been called the quantum characteristic function, the chord function, the Wigner characteristic function, the Weyl function, and the moment-generating function. It is the quantum analog of the classical characteristic function.

Importantly, the quasicharacteristic function obeys |\mathcal{F}_{\rho}(\xi)|\le 1 and \mathcal{F}_{\rho}(0)=1, just like the classical characteristic function, and provides a definition of the Wigner function where the linear symplectic symmetry of phase space is manifest:

(2)   \begin{align*} \mathcal{W}_{\rho}(\alpha) &:= (2\pi)^{-1}\int\! \mathrm{d}^2\xi \, e^{-i\alpha\wedge\xi}\mathcal{F}_{\rho}(\xi)\\ &= (2\pi)^{-1}\int\! \mathrm{d}\Delta x \, e^{ip\Delta x} \rho(x-\Delta x/2,x+\Delta x/2) \end{align*}

where \alpha = (\alpha_{\mathrm{x}},\alpha_{\mathrm{p}}) = (x,p) \in \mathbf{R}^2 is the phase-space coordinate and \rho(x,x')=\langle x | \rho|x'\rangle is the position-space representation of the quantum state. This first line says that \mathcal{W}_{\rho} and \mathcal{F}_{\rho} are related by the symplectic Fourier transform. (This just means the inner product “\cdot” in the regular Fourier transform is replaced with the symplectic form, and has the simple effect of exchanging the reciprocal variables, (\xi_{\mathrm{x}},\xi_{\mathrm{p}})\to (-\xi_{\mathrm{p}},\xi_{\mathrm{x}}), simplifying many expressions.)… [continue reading]

Moyal bracket with manifest (affine) symplectic covariance

Moyal’s equation for a Wigner function W of a quantum system with (Wigner-transformed) Hamiltonian H is \partial_t W = \{ H,W \}_\hbar where the Moyal bracket is a binary operator on the space of functions over phase space. Unfortunately, it is often written down mysteriously as

(1)   \begin{align*} \{ A,B \}_\hbar = \frac{2}{\hbar} A \sin \left( \frac{\hbar}{2} \left(\overleftarrow{\partial}_x\overrightarrow{\partial}_p - \overleftarrow{\partial}_p\overrightarrow{\partial}_x \right) \right) B, \end{align*}

where the arrows over partial derivatives tell you which way they act, i.e., C (\overleftarrow{\partial}_x \overrightarrow{\partial}_p ) D = (\partial_x C)(\partial_p D). This only becomes slightly less weird when you use the equivalent formula \{ A,B \}_\hbar = (A \star B - B\star A)/(i\hbar), where “\star” is the Moyal star product given by

(2)   \begin{align*} A \star B =  A \exp \left( \frac{i\hbar}{2} \left(\overleftarrow{\partial}_x\overrightarrow{\partial}_p - \overleftarrow{\partial}_p\overrightarrow{\partial}_x \right) \right) B. \end{align*}

The star product has the crucial feature that \widehat{A \star B} = \widehat{A}\widehat{B}, where we use a hat to denote the Weyl transform (i.e., the inverse of the Wigner transform taking density matrices to Wigner functions), which takes a scalar function over phase-space to an operator over our Hilbert space. The star product also has some nice integral representations, which can be found in books like Curtright, Fairlie, & ZachosThe complete 88-page PDF is here.a  , but none of them help me understand the Moyal equation.

A key problem is that both of these expressions are neglecting the (affine) symplectic symmetry of phase space and the dynamical equations. Although I wouldn’t call it beautiful, we can re-write the star product as

(3)   \begin{align*} A \star B =  A \exp \left( \frac{i\hbar}{2} \overleftarrow{\partial}_a\overrightarrow{\partial}^a \right) B. \end{align*}

where a=x,p is a symplectic index using the Einstein summation convention, and where symplectic indices are raised and lowered using the symplectic form just as for Weyl spinors: v_a = \epsilon_{ab}v^b and w^a = \epsilon^{ab}w_b, where \epsilon is the antisymmetric symplectic form with \epsilon^{xp} = +1 = \epsilon_{px}, and where upper (lower) indices denote symplectic vectors (co-vectors).

With this, we can expand the Moyal equation as

    \begin{align*} \{ H,W \}_\hbar &= \frac{2}{\hbar} H \sin \left( \frac{\hbar}{2} \overleftarrow{\partial}_a\overrightarrow{\partial}^a \right) W \\ &= \sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{(-\hbar^2/4)^n}{(2n+1)!} \left(\partial_{a_1}\cdots \partial_{a_{2n+1}} H\right)\left(\partial^{a_1}\cdots \partial^{a_{2n+1}} W\right) \\ &= (\partial_a H)(\partial^a W) - \frac{\hbar^2}{24}(\partial_a\partial_b\partial_c H)(\partial^a \partial^b \partial^c W) \\ &\qquad \qquad + \frac{\hbar^4}{80640}(\partial_a\partial_b\partial_c \partial_d \partial_e H)(\partial^a \partial^b \partial^c \partial^d \partial^e W) - \cdots  \end{align*}

where we can see in hideous explicitness that it’s a series in the even powers of \hbar and the odd derivates of the Hamiltonian H and the Wigner function W.… [continue reading]

My talk on ideal quantum Brownian motion

I have blogged before about the conceptual importance of ideal, symplectic covariant quantum Brownian motion (QBM). In short: QBM is to open quantum systems as the harmonic oscillator is to closed quantum systems. Like the harmonic oscillator, (a) QBM is universal because it’s the leading-order behavior of a taylor series expansion; (b) QBM evolution has a very intuitive interpretation in terms of wavepackets evolving under classical flow; and (c) QBM is exactly solvable.

If that sounds like a diatribe up your alley, then you are in luck. I recently ranted about it here at PI. It’s just a summary of the literature; there are no new results. As always, I recommend downloading the raw video file so you can run it at arbitrary speed.

Abstract: In the study of closed quantum system, the simple harmonic oscillator is ubiquitous because all smooth potentials look quadratic locally, and exhaustively understanding it is very valuable because it is exactly solvable. Although not widely appreciated, Markovian quantum Brownian motion (QBM) plays almost exactly the same role in the study of open quantum systems. QBM is ubiquitous because it arises from only the Markov assumption and linear Lindblad operators, and it likewise has an elegant and transparent exact solution. QBM is often introduced with specific non-Markovian models like Caldeira-Leggett, but this makes it very difficult to see which phenomena are universal and which are idiosyncratic to the model. Like frictionless classical mechanics or nonrenormalizable field theories, the exact Markov property is aphysical, but handling this subtlety is a small price to pay for the extreme generality.
[continue reading]

Quantum Brownian motion: Definition

In this post I’m going to give a clean definition of idealized quantum Brownian motion and give a few entry points into the literature surrounding its abstract formulation. A follow-up post will give an interpretation to the components in the corresponding dynamical equation, and some discussion of how the model can be generalized to take into account the ways the idealization may break down in the real world.

I needed to learn this background for a paper I am working on, and I was motivated to compile it here because the idiosyncratic results returned by Google searches, and especially this MathOverflow question (which I’ve answered), made it clear that a bird’s eye view is not easy to find. All of the material below is available in the work of other authors, but not logically developed in the way I would prefer.


Quantum Brownian motion (QBM) is a prototypical and idealized case of a quantum system \mathcal{S}, consisting of a continuous degree of freedom, that is interacting with a large multi-partite environment \mathcal{E}, in general leading to varying degrees of dissipation, dispersion, and decoherence of the system. Intuitively, the distinguishing characteristics of QBM is Markovian dynamics induced by the cumulative effect of an environment with many independent, individually weak, and (crucially) “phase-space local” components. We will defined QBM as a particular class of ways that a density matrix may evolve, which may be realized (or approximately realized) by many possible system-environment models. There is a more-or-less precise sense in which QBM is the simplest quantum model capable of reproducing classical Brownian motion in a \hbar \to 0 limit.

In words to be explained: QBM is a class of possible dynamics for an open, quantum, continuous degree of freedom in which the evolution is specified by a quadratic Hamiltonian and linear Lindblad operators.… [continue reading]

In what sense is the Wigner function a quasiprobability distribution?

For the upteenth time I have read a paper introducing the Wigner function essentially like this:

The Wigner-representation of a quantum state \rho is a real-valued function on phase space definedActually, they usually use a more confusing definition. See my post on the intuitive definition of the Wigner function.a   (with \hbar=1) as

(1)   \begin{align*} W_\rho(x,p) \equiv \int \! \mathrm{d}\Delta x \, e^{i p \Delta x} \langle x+\Delta x /2 \vert \rho \vert x-\Delta x /2 \rangle. \end{align*}

It’s sort of like a probability distribution because the marginals reproduce the probabilities for position and momentum measurements:

(2)   \begin{align*} P(x) \equiv \langle x \vert \rho \vert x \rangle = \int \! \mathrm{d}p \, W_\rho(x,p) \end{align*}


(3)   \begin{align*} P(p) \equiv  \langle p\vert \rho \vert p \rangle = \int \! \mathrm{d}x \, W_\rho(x,p). \end{align*}

But the reason it’s not a real probability distribution is that it can be negative.

The fact that W_\rho(x,p) can be negative is obviously a reason you can’t think about it as a true PDF, but the marginals property is a terribly weak justification for thinking about W_\rho as a “quasi-PDF”. There are all sorts of functions one could write down that would have this same property but wouldn’t encode much information about actual phase space structure, e.g., the Jigner“Jess” + “Wigner” = “Jigner”. Ha!b   function

    \[J_\rho(x,p) \equiv P(x)P(p) = \langle x \vert \rho \vert x \rangle \langle p \vert \rho \vert p \rangle,\]

which tells as nothing whatsoever about how position relates to momentum.

Here is the real reason you should think the Wigner function W_\rho is almost, but not quite, a phase-space PDF for a state \rho:

  1. Consider an arbitrary length scale \sigma_x, which determines a corresponding momentum scale \sigma_p = 1/2\sigma_x and a corresponding setNot just a set of states, actually, but a Parseval tight frame. They have a characteristic spatial and momentum width \sigma_x and \sigma_p, and are indexed by \alpha = (x,p) as it ranges over phase space.c   of coherent states \{ \vert \alpha \rangle \}.
  2. If a measurement is performed on \rho with the POVM of coherent states \{ \vert \alpha \rangle \langle \alpha \vert \}, then the probability of obtaining outcome \alpha is given by the Husimi Q function representation of \rho:

    (4)   \begin{align*} Q_\rho(\alpha) = \langle \alpha \vert \rho \vert \alpha \rangle. \end{align*}

  3. If \rho can be constructed as a mixture of the coherent states \{ \vert \alpha \rangle \}, thenOf course, the P function cannot always be defined, and sometimes it can be defined but only if it takes negative values.
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Diagonal operators in the coherent state basis

I asked a question back in November on Physics.StackExchange, but that didn’t attract any interest from anyone. I started thinking about it again recently and figured out a good solution. The question and answer are explained below.I posted the answer on Physics.SE too since they encourage the answering of one’s own question. How lonely is that?!?a  

Q: Is there a good notion of a “diagonal” operator with respect the overcomplete basis of coherent states?
A: Yes. The operators that are “coherent-state diagonal” are those that have a smooth Glauber–Sudarshan P transform.

The primary motivation for this question is to get a clean mathematical condition for diagonality (presumably with a notion of “approximately diagonal”) for the density matrix of a system of a continuous degree of freedom being decohered. More generally, one might like to know the intuitive sense in which X, P, and X+P are all approximately diagonal in the basis of wavepackets, but RXR^\dagger is not, where R is the unitary operator which maps

(1)   \begin{align*} \vert x \rangle \to (\vert x \rangle + \mathrm{sign}(x) \vert - x \rangle) / \sqrt{2}. \end{align*}

(This operator creates a Schrodinger’s cat state by reflecting about x=0.)

For two different coherent states \vert \alpha \rangle and \vert \beta \rangle, we want to require an approximately diagonal operator A to satisfy \langle \alpha \vert A \vert \beta \rangle \approx 0, but we only want to do this if \langle \alpha \vert \beta \rangle \approx 0. For \langle \alpha \vert \beta \rangle \approx 1, we sensibly expect \langle \alpha \vert A \vert \beta \rangle to be within the eigenspectrum of A.

One might consider the negativity of the Wigner-Weyl transformCase has a pleasingly gentle introduction.b   of the density matrix (i.e. the Wigner phase-space quasi-probability distribution aka the Wigner function) as a sign of quantum coherence, since it is known that coherent superpositions (which are clearly not diagonal in the coherent state basis) have negative oscillations that mark the superposition, and also that these oscillations are destroyed by decoherence.… [continue reading]

Wigner function = Fourier transform + Coordinate rotation

[Follow-up post: In what sense is the Wigner function a quasiprobability distribution?]

I’ve never liked how people introduce the Wigner function (aka the Wigner quasi-probability distribution). Usually, they just write down a definition like

(1)   \begin{align*} W(x,p) = \frac{1}{\pi \hbar} \int \mathrm{d}y \rho(x+y, x-y) e^{-2 i p y/\hbar} \end{align*}

and say that it’s the “closest phase-space representation” of a quantum state. One immediately wonders: What’s with the weird factor of 2, and what the heck is y? Usually, the only justification given for the probability interpretation is that integrating over one of the variables recovers the probability distribution for the other (if it were measured):

(2)   \begin{align*} \int \! \mathrm{d}p \, W(x,p) = \vert \rho(x,x) \vert^2 , \\ \int \! \mathrm{d}x \, W(x,p) = \vert \hat{\rho}(p,p) \vert^2 , \end{align*}

where \hat{\rho}(p,p') is just the density matrix in the momentum basis. But of course, that doesn’t really tell us why we should think of W(x,p), as having anything to do with the (rough) value of x conditional on a (rough) value of p.

Well now I have a much better idea of what the Wigner function actually is and how to interpret it. We start by writing it down in sane variables (and suppress \hbar):

(3)   \begin{align*} W(\bar{x},\bar{p}) = \frac{1}{2 \pi} \int \! \mathrm{d}\Delta x \,\rho \left(\bar{x}+\frac{\Delta x}{2}, \bar{x}-\frac{\Delta x}{2} \right) e^{-i \bar{p} \Delta x}. \end{align*}

So the first step in the interpretation is to consider the function

(4)   \begin{align*} M(\bar{x},\Delta x) \equiv  \rho \left(\bar{x}+\frac{\Delta x}{2}, \bar{x}-\frac{\Delta x}{2} \right) , \end{align*}

which appears in the integrand. This is just the (position-space) density matrix in rotated coordinates \bar{x} \equiv (x+x')/2 and \Delta x = x-x'. There is a strong sense in which the off-diagonal terms of the density matrix represent the quantum coherence of the state between different positions, so \Delta x indexes how far this coherence extends; large values of \Delta x indicate large spatial coherence. On the other hand, \bar{x} indexes how far down the diagonal of the density matrix we move; it’s the average position of the two points between which the off-diagonal terms of the density matrix measures coherence. (See the figure below.)… [continue reading]