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A simple derivation of the WKB approximation

Notes by Sergei Winitzki

DRAFT October 7, 2005

1 Motivation x = expR (it). The phase t would seem to be general-

ized as (t)dt if is time-dependent. Therefore it appears
The WKB approximation is ordinarily introduced in plausible that the solution might be
courses of theoretical physics when one begins studying  Z 
quantum mechanics. However, the WKB approximation
x exp i (t)dt . (5)
can be seen as a purely mathematical technique that has
little to do with quantum physics. In fact, the WKB approx-
imation was rediscovered by physicists after it has been This is indeed an approximate solution of Eq. (1) which is
long known to mathematicians under a different name. less precise than Eq. (2). This solution describes oscillations
Here I will try to present some elementary derivations of with a constant amplitude. To improve the precision, we
the WKB approximation. look for a slow-changing amplitude function A(t) such that
x(t) = A(t) exp i (t)dt (6)
2 The problem
The WKB approximation is used when we need to solve the is a more precise solution of Eq. (1). We substitute Eq. (6)
equation of the harmonic oscillator with a time-dependent into Eq. (1) and derive the following equation for A(t),
frequency, !
2 A A
d x i + 2i = 0. (7)
+ 2 (t)x = 0, (1) A A
where x(t) is the unknown function and (t) is a known
[We have denoted time derivatives by dots. To derive this
function (the frequency).
equation, it is convenient to rewrite Eq. (1) as
The WKB approximation says that the solution x(t) is ap-
proximately given by the ansatz    2
d x x
+ + 2 = 0 (8)
dt x x
xWKB (t) = p exp i (t)dt (2)
(t) and then substitute
if the function (t) is slow-changing with t. Solutions with x A
the plus and the minus signs are linearly independent and = i (9)
x A
can be combined in a linear combination, so that the (ap-
proximate) general solution is into that.] Now since A(t) is by assumption a slow-
 Z   Z  changing function, we may disregard A(t) in Eq. (7) and
A B p
p exp i (t)dt + p exp i (t)dt , (3) then obtain the desired result, A(t) = const/ (t).
(t) (t) Another derivation is somewhat more formal but in-
volves less guessing. We look at Eq. (5) and notice that
where A, B are constants. maybe (t) is not quite the right frequency to use. So we
The approximation is good if assume that x(t) will be of the form

d  Z 
 2 . (4)
dt x(t) exp i L(t)dt , (10)

This condition
means that (t) changes very little, where L(t) is some unknown function; let us now derive
i.e. d
dt t  , during one period of oscillation, t 1/.

what this L(t) must be. Substituting Eq. (10) into Eq. (8)
This is the precise meaning of the condition that (t) should gives the following equation for L(t),
be slow-changing.
We have for simplicity assumed that 2 > 0 for all t; iL L2 + 2 = 0, (11)
in case 2 (t) becomes zero or negative for some values of
t, the basic formula is still valid (we need to treat (t) as and it follows that the function L(t) must be complex-
complex-valued function) but there are several subtleties valued. So we write L(t) = W (t) iB(t), where the choice
in how one glues the solutions in different intervals of t. I of the sign is the same as above, and W (t) and B(t) are
shall not discuss these issues here. some real-valued and (so far) unknown functions. Then we
substitute this into Eq. (11) and separate the real and the
imaginary parts of that equation. We find that
3 Derivation of Eq. (2)
B B 2 = 2 W 2 , (12)
Here is a simple derivation that involves a little guess-
2W B = 0.
W (13)
ing. We know that if = const then the solutions are
The second equation can be immediately solved,

W 1

B= , (14)
2W 0.5

and then we find a closed equation for W , -10 -5 0

5 10


W 3W 2
= 2 W 2 . (15) -1

2W 4 W2 -1.5

An approximate solution of Eq. (15) is W (t) (t) if (t) is

slow-changing (then the derivatives of W are small and can
be neglected). Therefore B = /(2)
and Eq. (10) becomes
 Z  Figure 1: The WKB approximation (red curve) and the exact
solution (green curve) for (t) = 1 + 0.6 tanh(t/2). The
x(t) C exp i (t)dt dt
2 function (t) is plotted in yellow.
= exp i (t)dt . (16)

4 WKB approximation as a series ex-


0 10 20 30 40


Above we have used the approximate solution W (t) (t)

of Eq. (15). Can we perhaps find a more precise W (t)? One -1

possibility is to rewrite Eq. (15) as

v !
u W 3 W
W = t 2 (17) Figure 2: The WKB approximation (red curve) and the ex-
2W 4 W2
act solution (green curve) for (t) = 1 + 0.06 cos(2t). The
and simply substitute W (t) = (t) into the right-hand side. function (t) is plotted in yellow.
Since by assumption the derivatives of are small, the
expression Please note: There is no general formula for the n-th term
W 3W 2 of this series! Also, this series usually does not converge
2W 4 W2 to an exact solution. It is an asymptotic series and only a
will be a small correction to 2 inside the square root, and certain number of terms can be used to approximate the
thus we shall obtain a small correction to W . function W (t). Once W (t) is approximately determined,
To make the smallness of these corrections somewhat we use Eq. (14) to find
more transparent, let us introduce a formal parameter into  Z t 
const 0 0
Eq. (17) and rewrite it as x(t) p exp i W (t )dt . (22)
v W (t) t0
u W 3 W
W = 2
t . (19) 5 Examples
2W 4 W2

The actual value of must be = 1 since we do not really Here are some numerical examples of how well the WKB
wish to modify Eq. (17). However, now the smallness is approximation works, for some specific functions (t).
labeled by , and for instance any terms multiplied by 2 The first example is (t) = 1 + 0.6 tanh(t/2). The exact
will certainly be smaller than any terms with . So we can (numerically obtained) solution and the WKB approxima-
expand Eq. (19) in Taylor series in , e.g. tion are both plotted in Fig. 1. The worst agreement is about
20%. The function (t) is not really slow-changing since

W 3W 2
W + ..., (20) 0.5 2 for t = 0. (23)
2 2W 4 W2 dt

and also assume that W (t) is itself a power series in , This example shows the error of the WKB approximation
in an exaggerated way; the difference between the WKB
W (t) = + S1 (t) + 2 S2 (t) + ... (21) approximation and the exact solution would be invisible
on the graph for e.g. (t) = 5 + 2 tanh t.
Now we can compute the terms S1 , S2 , etc., one by one, The second example is (t) = 1 + 0.06 cos(2t). This func-
simply by substituting Eq. (21) into Eq. (20) and by collect- tion exhibits the so-called parametric resonance: the solution
ing terms with equal powers of . This task can be easily x(t) grows without bound with t. However, Fig. 2 shows
performed on a computer using an algebraic manipulation that the WKB approximation completely fails to track this
system such as Maple or Mathematica. The first terms of growth, even though the condition (4) is well satisfied for
the series (21) are this (t).

3 2
 The last example shows that the WKB approximation is
W (t) = fundamentally limited in its precision. One cannot repro-
4 2 8 3
... duce the parametric resonance even if one uses the more
1 (4) 2 2 297 3
2 5 13 99 precise ansatz (22) and computes many terms of the se-
+ + + ...
16 4 8 5 32 5 32 6 128 7 ries (21).