Consider a dynamical system whose state at a particular time is fully specified by independent classical coordinates (where runs from 1 to ). Associated with each generalized coordinate is a classical canonical momentum . For instance, a Cartesian coordinate has an associated linear momentum, an angular coordinate has an associated angular momentum, etc. As is well-known, the behavior of a classical system can be specified in terms of Lagrangian or Hamiltonian dynamics. For instance, in Hamiltonian dynamics,
where the function is the system energy at time expressed in terms of the classical coordinates and canonical momenta. This function is usually referred to as the Hamiltonian of the system.
We are interested in finding some construct in classical dynamics that consists of products of dynamical variables. If such a construct exists then we hope to generalize it somehow to obtain a rule describing how dynamical variables commute with one another in quantum mechanics. There is, indeed, one well-known construct in classical dynamics that involves products of dynamical variables. The classical Poisson bracket of two dynamical variables and is defined
where and are regarded as functions of the coordinates and momenta, and . It is easily demonstrated that
The time evolution of a dynamical variable can also be written in terms of a Poisson bracket by noting that
where use has been made of Hamilton's equations, (92)-(93).
Can we construct a quantum mechanical Poisson bracket in which and are non-commuting operators, instead of functions? Well, the main properties of the classical Poisson bracket are as follows:
The last relation is known as the Jacobi identity. In the above, , , , etc., represent dynamical variables, and represents a number. Can we find some combination of non-commuting operators and , etc., that satisfies all of the above relations? We shall refer to such a combination as a quantum mechanical Poisson bracket.
Actually, we can evaluate the quantum mechanical Poisson bracket in two different ways, because we can employ either of the formulae (103) or (104) first. Thus,
Note that the order of the various factors has been preserved, because they now represent non-commuting operators. Equating the above two results yields
Since this relation must hold for and quite independent of and , it follows that
where does not depend on , , , , and also commutes with . Because , etc., are general operators, it follows that is just a number. We want the quantum mechanical Poisson bracket of two Hermitian operators to be a Hermitian operator itself, because the classical Poisson bracket of two real dynamical variables is real. This requirement is satisfied if is a real number. Thus, the quantum mechanical Poisson bracket of two dynamical variables and is given by
where is a new universal constant of nature. Quantum mechanics agrees with experiments provided that takes the value , where
is Planck's constant. The notation is conventionally reserved for the commutator in quantum mechanics. Thus,
It is easily demonstrated that the quantum mechanical Poisson bracket, as defined above, satisfies all of the relations (99)-(105).
The strong analogy we have found between the classical Poisson bracket, defined in Equation (94), and the quantum mechanical Poisson bracket, defined in Equation (113), leads us to assume that the quantum mechanical bracket has the same value as the corresponding classical bracket, at least for the simplest cases. In other words, we are assuming that Equations (95)-(97) hold for quantum mechanical as well as classical Poisson brackets. This argument yields the fundamental commutation relations
These results provide us with the basis for calculating commutation relations between general dynamical variables. For instance, if two dynamical variables, and , can both be written as a power series in the and then repeated application of Equations (99)-(104) allows to be expressed in terms of the fundamental commutation relations (114)-(116).
Equations (114)-(116) provide the foundation for the analogy between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics. Note that the classical result (that everything commutes) is obtained in the limit . Thus, classical mechanics can be regarded as the limiting case of quantum mechanics when goes to zero. In classical mechanics, each pair of generalized coordinate and its conjugate momentum, and , correspond to a different classical degree of freedom of the system. It is clear from Equations (114)-(116) that in quantum mechanics the dynamical variables corresponding to different degrees of freedom all commute. It is only those variables corresponding to the same degree of freedom that may fail to commute.
- Richard Fitzpatrick (Professor of Physics, The University of Texas at Austin)