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Today we will give four proofs of the classification of the (finite-dimensional complex continuous) irreducible representations of \text{SU}(2) (which you’ll recall we assumed way back in this previous post). As a first step, it turns out that the finite-dimensional representation theory of compact groups looks a lot like the finite-dimensional representation theory of finite groups, and this will be a major boon to three of the proofs. The last proof will instead proceed by classifying irreducible representations of the Lie algebra \mathfrak{su}(2).

At the end of the post we’ll briefly describe what we can conclude from all this about electrons orbiting a hydrogen atom.

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It looks like the finite graph model is not just a toy model! It’s called a continuous-time quantum random walk and is used in quantum computing in a way similar to how random walks on graphs are used in classical computing. The fact that quantum random walks mix sooner than classical random walks relates to the fact that certain quantum algorithms are faster than their classical counterparts.

I learned this from a paper by Lin, Lippner, and Yau, Quantum tunneling on graphs, that was just posted on the arXiv; apparently the idea goes back to a 1998 paper. I have an idea about another sense in which the finite graph model is not just a toy model, but I have not yet had time to work out the details.

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One of the most important discoveries in the history of science is the structure of the periodic table. This structure is a consequence of how electrons cluster around atomic nuclei and is essentially quantum-mechanical in nature. Most of it (the part not having to do with spin) can be deduced by solving the Schrödinger equation by hand, but it is conceptually cleaner to use the symmetries of the situation and representation theory. Deducing these results using representation theory has the added benefit that it identifies which parts of the situation depend only on symmetry and which parts depend on the particular form of the Hamiltonian. This is nicely explained in Singer’s Linearity, symmetry, and prediction in the hydrogen atom.

For awhile now I’ve been interested in finding a toy model to study the basic structure of the arguments involved, as well as more generally to get a hang for quantum mechanics, while avoiding some of the mathematical difficulties. Today I’d like to describe one such model involving finite graphs, which replaces the infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces and Lie groups occurring in the analysis of the hydrogen atom with finite-dimensional Hilbert spaces and finite groups. This model will, among other things, allow us to think of representations of finite groups as particles moving around on graphs.

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