I assume that last week I disappointed Mr Wu, of the Singapore Maths Tuition blog, last week when I passed on a topic he suggested to unintentionally rewrite a good enough essay. I hope to make it up this week with a piece of linear algebra.
A Unitary Matrix — note the article; there is not a singular the Unitary Matrix — starts with a matrix. This is an ordered collection of scalars. The scalars we call elements. I can’t think of a time I ever saw a matrix represented except as a rectangular grid of elements, or as a capital letter for the name of a matrix. Or a block inside a matrix. In principle the elements can be anything. In practice, they’re almost always either real numbers or complex numbers. To speak of Unitary Matrixes invokes complex-valued numbers. If a matrix that would be Unitary has only real-valued elements, we call that an Orthogonal Matrix. It’s not wrong to call an Orthogonal matrix “Unitary”. It’s like pointing to a known square, though, and calling it a parallelogram. Your audience will grant that’s true. But it wonder what you’re getting at, unless you’re talking about a bunch of parallelograms and some of them happen to be squares.
As with polygons, though, there are many names for particular kinds of matrices. The flurry of them settles down on the Intro to Linear Algebra student and it takes three or four courses before most of them feel like familiar names. I will try to keep the flurry clear. First, we’re talking about square matrices, ones with the same number of rows as columns.
Start with any old square matrix. Give it the name U because you see where this is going. There are a couple of new matrices we can derive from it. One of them is the complex conjugate. This is the matrix you get by taking the complex conjugate of every term. So, if one element is , in the complex conjugate, that element would be . Reverse the plus or minus sign of the imaginary component. The shorthand for “the complex conjugate to matrix U” is . Also we’ll often just say “the conjugate”, taking the “complex” part as implied.
Start back with any old square matrix, again called U. Another thing you can do with it is take the transposition. This matrix, U-transpose, you get by keeping the order of elements but changing rows and columns. That is, the elements in the first row become the elements in the first column. The elements in the second row become the elements in the second column. Third row becomes the third column, and so on. The diagonal — first row, first column; second row, second column; third row, third column; and so on — stays where it was. The shorthand for “the transposition of U” is .
You can chain these together. If you start with U and take both its complex-conjugate and its transposition, you get the adjoint. We write that with a little dagger: . For a wonder, as matrices go, it doesn’t matter whether you take the transpose or the conjugate first. It’s the same . You may ask how people writing this out by hand never mistake for . This is a good question and I hope to have an answer someday. (I would write it as in my notes.)
And the last thing you can maybe do with a square matrix is take its inverse. This is like taking the reciprocal of a number. When you multiply a matrix by its inverse, you get the Identity Matrix. Not every matrix has an inverse, though. It’s worse than real numbers, where only zero doesn’t have a reciprocal. You can have a matrix that isn’t all zeroes and that doesn’t have an inverse. This is part of why linear algebra mathematicians command the big money. But if a matrix U has an inverse, we write that inverse as .
The Identity Matrix is one of a family of square matrices. Every element in an identity matrix is zero, except on the diagonal. That is, the element at row one, column one, is the number 1. The element at row two, column two is also the number 1. Same with row three, column three: another one. And so on. This is the “identity” matrix because it works like the multiplicative identity. Pick any matrix you like, and multiply it by the identity matrix; you get the original matrix right back. We use the name for an identity matrix. If we have to be clear how many rows and columns the matrix has, we write that as a subscript: or or or so on.
So this, finally, lets me say what a Unitary Matrix is. It’s any square matrix U where the adjoint, is the same matrix as the inverse, . It’s wonderful to learn you have a Unitary Matrix. Not just because, most of the time, finding the inverse of a matrix is a long and tedious procedure. Here? You have to write the elements in a different order and change the plus-or-minus sign on the imaginary numbers. The only way it would be easier if you had only real numbers, and didn’t have to take the conjugates.
That’s all a nice heap of terms. What makes any of them important, other than so Intro to Linear Algebra professors can test their students?
Well, you know mathematicians. If we like something like this, it’s usually because it holds out the prospect of turning a hard problems into easier ones. So it is. Start out with any old matrix. Call it A. Then there exist some unitary matrixes, call them U and V. And their product does something wonderful: is a “diagonal” matrix. A diagonal matrix has zeroes for every element except the diagonal ones. That is, row one, column one; row two, column two; row three, column three; and so on. The elements that trace a path from the upper-left to the lower-right corner of the matrix. (The diagonal from the upper-right to the lower-left we have nothing to do with.) Everything we might do with matrices is easier on a diagonal matrix. So we process our matrix A into this diagonal matrix D. Process it by whatever the heck we’re doing. If we then multiply this by the inverses of U and V? If we calculate ? We get whatever our process would have given us had we done it to A. And, since U and V are unitary matrices, it’s easy to find these inverses. Wonderful!
Also this sounds like I just said Unitary Matrixes are great because they solve a problem you never heard of before.
The 20th Century’s first great use for Unitary Matrixes, and I imagine the impulse for Mr Wu’s suggestion, was quantum mechanics. (A later use would be data compression.) Unitary Matrixes help us calculate how quantum systems evolve. This should be a little easier to understand if I use a simple physics problem as demonstration.
So imagine three blocks, all the same mass. They’re connected in a row, left to right. There’s two springs, one between the left and the center mass, one between the center and the right mass. The springs have the same strength. The blocks can only move left-to-right. But, within those bounds, you can do anything you like with the blocks. Move them wherever you like and let go. Let them go with a kick moving to the left or the right. The only restraint is they can’t pass through one another; you can’t slide the center block to the right of the right block.
This is not quantum mechanics, by the way. But it’s not far, either. You can turn this into a fine toy of a molecule. For now, though, think of it as a toy. What can you do with it?
A bunch of things, but there’s two really distinct ways these blocks can move. These are the ways the blocks would move if you just hit it with some energy and let the system do what felt natural. One is to have the center block stay right where it is, and the left and right blocks swinging out and in. We know they’ll swing symmetrically, the left block going as far to the left as the right block goes to the right. But all these symmetric oscillations look about the same. They’re one mode.
The other is … not quite antisymmetric. In this mode, the center block moves in one direction and the outer blocks move in the other, just enough to keep momentum conserved. Eventually the center block switches direction and swings the other way. But the outer blocks switch direction and swing the other way too. If you’re having trouble imagining this, imagine looking at it from the outer blocks’ point of view. To them, it’s just the center block wobbling back and forth. That’s the other mode.
And it turns out? It doesn’t matter how you started these blocks moving. The movement looks like a combination of the symmetric and the not-quite-antisymmetric modes. So if you know how the symmetric mode evolves, and how the not-quite-antisymmetric mode evolves? Then you know how every possible arrangement of this system evolves.
So here’s where we get to quantum mechanics. Suppose we know the quantum mechanics description of a system at some time. This we can do as a vector. And we know the Hamiltonian, the description of all the potential and kinetic energy, for how the system evolves. The evolution in time of our quantum mechanics description we can see as a unitary matrix multiplied by this vector.
The Hamiltonian, by itself, won’t (normally) be a Unitary Matrix. It gets the boring name H. It’ll be some complicated messy thing. But perhaps we can find a Unitary Matrix U, so that is a diagonal matrix. And then that’s great. The original H is hard to work with. The diagonalized version? That one we can almost always work with. And then we can go from solutions on the diagonalized version back to solutions on the original. (If the function describes the evolution of , then describes the evolution of .) The work that U (and ) does to H is basically what we did with that three-block, two-spring model. It’s picking out the modes, and letting us figure out their behavior. Then put that together to work out the behavior of what we’re interested in.
There are other uses, besides time-evolution. For instance, an important part of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics is that we can swap particles of the same type. Like, there’s no telling an electron that’s on your nose from an electron that’s in one of the reflective mirrors the Apollo astronauts left on the Moon. If they swapped positions, somehow, we wouldn’t know. It’s important for calculating things like entropy that we consider this possibility. Two particles swapping positions is a permutation. We can describe that as multiplying the vector that describes what every electron on the Earth and Moon is doing by a Unitary Matrix. Here it’s a matrix that does nothing but swap the descriptions of these two electrons. I concede this doesn’t sound thrilling. But anything that goes into calculating entropy is first-rank important.
As with time-evolution and with permutation, though, any symmetry matches a Unitary Matrix. This includes obvious things like reflecting across a plane. But it also covers, like, being displaced a set distance. And some outright obscure symmetries too, such as the phase of the state function . I don’t have a good way to describe what this is, physically; we can’t observe it directly. This symmetry, though, manifests as the conservation of electric charge, a thing we rather like.
This, then, is the sort of problem that draws Unitary Matrixes to our attention.
Thank you for reading. This and all of my 2020 A-to-Z essays should be at this link. All the essays from every A-to-Z series should be at this link. Next week, I hope to have something to say for the letter V.