nLab quantum decoherence



Quantum systems

quantum logic

quantum physics

quantum probability theoryobservables and states

quantum information

quantum computation


quantum algorithms:

quantum sensing

quantum communication



In quantum physics decoherence refers to the disappearance of quantum entanglement and superposition in the limit where small quantum mechanical systems are coupled to large thermal baths?.

This has been argued to resolve (and has been argued not to resolve) the problem with the interpretation of quantum measurement.


Quantum channels and decoherence

The crux of dynamical quantum decoherence is that fundamentally the (time-)evolution of any quantum system \mathscr{H} may be assumed unitary (say via a Schrödinger equation) when taking the whole evolution of its environment \mathscr{B} (the “bath”, ultimately the whole observable universe) into account, too, in that the evolution of the total system \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B} is given by a unitary operator

evolve: |ψ,β U tot|ψ,β, \array{ \mathllap{ evolve \;\colon\; } \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B} &\longrightarrow& \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B} \\ \left\vert \psi, \beta \right\rangle &\mapsto& U_{tot} \left\vert \psi, \beta \right\rangle \mathrlap{\,,} }

after understanding the mixed states ρ: *\rho \,\colon\, \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast (density matrices) of the given quantum system as coupled to any given mixed state env: *env \,\colon\, \mathscr{B} \otimes \mathscr{B}^\ast of the bath (via tensor product)

couple: * ()() * ρ ρenv; \array{ \mathllap{ couple \;\colon\; } \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast & \longrightarrow & (\mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B}) \otimes (\mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B})^\ast \\ \rho &\mapsto& \rho \otimes env \mathrlap{\,;} }

…the only catch being that one cannot — and in any case does not (want or need to) — keep track of the precise quantum state of the environment/bath, instead only of its average effect on the given quantum system, which by the rule of quantum probability is the mixed state that remains after the partial trace over the environment:

(1)average:()() * * ρ^ Tr (ρ^). \array{ \mathllap{ average \;\colon\; } (\mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B}) \otimes (\mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B})^\ast &\longrightarrow& \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast \\ \widehat{\rho} &\mapsto& Tr_{\mathscr{B}}\big(\widehat{\rho}\big) \mathrlap{\,.} }

In summary this means for practical purposes that the probabilistic evolution of quantum systems \mathscr{H} is always of the composite form

* couple to environment ( )( ) * total unitary evolution ( )( ) * average over environment * ρ ρenv U tot(ρenv)U tot Tr (U tot(ρenv)U tot ) \array{ \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast & \xrightarrow{ \array{ \text{couple to} \\ \text{environment} } } & \left( \array{ \mathscr{H} \\ \otimes \\ \mathscr{B} } \right) \otimes \left( \array{ \mathscr{H} \\ \otimes \\ \mathscr{B} } \right)^\ast & \xrightarrow{ \array{ \text{total unitary} \\ \text{evolution} } } & \left( \array{ \mathscr{H} \\ \otimes \\ \mathscr{B} } \right) \otimes \left( \array{ \mathscr{H} \\ \otimes \\ \mathscr{B} } \right)^\ast & \xrightarrow{ \array{ \text{average over} \\ \text{environment} } } & \;\;\;\; \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast \\ \rho &\mapsto& \rho \otimes env &\mapsto& \mathclap{ U_{tot} \cdot (\rho \otimes env) \cdot U_{tot}^\dagger } &\mapsto& \;\;\;\;\;\;\;\;\;\;\;\; \mathclap{ Tr_{\mathscr{B}} \big( U_{tot} \cdot (\rho \otimes env) \cdot U_{tot}^\dagger \big) } }

This composite turns out to be a “quantum channel” and in fact all quantum channels arise this way:


(quantum channels and decoherence)

Every quantum channel

ch: * * ch \;\;\colon\;\; \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast \longrightarrow \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{H}^\ast

may be written as

  1. a unitary quantum channel, induced by a unitary operator U tot:U_{tot} \,\colon\, \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B} \to \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B}

  2. on a compound system with some \mathscr{B} (the “bath”), yielding a total system Hilbert space \mathscr{H} \otimes \mathscr{B} (tensor product),

  3. and acting on the given mixed state ρ\rho coupled (tensored) with a fixed mixed state env: *env \,\colon\, \mathscr{B} \otimes \mathscr{B}^\ast of the bath system,

  4. followed by partial trace (averaging) over \mathscr{B} (leading to decoherence in the remaining state)

in that

(2)ch(ρ)=Tr (U tot(ρenv)U tot ). ch(\rho) \;\;=\;\; Tr_{\mathscr{B}} \big( U_{tot} \cdot (\rho \otimes env) \cdot U_{tot}^\dagger \big) \,.

Conversely, every operation of the form (2) is a quantum channel.

For exposition: Nielsen & Chuang 2000 §8.2.2-8.2.3

Detailed proof, including the infinite-dimensional case: Attal, Thm. 6.5 & 6.7.


Original discusssion identifying quantum decoherence as interaction with an averaged environment (“bath”):

With regards to the measurement problem and interpretations of quantum mechanics:

Textbook accounts:

Further review:

See also:

A proposal for mathematical quantification of coherence:

which was rediscovered and then became famous with:

Last revised on September 18, 2023 at 10:40:20. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.