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An Approach to Quantum Mechanics

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  • The purpose of this tutorial is to introduce the basics of quantum mechanics using Dirac bracket notation while working in one dimension. Dirac notation is a succinct and powerful language for expressing quantum mechanical principles; restricting attention to one-dimensional examples reduces the possibility that mathematical complexity will stand in the way of understanding. A number of texts make extensive use of Dirac notation (1-5). In addition a summary of its main elements is provided at:

    Wave-particle duality is the essential concept of quantum mechanics. DeBroglie expressed this idea mathematically as λ = h/mv = h/p. On the left is the wave property λ, and on the right the particle property mv, momentum. The most general coordinate space wave function for a free particle with wavelength λ is the complex Euler function shown below.


    x λ exp i2π x cos 2π x i sin 2π x

    λ λ λ

    = ⎛ ⎞ = ⎛ ⎞ + ⎛ ⎞ ⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟

    ⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠

    Equation 1

    Feynman called this equation “the most remarkable formula in mathematics.” He referred to it as “our jewel.” And indeed it is, because when it is enriched with de Broglie’s relation it serves as the foundation of quantum mechanics. According to de Broglie=s hypothesis, a particle with a well-defined wavelength also has a well-defined momentum. Therefore, we can obtain the momentum wave function (unnormalized) of the particle in coordinate space by substituting the deBroglie relation into equation (1).

    x p = exp⎛⎜ipx⎞⎟


    Equation 2

    When equation (2) is graphed it creates a helix about the axis of propagation (X-axis). Z is the imaginary axis and Y is the real axis. It is the simplest example of a fourier transform, translating momentum into coordinate language. It also has in it the heart of the uncertainty principle.

    Everyday examples of this important mathematical formula include telephone cords, spiral notebooks and slinkies.


    Quantum mechanics teaches that the wave function contains all the physical information about a system that can be known, and that one extracts information from the wave function using quantum mechanical operators. There is, therefore, an operator for each observable property.

    For example, in momentum space if a particle has a well-defined momentum we write its state as p . If we operate on this state with the momentum operator ˆp ˆp, the following eigenvalue equation is satisfied.


    pˆ p = p p

    Equation 3

    We say the system is in a state which is an eigenfunction of the momentum operator with eigenvalue p. In other words, operating on the momentum eigenfunction with the momentum operator, in momentum space, returns the momentum eigenvalue times the original momentum

    eigenfunction. From

    p pˆ p = p p p

    Equation 4

    it follows that,

    p pˆ = p p

    Equation 5

    Equations (3) and (5) show that in its own space the momentum operator is a multiplicative operator, and can operate either to the right on a ket, or to the left on a bra. The same is true of the position operator in coordinate space. To obtain the momentum operator in coordinate space, equation (3) is projected onto coordinate space by operating on the left with x . After inserting equation (2) we have,


    x pˆ p p x p pexpipx d exp ipx d x p

    i dx i dx

    = = ⎛ ⎞ = ⎛ ⎞ = ⎜ ⎟ ⎜ ⎟

    ⎝ ⎠ ⎝ ⎠

    �� ��

    �� ��

    Equation 6

    Comparing the first and last terms reveals that

    x pˆ d x

    i dx

    = ��

    Equation 7

    and that d x

    i dx

    �� is the momentum operator in coordinate space.

    The position wave function in momentum space is the complex conjugate of the momentum wave

    function coordinate space.

    * p x x p exp ipx

    ⎛ − ⎞ = = ⎜ ⎟


    Equation 8

    Starting with the coordinate-space eigenvalue equation

    xˆ x = x x

    Equation 9

    and using the same approach as with momentum, it is easy to show that

    x xˆ = x x

    Equation 10

    p xˆ d p

    i dp

    = − ��

    Equation 11

    In summary, the two fundamental dynamical operators are position and momentum, and the two primary representations are coordinate space and momentum space. The results achieved thus far are shown in the following table.


    Coordinate Space

    Momentum Space

    position operator: ˆx

    x x

    d p

    i dp


    momentum operator: ˆp

    d x

    i dx


    p p

    Other quantum mechanical operators can be constructed from ˆx and ˆp in the appropriate representation, position or momentum. To illustrate this, Schrödinger's equation for the one-dimensional harmonic oscillator will be set up in both coordinate and momentum space using

    the information in the table. Schrödinger=s equation is the quantum mechanical energy eigenvalue equation, and for the harmonic oscillator it looks like this initially,


    ˆ 1 ˆ2

    2 2

    p kx E


    ⎡ ⎤

    ⎢ + ⎥ Ψ = Ψ

    ⎣⎦Equation 12

    The term in brackets on the left is the classical energy written as an operator without a commitment to a representation (position or momentum) for the calculation. Most often, chemists solve Schrödinger's equation in coordinate space. Therefore, to prepare Schrödinger=s equation for solving, equation (12) is projected onto coordinate space by operating on the left with x .


    ˆ 1 ˆ2

    2 2

    x p kx x E


    ⎡ ⎤

    ⎢ + ⎥ Ψ = Ψ

    ⎣⎦Equation 13

    Using the information in the table this yields,

    2 2




    2 2

    d kx x E x

    m dx

    ⎡ ⎤

    ⎢− + ⎥ Ψ = Ψ


    Equation 14

    The square bracket on the left contains the quantum mechanical energy operator in coordinate space. Before proceeding we illustrate how the kinetic energy operator emerges as a differential operator in coordinate space using equation (7).


    2 2


    1 ˆ ˆ 1 ˆ 1

    2 2 2 2

    x pp d x p d d x d x

    m m i dx m i dx i dx mdx

    Ψ = �� Ψ = �� �� Ψ = −�� Ψ

    Equation 15

    Equation (10) is used in a similar fashion to show that potential energy is a multiplicative operator

    in coordinate space.

    1 ˆ ˆ 1 ˆ 1 2

    2 2 2

    k x xx Ψ = k x x x Ψ = k x x Ψ

    Equation 16

    Obviously the calculation could also have been set up in momentum space. It is easy to show that

    in the momentum representation Schrödinger=s equation is

    2 2 2

    2 2 2

    p kd p Ep

    m dp

    ⎡ ⎤

    ⎢ − ⎥ Ψ = Ψ


    Equation 17

    In momentum space the kinetic energy operator is multiplicative and the potential energy operator is differential. The one-dimensional simple harmonic oscillator problem is exactly soluble in both coordinate and momentum space. The solution can be found in any chemistry and physics text dealing with quantum mechanics, and will not be dealt with further here, other than to say that equations (14) and (17) reveal an appealing symmetry.

    Unfortunately, for most applications the potential energy term in momentum space presents more of a mathematical challenge than it does for the harmonic oscillator problem. A general expression for the potential energy in the momentum representation when its form in the coordinate representation is specified is given below.

    ˆ ( ) exp ( )

    i p p x

    p V V x p dp dx

    ⎛ ′ −⎞Ψ = ⎜⎟′ Ψ ′


    Equation 18

    To see how this integral is handled for a specific case see reference (10).

    If a system is in a state which is an eigenfunction of an operator, we say the system has a

    well-defined value for the observable associated with the operator, for example, position,

    momentum, energy, etc. Every time we measure we get the same result. However, if the system is

    in a state that is not an eigenfunction of the operator, for example, if ˆ o Ψ = Φ , the system does

    not have a well-defined value for the observable. Then the measurement results have a statistical

    character and each measurement gives an unpredictable result in spite of the fact that the system is


    in a well-defined state Ψ . Under these circumstances, all we can do is calculate a mean value for the observable. This is unheard of in classical physics where, if a system is in a well-defined state, all its physical properties are precisely determined. In quantum mechanics a system can be in a state which has a well-defined energy, but its position and momentum are un-determined. The quantum mechanical recipe for calculating the mean value of an observable is now derived. Consider a system in the state Ψ , which is not an eigenfunction of the energy operator, ˆH . A statistically meaningful number of such states are available for the purpose of measuring the energy. Quantum mechanical principles require that an energy measurement must yield one of the energy eigenvalues, εi, of the energy operator. Therefore, the average value of the energy measurements is calculated as,

    i i








    Equation 19

    where niis the number of times εiis observed, and N is the total number of measurements.

    Therefore, pi = ni/N, is the probability that εiis observed. Equation (19) becomes

    i i


    E =Σpε

    Equation 20

    According to quantum mechanics, for a system in the state Ψ , ip= Ψ i i Ψ , where the i are

    the eigenfunctions of the energy operator. Equation (20) can now be re-written as,

    i i

    i i

    E =Σ Ψ i i Ψ ε =Σ Ψ i ε i Ψ

    Equation 21

    However, it is also true that


    i i H i = ε i = i ε

    Equation 22

    Substitution of equation (22) into (21) yields



    E =Σ Ψ H i i Ψ

    Equation 23

    As eigenfunctions of the energy operator, the i form a complete basis set, making available the


    discrete completeness condition, 1


    Σ i i = , the use of which in equation (23) yields

    E = Ψ Hˆ Ψ

    Equation 24

    This formalism is general and applies to any operator-observable pair. The average value for the

    observed property may always be calculated as,

    o = Ψ oˆ Ψ

    Equation 25

    These principles are now applied to a very simple problem B the particle in a box. Schrödinger=s

    equation in coordinate space,

    2 2

    2 2

    d x Ex

    m dx

    �� Ψ = Ψ

    Equation 26

    can be solved exactly, yielding the following eigenvalues and eigenfunctions,

    2 2

    8 2 n

    E n h



    Equation 27

    2 sin n

    x n x

    a a

    π ⎞ Ψ = ⎜⎟⎝⎠Equation 28

    where a is the box dimension, m is the particle mass, and n is a quantum number restricted to

    integer values starting with 1.

    Substitution of equation (28) into (26) confirms that it is an eigenfunction with the manifold of

    allowed eigenvalues given by equation (27). However, equation (28) is not an eigenfunction of

    either the position or momentum operators, as is shown below.

    ˆ 2 sin n n

    x x x x x n x

    a a

    π ⎞ Ψ = Ψ = ⎜⎟⎝⎠Equation 29


    ˆ 2 cos n n

    x p d x n n x

    i dx a a a

    π π ⎞ Ψ = Ψ = ⎜⎟⎝⎠��

    Equation 30

    To summarize, the particle in a box has a well-defined energy, but the same is not true for its

    position or momentum. In other words, it is not buzzing around the box executing a classical

    trajectory. The outcome of an energy measurement is certain, but position and momentum

    measurements are uncertain. All we can do is calculate the expectation value for these observables

    and compare the calculations to the mean values found through a statistically meaningful number

    of measurements.

    Next we set up the calculation for the expectation value for position utilizing the recipe expressed

    in equation (25).

    ˆ n n n x = Ψ x Ψ

    Equation 31

    Evaluation of (31) in coordinate space requires the continuous completeness condition.




    x x dx =

    Equation 32

    Substitution of (32) into (31) gives

    0 0



    a a

    n n n n n

    x = Ψ x x x Ψ dx = Ψ x x x Ψ dx = a

    Equation 33

    The expectation value for momentum is calculated in a similar fashion,

    0 0

    ˆ 0

    a a

    n n n n n

    p x x p dx x d x dx

    i dx

    = Ψ Ψ = Ψ Ψ = ��

    Equation 34

    In other words, the expectation values for position and momentum are the same for all the allowed

    quantum states of the particle in a box.

    It is now necessary to explore the meaning of +x*Ψ,. It is the probability amplitude that a system

    in the state *Ψ, will be found at position x. *+x*Ψ,*2 or +Ψ*x,+x*Ψ, is the probability density that

    a system in the state*Ψ, will be found at position x. Thus equation (28) is an algorithm for

    calculating probability amplitudes and probability densities for the position of the particle in a


    one-dimensional box. This, of course, is true only if *Ψ, is normalized.




    Ψ Ψ = Ψ x x Ψ dx =

    Equation 35

    There are two ways to arrive at the integral in equation (34). One can insert the continuous

    completeness relation (32) at the * on the left side, or, equivalently one can express *Ψ, as a linear

    superposition in the continuous basis set x,



    Ψ = x x Ψ dx

    Equation 36

    and projecting this expression onto +Ψ*.

    A quantum particle is described by its wave function rather than by its instantaneous position and velocity; a confined quantum particle, such as a particle in a box, is not moving in any classical sense, and must be considered to be present at all points in space, properly weighted by *+x*Ψ,*2.

    Thus, +x*Ψ, allows us to examine the coordinate space probability distribution and to calculate expectation values for observables such as was done in equations (33) and (34). Plots of *+x*Ψn,*2show that the particle is distributed symmetrically in the box, and +x*Ψn, allows us to calculate the probability of finding the particle anywhere inside the box.


    The coordinate-space wave function does not say much about momentum, other than its average value is zero (see equation 34). However, a momentum-space wave function, +p*Ψ,, can be generated by a Fourier transform of +x*Ψ,. This is accomplished by projecting equation (36) onto momentum space by multiplication on the left by +p*.

    0 0

    1 exp 2 sin


    a a

    n n

    p p x x dx ipx n x dx

    a a



    Ψ = Ψ = ⎛−⎞⎛⎞⎜⎟⎜⎟⎝⎠⎝⎠�� ��

    Equation 37

    The term preceding the integral is the normalization constant (previously ignored) for the

    momentum wave function. Evaluation of the integral on the right side yields,


    2 2 2 2 2

    1 cos( )exp( )


    n ipa

    p na

    n ap




    ⎡ − − ⎤ ⎢ ⎥

    Ψ = ⎢⎥⎢−⎥⎣⎦�� ��


    Equation 38

    Now with the continuous completeness relationship for momentum,

    p p dp 1



    Equation 39

    one can re-calculate +x,n and +p,n in momentum space.


    2 n n n n n

    x p p x dp p d p dp a

    i dp

    ∞ ∞

    −∞ −∞

    = Ψ Ψ = Ψ Ψ = ��

    Equation 40

    ˆ 0 n n n n n p p p p dp p p p dp

    ∞ ∞

    −∞ −∞

    = Ψ Ψ = Ψ Ψ =

    Equation 41

    It is clear that +x*Ψn, and +p*Ψn, contain the same information; they just present it in different

    languages (representations). The coordinate space distribution functions for the particle in a box

    shown above are familiar to anyone who has studied quantum theory, however, because chemists

    work mainly in coordinate space, the momentum distributions are not so well known. A graphical


    representation of *+p*Ψn,*2 for the first five momentum states is shown below. The distribution functions are offset by small increments for clarity of presentation. As just shown, the particle in a box can be used to illustrate many fundamental quantum mechanical concepts. To demonstrate that some systems can be analyzed without solving Schrödinger’s equation we will briefly consider the particle on a ring. This model has been used to study the behavior of the π-electrons of benzene. In order to satisfy the requirement of being single-valued, the momentum wave function in coordinate space for a particle on a ring of radius R must satisfy the following condition,

    x + 2πR p = x p

    Equation 42

    This leads to,

    exp(i2πRp / ��)exp(ipx / ��) = exp(ipx / ��)

    Equation 43

    This equation can be written as,

    exp(i2πRp / ��) =1 = exp(i2πm) where m = 0, ±1, ± 2,

    Equation 44

    Comparison of the left with the far right of this equation reveals that,


    Rp = m


    Equation 45

    It is easy to show that the energy manifold associated with this quantum restriction is,



    m 2 2


    E m

    m R

    ⎛ ⎞

    = ⎜ ⎟

    ⎝ ⎠


    Equation 46

    The corresponding wave functions can be found in the widely used textbook authored by Atkins

    and de Paula (11).

    There are, of course, many formulations of quantum mechanics, and all of them develop quantum

    mechanical principles in different ways from diverse starting points, but they are all formally

    equivalent. In the present approach the key concepts are de Broglie’s hypothesis as stated in

    equation (2), and the eigenvalue equations (3) and (9) expressed in the momentum and coordinate

    representations, respectively.

    Another formulation (Heisenberg’s approach) identifies the commutation relation of equation (47)

    as the basis of quantum theory, and adopts operators for position and momentum that satisfy the


    [ pˆ, xˆ] pˆ xˆ xˆ pˆ


    = − = ��

    Equation 47

    Equation (47) can be confirmed in both coordinate and momentum space for any state function *Ψ,

    using the operators in the table above.

    x ( pˆ xˆ xˆ pˆ ) d x x d x x

    i dx dx i

    − Ψ = ⎛−⎞Ψ = Ψ ⎜⎟⎝⎠�� ��

    Equation 48

    p ( pˆ xˆ xˆ pˆ ) i p d d p p p

    dp dp i

    ⎛ ⎞

    − Ψ = ⎜−⎟Ψ = Ψ

    ⎝⎠�� ��

    Equation 49

    The meaning associated with equations (48) and (49) is that the observables associated with

    non-commuting operators cannot simultaneously have well-defined values. This, of course, is just

    another statement of the uncertainty principle.


    The famous double-slit experiment illustrates the uncertainty principle in a striking way. To

    illustrate this it is mathematically expedient to begin with infinitesimally thin slits. Later this

    restriction will be relaxed.

    A screen with infinitesimally thin slits (6) at x1and x2projects the incident beam into a linear

    superposition of position eigenstates.

    1 2



    Ψ = ⎡⎣x+ x ⎤⎦

    Equation 50

    Expressing this state in the coordinate representation yields the following superposition of Dirac

    delta functions.

    ( ) ( ) 1 2 1 2

    1 1

    2 2

    x Ψ = ⎡⎣x x + x x ⎤⎦ = ⎡⎣δ x x +δ x x ⎤⎦

    Equation 51

    According to the uncertainty principle this localization of the incident beam in coordinate space is

    accompanied by a delocalization of the x-component of the momentum, px. This can be seen by

    projecting *Ψ, onto momentum space.

    1 2

    1 2

    1 1 exp exp

    2 2

    x x

    x x x

    p p x p x ip x ip x


    ⎡ ⎛ ⎞ ⎛ ⎞⎤ Ψ = ⎡⎣+ ⎤⎦= ⎢⎜−⎟+ ⎜−⎟⎥��⎣ ⎝ �� ⎠ ⎝ �� ⎠⎦

    Equation 52

    The momentum probability distribution in the x-direction, ( ) 2

    x x P p = p Ψ , reveals the required

    spread in momentum, plus the interesting interference pattern in the momentum distribution that

    will ultimately be projected onto the detection screen. As Marcella (6) points out the detection

    screen is actually measuring the x-component of the momentum.

    4 2 0 2 4

    P p x

    p x


    Of course, in the actual experiment the slits are not infinitesimally thin and the diffraction pattern

    takes on the more familiar appearance reported in the literature (7) and textbooks (8). For example,

    a linear superposition of Gaussian functions can be used to represent the coordinate-space wave

    function at a screen with two slits of finite width.

    ( 2 ) ( 2 )

    1 2 x Ψ = exp (x x ) + exp (x x )

    Equation 53

    The Fourier transform of this state into momentum space leads to the momentum distribution

    shown in the figure below (9).

    The double-slit experiment reveals the three essential steps in a quantum mechanical experiment:

    1. state preparation (interaction of incident beam with the slit-screen)

    2. measurement of observable (arrival of scattered beam at the detection screen)

    3. calculation of expected results of the measurement step

    The Dirac delta function appeared in equation (51). It expresses the fact that the position

    eigenstates form a continuous orthogonal basis. The same, of course, is true for the momentum


    The bracket x x ' is zero unless x = x. This expresses the condition that an object at xis not at

    x. It is instructive to expand this bracket in the momentum representation.

    ' ' 1 exp( ( ') / ) ( ')


    x x x p p x dp ip x x dp δ x x


    ∞ ∞

    −∞ −∞

    = = �� = −


    Equation 54

    4 2 0 2 4

    P p x

    p x


    The same approach for momentum yields,

    ' ' 1 exp( ( ') / ) ( ')


    p p p x x p dx i p p x dx δ p p


    ∞ ∞

    −∞ −∞

    = = − − �� = −


    Equation 55

    The Dirac delta function has great utility in quantum mechanics, so it is important to be able to

    recognize it in its several guises.

    The time-dependent energy operator can be obtained by adding time dependence to equation (1)

    so that it represents a classical one-dimensional plane wave moving in the positive x-direction.

    x λ t ν exp i2πx exp( i2πνt )


    = ⎛ ⎞ − ⎜ ⎟

    ⎝ ⎠

    Equation 56

    This classical wave equation is transformed into a quantum mechanical wave function by using (as

    earlier) the de Broglie relation and E = hυ.

    x p t E = exp⎛⎜ipx ⎞⎟ exp⎛⎜iEt ⎞⎟

    �� ⎠ ⎝ ��

    Equation 57

    From this equation we obtain the important Dirac bracket relating energy and time.

    t E = exp⎛⎜−iEt ⎞⎟


    Equation 58

    The time-dependent energy operator is found by projecting the energy eigenvalue equation,

    Hˆ E = E E

    Equation 59

    into the time domain.


    ˆ exp

    iEt d t E t H E E t E E i


    = = ⎛ − ⎞ = ⎜ ⎟

    ⎝ ⎠



    Equation 60

    Comparison of the first and last terms reveals that the time-dependent energy operator is

    t Hˆ i d t


    = ��

    Equation 61

    We see also from equation (60) that

    i d t E t


    �� =

    Equation 62

    So that in general,

    i d t E t


    �� Ψ = Ψ

    Equation 63

    Integration of equation (63) yields a general expression for the time-dependence of the wave




    t exp iE(t t ) t

    ⎛ − ⎞ Ψ = ⎜−⎟Ψ


    Equation 64


    1. Chester, M. Primer of Quantum Mechanics; Krieger Publishing Co.:Malabar, FL, 1992.
    2. Das, A.; Melissinos, A. C. Quantum Mechanics: A Modern Introduction; Gordon and Breach Science Publishers: New York, 1986.
    3. Feynman, R. P.; Leighton, R. B.; Sands, M. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol.3; Addison-Wesley: Reading, 1965.
    4. Martin, J. L. Basic Quantum Mechanics; Claredon Press, Oxford, 1981.
    5. Townsend, J. S. A Modern Approach to Quantum Mechanics; University Science Books, Sausalito, 2000.
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    7. Tonomura A.; Endo, J.; Matsuda, T.; Kawasaki, T.; Ezawa, H. “Demonstration of single-electron buildup of an interference pattern,” American Journal of Physics 57,117-120 (1989).
    8. French, A. P.; Taylor, E. F. An Introduction to Quantum Physics; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. New York, 1978.
    9. For further detail visit: For different approach see: A description of a recent example of a temporal double-slit is available at
    10. Lieber, M. “Quantum mechanics in momentum space: An illustration,” American Journal of Physics 43, 486-487 (1975).
    11. Atkins, P.; de Paulo, J. Physical Chemistry; 7th ed. W. H. Freeman & Co., New York, 2002, p. 347.