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A mathematical description of the Wightman axioms for Quantum Field Theory

A mathematical description of the Wightman axioms for Quantum Field Theory

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Classic quantum mechanics has the following features:

(a) The backdrop is Newtonian spacetime M

= R

3

R.

(b) The corresponding classical theories describe the motions of a xed number

of particles. Thus a typical classical phase space is T

S.

(c) Typical observables are the positions/momenta/energies of the particles.

Correspondingly, there are three seemingly independent directions in which one

could generalize the ideas of quantum mechanics.

(a) Instead of Newtonian spacetime S R, let M be Minkowski space.

(b) Instead of particles, consider elds (like the electromagnetic eld). Now the

phase space is innite-dimensional.

(c) Instead of global observables like energy, consider local ones like energy

density or the energy in this room.

It turns out that (up to some fudge) all three directions lead to similar ideas, which

constitute quantum eld theory. Thus QFT is supposed to be about (1) relativistic

particle physics; (2) quantization of classical eld theories; (3) algebras of local

observables.

This talk will mainly be about aspect (2), as codied by the Wightman axioms

(1950s). A future talk will be about (1), a point of view which is emphasized (for

example) by Weinbergs textbook. The algebraic approach to QFT, (3), is perhaps

the most ambitious in trying to lay foundations; see Haag, Local Quantum Physics.

Most textbooks are at least nominally interested in some amalgam of (1) and (2).

However, there is a disconnect between their pragmatic Lagrangian methods and

the kind of axioms we give here, as evidenced by the lack of interesting models on

the axiomatic side. A new approach (I have seen but dont yet know much about)

is described in a book by Kevin Costello, giving an axiomatic treatment of some

aspects of Lagrangian QFT, especially renormalization.

2. Wightman Axioms, Part I

2.1. Hilbert Space. We are going to describe axioms for a quantum theory. A

general part of the structure is

Axiom 1 We are given a Hilbert space H, a dense subspace T H, and a vacuum

vector T.

Specifying T is a purely technical crutch. For example, in quantum mechanics, if

H = L

2

(R), then we want to consider an operator i (the momentum operator).

But you cant take derivatives of arbitrary L

2

functions. Nonetheless, is dened

on a dense subspace of H (e.g. the Schwartz space), and thats good enough. We

want to have available a single domain T on which all our operators are dened.

2.2. Fields. A eld is just a function : M V , where M is our spacetime

manifold and V a vector space. Of course, we may wish to think about smooth

functions, etc; or allow for distributions instead of functions.

Axiom 2 We are given a spacetime manifold M and a vector space V .

1

2 QFT I: WIGHTMAN AXIOMS

2.3. Observables. A typical observable is the value of at x M. However,

everything will work out better if we look instead at average values of in small

regions. (The usual heuristic is that measuring the value of a eld at a single point

would require innitely much energy.)

Thus let o be the space of Schwartz functions f : M V

. The observables we

consider are ones of the form

O

f

() =

M

f, ) .

Here f, ) is the measure on M one obtains by contracting V

(the values of f)

with V (the values of ).

1

Axiom 3 We are given a quantization map Q: o End(T). The resulting operators

on T should be Hermitian. Q should be continuous in some appropriate

topology (more on this later).

2.4. Locality. The quantized observables Q(f) have one more property, which is

a kind of locality. To understand this, let us (nally) take M to be Minkowski

space. Then we know what it means for two small regions in M to be causally

separated (i.e. spacelike separated). The naive version of the locality axiom is that

if f

1

, f

2

o have causally separated supports, then [Q(f

1

), Q(f

2

)] = 0. This means

we can simultaneously diagonalize Q(f

1

) and Q(f

2

); roughly speaking, it means

that the eld can have well-dened values over an entire spacelike surface, and

spatially separated observers can make independent measurements of these values.

Thus interpreting Q(f

1

) and Q(f

2

) as observables is compatible with the causal

structure of spacetime. However, the real axiom looks like this.

Axiom 4 We are given a decomposition V = V

0

V

1

. If f

1

, f

2

o have causally

separated supports, and f

1

has values in V

m

and f

2

in V

n

, then

Q(f

1

)Q(f

2

) = (1)

mn

Q(f

2

)Q(f

1

).

Mathematically, this is not so awful; it is the natural Z

2

-graded version of our naive

locality axiom. However, physically, it means that if f

1

, f

2

have values in V

1

then the

observables Q(f

i

) must not be truly observable, at the risk of allowing interference

between causally separated observations. However, certain combinations of these

observables may still be directly measurable.

The elds with values in V

0

are called bosonic and those with values in V

1

are

fermionic. For example, the electromagnetic eld is bosonic (and observable) while

the eld associated to electrons is fermionic (and unobservable). However, electrons

obviously have physical eects even if the elds themselves are not observable.

Part of the ambition of Haags algebraic approach to QFT is to eliminate fermionic

elds as fundamental objects, so that only the naive locality axiom is really in play.

2.5. Quantum elds and Correlation functions. The condition that Q is con-

tinuous is designed to have the following implications. First, Q should be given by

a distribution : M V End(T), i.e.

Q(f) =

M

f, ) .

is the quantum eld one nds in textbooks. Second, and more importantly, for

each n 0 the functional on o

n

dened by

(f

1

, . . . , f

n

) , Q(f

1

) Q(f

n

))

should be represented by a distribution W

n

: M

n

V

n

.

These distributions are called Wightman or correlation functions. They deter-

mine the QFT (H, T, , Q) (for xed M and V ). The idea is to consider the vector

1

Thus to make make the units work out, we should assume that elds are measures rather

than functions; or we could just choose a reference measure on M.

QFT I: WIGHTMAN AXIOMS 3

space spanned by symbols Q(f

1

) Q(f

n

). The correlation functions specify

the inner products between such symbols, and from this we can reconstruct the

Hilbert space.

The calculation of these correlation functions (and other closely-related quan-

tities) is essentially what textbook QFT is all about. Even when working in our

axiomatic framework, one typically proves theorems by dealing with the correlation

functions rather than the quantization map.

3. Symmetry

The remaining Wightman axioms will state that QFTs are invariant under the

Poincare group. Here I lay down some motivating ideas.

A symmetry is just an automorphism of the data (H, M, V, T, , Q), in other

words, a triple of maps (u: H H, u

M

: M M, u

V

: V V ) such that u

preserves and T, and such that

uQ(f)u

1

= Q(u

V

f u

1

M

).

Remark 3.1. It would alternatively be natural to consider automorphisms of the

vector bundle V M M, rather than separate mapst u

M

and u

V

. This would

lead to a more general notion of symmetry.

What kind of map should u be? Naively, it should be unitary. But physical

reasoning demands only that it should preserve the set of rays (states) in H, and

it should preserve the amplitudes

|v, w| =

v, w)

2

v, v) w, w)

[0, 1]

for v, w H, which are interpreted as transition probabilities. (Note that |v, w|

depends only on the rays through v and w). A theorem of Wigner says that a

map of rays preserving probabilities can be realized as a real-linear map that is

either unitary (and complex-linear) or anti-unitary (and anti-linear); moreover,

this realisation is unique up to a phase. Thus in the denition of a symmetry we

allow that u is either unitary or anti-unitary.

4. Wightman Axioms, continued

Now we take M to be Minkowski space. Its isometry group is the Poincare group

P. It has a normal subgroup M (acting by translations) and the quotient is the

Lorentz group L. In this lecture we take P to be connected (i.e. we only consider

the connected component of the full isometry group).

P is not simply connected; its universal cover

P = M

L is a double cover. We

are going to consider QFTs with

P acting by symmetries.

Remark 4.1. Suppose we had an action of P on the set of rays in H, preserving

the probability amplitudes. Then Wigners theorem gives an operator u(p) for each

p P, unique up to phase. This phase ambiguity means that we get a representation

of

P (not P in general) on H. This is one reason for considering

P instead of P.

Note that the representation of

P would be unitary, because 1

P acts unitarily

(by the identity) and

P is connected.

Note that a representation of

L (hence of

P) on V makes

P act on o by (gf)(x) =

g(f(g

1

x)) for g

P, f o, x M.

Axiom 5 We have a representation of

L on V and a unitary representation of

P on

H such that Q is

P-equivariant. Moreover,

P xes and preserves T H.

Sometimes additional things are assumed, e.g. that is the unique

P-xed vector.

4 QFT I: WIGHTMAN AXIOMS

4.1. Positivity. There is one last condition on the type of representation of

P on

H, corresponding to the idea that particles have future-pointing trajectories and

positive energies.

P contains the additive group M as a normal subgroup. An

irreducible representation of M is the same as a element of the dual M

(that is,

M

determines a representation x e

i(x)

). And we can identify M

with M

using the inner product on M. Thus, the spectrum of M acting on H is a subset

of M the set of irreducible representations of M occuring as subquotients of H.

Axiom 6 The spectrum of M acting on H is contained in the future-pointing light

cone.

(Note this axiom requires not only the inner product on M, but also a temporal

orientation.)

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