Quantum Algebra?

“Quantum algebra” is used as one top-level mathematics categories on the arXiv. However, to me at least it is not very clear what is meant by the term.

Topics in this section include

  • Quantum groups and noncommutative geometry
  • Poisson algebras and generalisations
  • Operads and algebras over them
  • Conformal and Topological QFT

Generally these include things that are not necessarily commutative.

What is a commutative algebra? Intentionally being very informal, an algebra is a vector space over the real or complex numbers (more generally any field) endowed with a product of two elements.

So let us fix some vector space \(\mathcal{A}\) say over the real numbers. It is an algebra if there is a notion of multiplication of two elements that is associative

\(a(bc) = (ab)c\)

and distributive

\(a(b+c) = ab + ac\),

with \(a,b,c \in \mathcal{A}\). There may also be a unit

\(ea = ae \) for all \(a \in \mathcal{A}\). Sometimes there may be no unit.

An algebra is commutative if the order of the multiplication does not matter. That is

\(ab = ba\).

For example, if \(a\) and \(b\) are real or complex numbers then the above holds. So real numbers and complex numbers can be thought of as “commutative algebras over themselves”.

It is common to define a commutator as

\([a,b] = ab – ba\).

If the commutator is zero then the algebra is commutative. If the commutator is non-zero then the algebra is noncommutative. In the second case the order of multiplication matters

\(ab \neq ba \)

in general.

The first example here is the algebra of 2×2 matrices.

So why “quantum”? Of course noncommutative algebras were known to mathematicians before the discovery of quantum mechanics. However, they were not generally known by physicists. The algebras used in classical mechanics, say in the Hamiltonian description are all commutative. Here the phase space is described by coordinates \(x,p \) or equivalently by the algebra of functions in these variables. This algebra is invariably commutative.

In quantum mechanics something quite remarkable happens. The phase space gets replaced by something noncommutative. We can think of “local coordinates” \(\hat{x}, \hat{p}\) that are no longer commutative. In fact we have

\([\hat{x}, \hat{p}] = i \hbar \),

which is known as the canonical commutation relation and is really the fundamental equation in quantum mechanics. The constant \(\hbar\) is known as Planck’s constant and sets the scale of quantum theory.

The point being that quantum mechanics means that one must consider noncommutative algebras. Thus the relatively informal bijection “quantum” \(\leftrightarrow \) “noncommutative”.

We can also begin to understand Einstein’s dislike of quantum mechanics, as pointed out by Dirac. The theories of special and general relativity are by their nature very geometric. As I have suggested, a space can be thought of as being defined by the algebra of functions on it. Einstein’s theories are based on commutative algebra. Quantum mechanics on the other hand is based on noncommutative algebra and in particular the phase space is some sort of “noncommutative space”. The thought of a noncommutative space, “the coordinates do not commute” should make you shudder the first time you hear this!

One place you should pause for reflection is the notion of a point. In noncommutative geometry there is no elementary intuitive notion of a point. Noncommutative geometry is pointless geometry!

We can understand this via the quantum mechanical phase space and the Heisenberg uncertainty relation. Recall that the uncertainty principle states that one cannot know simultaneously the position and momentum of a quantum particle. One cannot really “select a point” in the phase space. The best we have is

\(\delta \hat{x} \delta \hat{p} \approx \frac{\hbar}{2}\).

The phase space is cut up into fuzzy Bohr-Heisenberg cells and does not consist of a collection of points.

At first it seems that all geometric intuition is lost. This however is not the case if we think of a space in terms of the functions on it. A great deal of noncommutative geometry is rephrasing things in classical differential geometry in terms of the functions on the space (the structure sheaf). Then the notion may pass to the noncommutative world. I should say more on noncommutative geometry another time.

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