Pauli matrices

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In physics, the Pauli matrices are a set of 2 × 2 complex Hermitian and unitary matrices.[1] Usually indicated by the Greek letter "sigma" (σ), they are occasionally denoted with a "tau" (τ) when used in connection with isospin symmetries. They are:

The name refers to Wolfgang Pauli.

The real (hence also, complex) subalgebra generated by the σi (that is, the set of real or complex linear combinations of all the elements which can be built up as products of Pauli matrices) is the full set M2(C) of complex 2×2 matrices. The σi can also be seen as generating the real Clifford algebra of the real quadratic form with signature (3,0): this shows that this Clifford algebra Cℓ3,0(R) is isomorphic to M2(C), with the Pauli matrices providing an explicit isomorphism. (In particular, the Pauli matrices define a faithful representation of the real Clifford algebra Cℓ3,0(R) on the complex vector space C2 of dimension 2.)

Algebraic properties[edit | edit source]

where I is the identity matrix, i.e. the matrices are involutory.

From above we can deduce that the eigenvalues of each σi are ±1.

  • Together with the identity matrix I (which is sometimes written as σ0), the Pauli matrices form an orthogonal basis, in the sense of Hilbert-Schmidt, for the real Hilbert space of 2 × 2 complex Hermitian matrices, or the complex Hilbert space of all 2 × 2 matrices.

Pauli vector[edit | edit source]

The Pauli vector is defined by

and provides a mapping mechanism from a vector basis to a Pauli matrix basis as follows

(summation over indices implied). Note that in this vector dotted with Pauli vector operation the Pauli matrices are treated in a scalar like fashion, commuting with the vector basis elements.

Commutation relations[edit | edit source]

The Pauli matrices obey the following commutation and anticommutation relations:

where is the Levi-Civita symbol, is the Kronecker delta, and I is the identity matrix.

The above two relations are equivalent to:


For example,

and the summary equation for the commutation relations can be used to prove

(as long as the vectors a and b commute with the pauli matrices)

as well as

for .

Completeness relation[edit | edit source]

An alternative notation that is commonly used for the Pauli matrices is to write the vector index in the superscript, and the matrix indices as subscripts, so that the element in row and column of the th Pauli matrix is .

In this notation, the completeness relation for the Pauli matrices can be written

Relation with the permutation operator[edit | edit source]

Let be the permutation (transposition, actually) between two spins and living in the tensor product space , . This operator can be written as , as the reader can easily verify.

SU(2)[edit | edit source]

The matrix group SU(2) is a Lie group, and its Lie algebra is the set of the anti-Hermitian 2×2 matrices with trace 0. Direct calculation shows that the Lie algebra su(2) is the 3 dimensional real algebra spanned by the set {}. In symbols,

As a result, s can be seen as infinitesimal generators of SU(2).

A Cartan decomposition of SU(2)[edit | edit source]

This relationship between the Pauli matrices and SU(2) can be explored further, as can be seen from the following simple example. We can write

We put


Using the algebraic identities listed in the previous section, it can be verified that and form a Cartan pair of the Lie algebra SU(2). Furthermore,

is a maximal abelian subalgebra of . Now, a version of Cartan decomposition states that any element U in the Lie group SU(2) can be expressed in the form

where and

In other words, any unitary U of determinant 1 is of the form

for some real numbers α, β, and γ.

Extending to unitary matrices gives that any unitary 2 × 2 U is of the form

where the additional parameter δ is also real (also compare with Leonhardt 2010, eq 5.22, pg. 99)

SO(3)[edit | edit source]

The Lie algebra su(2) is isomorphic to the Lie algebra so(3), which corresponds to the Lie group SO(3), the group of rotations in three-dimensional space. In other words, one can say that 's are a realization (and, in fact, the lowest-dimensional realization) of infinitesimal rotations in three-dimensional space. However, even though su(2) and so(3) are isomorphic as Lie algebras, SU(2) and SO(3) are not isomorphic as Lie groups. SU(2) is actually a double cover of SO(3), meaning that there is a two-to-one homomorphism from SU(2) to SO(3).

Quaternions[edit | edit source]

The real linear span of is isomorphic to the real algebra of quaternions H. The isomorphism from H to this set is given by the following map (notice that Pauli matrices are in reversed order):[2]

As the quaternions of unit norm is group-isomorphic to SU(2), this gives yet another way of describing SU(2) via the Pauli matrices. The two-to-one homomorphism from SU(2) to SO(3) can also be explicitly given in terms of the Pauli matrices in this formulation.

Quaternions form a division algebra—every non-zero element has an inverse—whereas Pauli matrices do not. For a quaternionic version of the algebra generated by Pauli matrices see biquaternions, which is a venerable algebra of eight real dimensions.

Physics[edit | edit source]

Quantum mechanics[edit | edit source]

  • In quantum mechanics, each Pauli matrix represents an observable describing the spin of a spin ½ particle in the three spatial directions. Also, as an immediate consequence of the Cartan decomposition mentioned above, are the generators of rotation acting on non-relativistic particles with spin ½. The state of the particles are represented as two-component spinors. An interesting property of spin ½ particles is that they must be rotated by an angle of 4 in order to return to their original configuration. This is due to the two-to-one correspondence between SU(2) and SO(3) mentioned above, and the fact that, although one visualizes spin up/down as the north/south pole on the 2-sphere S2, they are actually represented by orthogonal vectors in the two dimensional complex Hilbert space.
  • For a spin ½ particle, the spin operator is given by . The Pauli matrices can be generalized to describe higher spin systems in three spatial dimensions. The spin matrices for spin 1 and spin are given below:



  • Also useful in the quantum mechanics of multiparticle systems, the general Pauli group Gn is defined to consist of all n-fold tensor products of Pauli matrices.
  • The fact that any 2 × 2 complex Hermitian matrices can be expressed in terms of the identity matrix and the Pauli matrices also leads to the Bloch sphere representation of 2 × 2 mixed states (2 × 2 positive semidefinite matrices with trace 1). This can be seen by simply first writing a Hermitian matrix as a real linear combination of {σ0, σ1, σ2, σ3} then impose the positive semidefinite and trace 1 assumptions.

Quantum information[edit | edit source]

  • In quantum information, single-qubit quantum gates are 2 × 2 unitary matrices. The Pauli matrices are some of the most important single-qubit operations. In that context, the Cartan decomposition given above is called the Z-Y decomposition of a single-qubit gate. Choosing a different Cartan pair gives a similar X-Y decomposition of a single-qubit gate.

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  2. Nakahara, Mikio (2003), Geometry, topology, and physics (2nd ed.), CRC Press, ISBN 9780750306065, pp. xxii.

References[edit | edit source]