Expectation value (quantum mechanics)

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This article is about the mean value of an observation in quantum mechanics. For other uses, see Expected value (disambiguation).

In quantum mechanics, the expectation value is the probabilistic expected value of the result (measurement) of an experiment. It is not the most probable value of a measurement; indeed the expectation value may have zero probability of occurring. It is a fundamental concept in all areas of quantum physics.

Operational definition[edit]

Formalism in quantum mechanics[edit]

In quantum theory, an experimental setup is described by the observable to be measured, and the state of the system. The expectation value of in the state is denoted as .

Mathematically, is a self-adjoint operator on a Hilbert space. In the most commonly used case in quantum mechanics, is a pure state, described by a normalized[a] vector in the Hilbert space. The expectation value of in the state is defined as

(1)      .

If dynamics is considered, either the vector or the operator is taken to be time-dependent, depending on whether the Schrödinger picture or Heisenberg picture is used. The evolution of the expectation value does not depend on this choice, however.

If has a complete set of eigenvectors , with eigenvalues , then (1) can be expressed as

(2)      .

This expression is similar to the arithmetic mean, and illustrates the physical meaning of the mathematical formalism: The eigenvalues are the possible outcomes of the experiment,[b] and their corresponding coefficient is the probability that this outcome will occur; it is often called the transition probability.

A particularly simple case arises when is a projection, and thus has only the eigenvalues 0 and 1. This physically corresponds to a "yes-no" type of experiment. In this case, the expectation value is the probability that the experiment results in "1", and it can be computed as

(3)      .

In quantum theory, also operators with non-discrete spectrum are in use, such as the position operator in quantum mechanics. This operator does not have eigenvalues, but has a completely continuous spectrum. In this case, the vector can be written as a complex-valued function on the spectrum of (usually the real line). For the expectation value of the position operator, one then has the formula

(4)      .

A similar formula holds for the momentum operator , in systems where it has continuous spectrum.

All the above formulas are valid for pure states only. Prominently in thermodynamics, also mixed states are of importance; these are described by a positive trace-class operator , the statistical operator or density matrix. The expectation value then can be obtained as

(5)      .

General formulation[edit]

In general, quantum states are described by positive normalized linear functionals on the set of observables, mathematically often taken to be a C* algebra. The expectation value of an observable is then given by

(6)      .

If the algebra of observables acts irreducibly on a Hilbert space, and if is a normal functional, that is, it is continuous in the ultraweak topology, then it can be written as

with a positive trace-class operator of trace 1. This gives formula (5) above. In the case of a pure state, is a projection onto a unit vector . Then , which gives formula (1) above.

is assumed to be a self-adjoint operator. In the general case, its spectrum will neither be entirely discrete nor entirely continuous. Still, one can write in a spectral decomposition,

with a projector-valued measure . For the expectation value of in a pure state , this means


which may be seen as a common generalization of formulas (2) and (4) above.

In non-relativistic theories of finitely many particles (quantum mechanics, in the strict sense), the states considered are generally normal[clarification needed]. However, in other areas of quantum theory, also non-normal states are in use: They appear, for example. in the form of KMS states in quantum statistical mechanics of infinitely extended media,[1] and as charged states in quantum field theory.[2] In these cases, the expectation value is determined only by the more general formula (6).

Example in configuration space[edit]

As an example, let us consider a quantum mechanical particle in one spatial dimension, in the configuration space representation. Here the Hilbert space is , the space of square-integrable functions on the real line. Vectors are represented by functions , called wave functions. The scalar product is given by . The wave functions have a direct interpretation as a probability distribution:

gives the probability of finding the particle in an infinitesimal interval of length about some point .

As an observable, consider the position operator , which acts on wavefunctions by


The expectation value, or mean value of measurements, of performed on a very large number of identical independent systems will be given by


The expectation value only exists if the integral converges, which is not the case for all vectors . This is because the position operator is unbounded, and has to be chosen from its domain of definition.

In general, the expectation of any observable can be calculated by replacing with the appropriate operator. For example, to calculate the average momentum, one uses the momentum operator in configuration space, . Explicitly, its expectation value is


Not all operators in general provide a measureable value. An operator that has a pure real expectation value is called an observable and its value can be directly measured in experiment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This article always takes to be of norm 1. For non-normalized vectors, has to be replaced with in all formulas.
  2. ^ It is assumed here that the eigenvalues are non-degenerate.


  1. ^ Bratteli, Ola; Robinson, Derek W (1987). Operator Algebras and Quantum Statistical Mechanics 1. Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-17093-8. 2nd edition. 
  2. ^ Haag, Rudolf (1996). Local Quantum Physics. Springer. pp. Chapter IV. ISBN 3-540-61451-6. 

Further reading[edit]

The expectation value, in particular as presented in the section "Formalism in quantum mechanics", is covered in most elementary textbooks on quantum mechanics.

For a discussion of conceptual aspects, see:

  • Isham, Chris J (1995). Lectures on Quantum Theory: Mathematical and Structural Foundations. Imperial College Press. ISBN 978-1-86094-001-9.