Say what? What does this have to do with quantum mechanics? Quite a bit. Practically everything in fact. Most chemists learn quantum mechanics because they want to see where atomic orbitals come from. So they stagger through the solution of the Schrodinger equation where the quantum numbers appear as solution of recursion equations for power series solutions of the Schrodinger equation.

Forget the Schrodinger equation (for now), quantum mechanics is really written in the language of linear algebra. Feynman warned us not to consider ‘how it can be like that’, but at least you can understand the ‘that’ — e.g. linear algebra. In fact, the instructor in a graduate course in abstract algebra I audited opened the linear algebra section with the remark that the only functions mathematicians really understand are the linear ones.

The definitions used (vector space, inner product, matrix multiplication, Hermitian operator) are obscure and strange. You can memorize them and mumble them as incantations when needed, or you can understand why they are the way they are and where they come from. So if you are a bit rusty on your linear algebra I’ve written a series of 9 posts on the subject — here’s a link to the first https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/linear-algebra-survival-guide-for-quantum-mechanics-i/– just follow the links after that.

Just to whet your appetite, all of quantum mechanics consists of manipulation of a particular vector space called Hilbert space. Yes all of it.

Representations are a combination of abstract algebra and linear algebra, and are crucial in elementary particle physics. In fact elementary particles **are** representations of abstract symmetry groups.

So in what follows, I’ll assume you know what vector spaces, linear transformations of them, their matrix representation. I’m not going to explain what a group is, but it isn’t terribly complicated. So if you don’t know about them quit. The Wiki article is too detailed for what you need to know.

The title of the post really threw me, and understanding requires significant unpacking of the definitions, but you need to know this if you want to proceed further in physics.

So we’ll start with a Group G, its operation * and its identity element.

Next we have a set called X — just that a bunch of elements (called x, y, . . .), with no further structure imposed — you can’t add elements, you can’t mutiply them by real numbers. If you could with a few more details you’d have a vector space (see the survival guide)

Definition of Left Action (LA) of G on set X

LA : G x X –> X

LA : ( g, x ) |–> (g . x)

Such that the following two properties hold

l. For all x in X LA : (e, x) |–> (e.x) = x

2. For all g1 and g2 in G LA ( g1 * g2), x ) |–> ( g1 . (g2 . x )

Given vector space V define GL(V) the set of invertible linear transformations of vector space. GL(V) becomes a group if you let composition of linear transformations become its operation (it’s all in the survival guide.

Now for the definition of representation of Group G on vector space V

It is a function

rho: G –> GL(V)

rho g |–> LTg : V –> V linear

The representation rho defines a left group action on V

LA : (g, v) |–> LTg (V) — this satisfies the two properties above of a left action given above — think about it.

Now you’re ready for some serious study of quantum mechanics. When you read that the representation is acting on some vector space, you’ll know what they are talking about.