nLab state on a star-algebra


This entry describes a concrete formalization of the general notion of state in the context of quantum probability theory and algebraic quantum field theory and operator algebra. For other conceptualizations of states see there.


Measure and probability theory

Functional analysis

Algeraic Quantum Field Theory

algebraic quantum field theory (perturbative, on curved spacetimes, homotopical)



field theory:

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quantum mechanical system, quantum probability

free field quantization

gauge theories

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States and observables

Operator algebra

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Perturbative QFT



The concept of state on a star-algebra is the formalization of the general idea of states from the point of view of quantum probability theory and algebraic quantum theory.

In order to motivate the definition from more traditional formulations in physics, recall that there a state \langle - \rangle is the information that allows to assign to each observable AA the expectation value A\langle A\rangle that this observable has when the physical system is assumed to be in that state.

Often this is formalized in the Schrödinger picture where a Hilbert space of states \mathcal{H} is taken as primary, and the observables are represented as suitable linear operators AA on \mathcal{H}. Then for ψ\psi \in \mathcal{H} a state (pure state) the expectation value of AA in this state is the inner product ψ|A|ψ(ψ,Aψ)\langle \psi \vert A \vert \psi \rangle \coloneqq (\psi, A \psi). This defines a linear function

ψ||ψ:𝒜 \langle \psi \vert - \vert \psi \rangle \;\colon\; \mathcal{A} \longrightarrow \mathbb{C}

on the algebra of observables 𝒜\mathcal{A}, satisfying some extra properties.

Conversely, in the Heisenberg picture one may take the “abstract” algebra of observables as primary (i.e. not necessarily manifested as an operator algebra), and declare that a state is any linear functional

:𝒜 \langle - \rangle \;\colon\; \mathcal{A} \longrightarrow \mathbb{C}

which is positive in that A *A0\langle A^\ast A\rangle \geq 0 and normalized in that 1=1\langle 1\rangle = 1. Under suitable conditions a Hilbert space of states may be (re-)constructed from this a posteriori via the GNS construction.

Traditionally this definition is considered for algebras of observables which are C*-algebras (as usually required for non-perturbative quantum field theory, see e.g. Fredenhagen (2003) Sec. 2, Landsman (2017) Def. 2.4), but the definition makes sense generally for plain star-algebras (Meyer (1995), I.1.1), such as for instance for the formal power series algebras that appear in perturbative quantum field theory (e.g. Bordemann-Waldmann (1996) Def. 1, Fredenhagen & Rejzner (2012) Def. 2.4, Khavkine & Moretti (2015) Def. 6, Dütsch (2018) Def. 2.11).

Of course, the notion of states depends only on the *\ast-algebra’s underlying partially ordered complex vector space (see here) and hence makes sense in the generality of any partially ordered vector space, in which case one refers to them also as positive linear functionals or similar (e.g. Murphy (1990) §3.3).

The perspective that states are normalized positive linear functionals on the algebra of observables is implicit in traditional perturbative quantum field theory, where it is encoded in the 2-point function corresponding to a vacuum state or more generally a quasi-free quantum state (the Hadamard propagator). The perspective is made explicit in algebraic quantum field theory (see e.g. Fredenhagen 03, section 2) and for star-algebras of observables that are not necessarily C*-algebras in perturbative algebraic quantum field theory (e.g. Bordemann-Waldmann 96, Fredenhagen-Rejzner 12, def. 2.4, Khavkine-Moretti 15, def. 6, Dütsch 18, def. 2.11).


For unital star algebras


(state on a unital star algebra)

Let 𝒜\mathcal{A} be a unital star-algebra over the complex numbers \mathbb{C}. A state on 𝒜\mathcal{A} is a linear function

ρ:𝒜 \rho \;\colon\; \mathcal{A} \longrightarrow \mathbb{C}

such that

  1. (positivity) for all A𝒜A \in \mathcal{A} the value of ρ\rho on the product A *AA^\ast A is

    1. realρ(A *A)\,\rho(A^\ast A) \in \mathbb{R} \hookrightarrow \mathbb{C}

    2. as such non-negative:

    (1)ρ(A *A)0 \rho(A^\ast A) \geq 0
  2. (normalization)

    (2)ρ(1)=1 \rho(\mathbf{1}) = 1

    for 1𝒜\mathbf{1} \in \mathcal{A} the unit in the algebra.

(e.g. Meyer 95, I.1.1, Bordemann-Waldmann 96, Fredenhagen-Rejzner 12, def. 2.4, Khavkine-Moretti 15, def. 6, Landsman 2017, Def. 2.4)


(probability theoretic interpretation of state on a star-algebra)

A star algebra 𝒜\mathcal{A} equipped with a state is also called a quantum probability space, at least when 𝒜\mathcal{A} is in fact a von Neumann algebra.


(states form a convex set)

For 𝒜\mathcal{A} a unital star-algebra, the set of states on 𝒜\mathcal{A} according to def. is naturally a convex set: For ρ 1,ρ 2:𝒜\rho_1, \rho_2 \colon \mathcal{A} \to \mathbb{C} two states then for every p[0,1]p \in [0,1] \subset \mathbb{R} also the linear combination

𝒜 pρ 1+(1p)ρ 2 A pρ 1(A)+(1p)ρ 2(A) \array{ \mathcal{A} &\overset{p \rho_1 + (1-p) \rho_2}{\longrightarrow}& \mathbb{C} \\ A &\mapsto& p \rho_1(A) + (1-p) \rho_2(A) }

is a state.


(pure state)

A state ρ:𝒜\rho \colon \mathcal{A} \to \mathbb{C} on a unital star-algebra (def. ) is called a pure state if it is extremal in the convex set of all states (remark ) in that an identification

ρ=pρ 1+(1p)ρ 2 \rho = p \rho_1 + (1-p) \rho_2

for p(0,1)p \in (0,1) implies that ρ 1=ρ 2\rho_1 = \rho_2 (hence =ρ= \rho).

For C *C^\ast-Algebras

The following discusses states specifically on C*-algebras.


An element AA of an (abstract) C *C^*-algebra is called positive if it is self-adjoint and its spectrum is contained in [0,)[0, \infinity). We write A0A \ge 0 and say that the set of all positive operators is the positive cone (of a given C *C^*-algebra).


This definition is motivated by the Hilbert space situation, where an operator A()A \in \mathcal{B} (\mathcal{H}) is called positive if for every vector xx \in \mathcal{H} the inequality x,Ax0 \langle x, A x \rangle \ge 0 holds. If the abstract C *C^*-algebra of the definition above is represented on a Hilbert space, then we see that by functional calculus we can define a self adjoint operator BB by Bf(A)B \coloneqq f(A) with f(t):=t 1/2f(t) := t^{1/2} and get x,Ax=Bx,Bx0 \langle x, A x \rangle = \langle B x, B x \rangle \ge 0. This shows that the positive elements of the abstract algebra, if represented on a Hilbert space, become positive operators as defined here in the Hilbert space setting.


A linear functional ρ\rho on an C *C^*-algebra is positive if A0A \ge 0 implies that ρ(A)0\rho(A) \ge 0.

A state of a unital C *C^*-algebra is linear functional ρ\rho such that ρ\rho is positive and ρ(1)=1\rho(1) = 1.

Though the mathematical notion of state is already close to what physicists have in mind, they usually restrict the set of states further and consider normal states only. We let \mathcal{R} be an C *C^*-algebra and π\pi an representation of \mathcal{R} on a Hilbert space \mathcal{H}.


A normal state ρ\rho is a state that satisfies one of the following equivalent conditions:

  • ρ\rho is weak-operator continuous on the unit ball of π()\pi(\mathcal{R}).

  • ρ\rho is strong-operator continuous on the unit ball π()\pi(\mathcal{R}).

  • ρ\rho is ultra-weak continuous.

  • There is an operator AA of trace class of \mathcal{H} with tr(A)=1tr(A) = 1 such that ρ(π(R))=tr(Aπ(R))\rho(\pi(R)) = tr(A \pi(R)) for all RR \in \mathcal{R}.

This appears as KadisonRingrose, def. 7.1.11, theorem 7.1.12


This list is not complete, there are more commonly used equivalent characterizations of normal states.

The last one is most frequently used by physicists, in that context the operator AA is also called a density matrix or density operator.

Sometimes the observables of a system are described by an abstract C *C^*-algebra, in this case an important notion is the folium:


The folium of a representation π\pi of an C *C^*-algebra \mathcal{R} on a Hilbert space is the set of normal states of π()\pi(\mathcal{R}).


A state ρ\rho of a representation is called a vector state if there is a xx \in \mathcal{H} such that ρ(π(R))=π(R)x,x\rho(\pi(R)) = \langle \pi(R)x, x \rangle for all RR \in \mathcal{R}.


Normal states are vector states if \mathcal{R} is a von Neumann algebra with a separating vector. More precisely: Let \mathcal{R} be a von Neumman algebra acting on a Hilbert space \mathcal{H}, let ρ\rho be a normal state of \mathcal{R} and xx \in \mathcal{H} be a separating vector for \mathcal{R}, then there is a yy \in \mathcal{H} such that ρ(R)=Ry,y\rho(R) = \langle Ry, y \rangle for all RR \in \mathcal{R}.

This appears as KadisonRingrose, theorem 7.2.3.

The set of states of an C *C^*-algebra is sometimes called the state space.

The state space is non-empty (define a state on the subalgebra 1\mathbb{C} 1 and extend it to the whole C *C^*-algebra via the Hahn-Banach theorem), convex and weak*^*-compact, so it has extreme points. By the Krein-Milman theorem? (see Wikipedia: Krein-Milman theorem) it is the weak*^*-closure of its extreme points.


A pure state is a state that is an extreme point of the state space.

The term “pure” originates from the notion of entanglement, a pure state is not a mixture of two distinct other states.



(classical probability measure as state on measurable functions)
For Ω\Omega a locally compact Hausdorff space equipped with a compatible structure of a classical probability space, hence a measure space which normalized total measure Ωdμ=1\int_\Omega d\mu = 1, let 𝒜C 0(Ω)\mathcal{A} \coloneqq C_0(\Omega) be the algebra of continuous function with values in the complex numbers and vanishing at infinity, regarded as a star algebra by pointwise complex conjugation. Then forming the expectation value with respect to μ\mu defines a state (def. ):

C 0(Ω) μ A ΩAdμ \array{ C_0(\Omega) &\overset{\langle - \rangle_\mu}{\longrightarrow}& \mathbb{C} \\ A &\mapsto& \int_\Omega A \, d\mu }

(e.g. Landsman 2017, p. 16-17)


(elements of a Hilbert space as pure states on bounded operators)

Let \mathcal{H} be a complex separable Hilbert space with inner product ,\langle -,-\rangle and let 𝒜()\mathcal{A} \coloneqq \mathcal{B}(\mathcal{H}) be the algebra of bounded operators, regarded as a star algebra under forming adjoint operators. Then for every element ψ\psi \in \mathcal{H} of unit norm ψ,ψ=1\langle \psi,\psi\rangle = 1 there is the state (def. ) given by

() ψ A ψ|A|ψ ψ,Aψ \array{ \mathcal{B}(\mathcal{H}) &\overset{\langle -\rangle_\psi}{\longrightarrow}& \mathbb{C} \\ A &\mapsto& \langle \psi \vert\, A \, \vert \psi \rangle &\coloneqq& \langle \psi, A \psi \rangle }

These are pure states (def. ).

More general states in this case are given by density matrices.


(states on group algebras are unitary representations)
Let GG be a discrete group and [G]\mathbb{C}[G] its group algebra regarded as a complex star-algebra under the combined operation of inversion of group elements and complex conjugation of the coefficients.

Then each state ρ:[G]\rho \,\colon\,\mathbb{C}[G] \longrightarrow \mathbb{C} (Def. ) arises from a unitary representation (-)^:U()\widehat{(\text{-})} \,\colon\, \longrightarrow U(\mathscr{H}) on a Hilbert space (,|)(\mathscr{H}, \langle -\vert-\rangle) with a cyclic vector ψ\psi \in \mathscr{H} as

ρ(g)=ψ|g^ψ. \rho(g) \;=\; \big\langle \psi \big\vert \widehat{g} \cdot \psi \big\rangle \,.

(With suitable adjustments, this statement generalizes from discrete to topological groups.)

This is due to Gelfand & Raikov (1943) (2), Naimark (1956) §30 Thm. 1 (reviewed at eom) further generalization in Saworotnow (1970), (1972), textbook account in Dixmier (1977) Thm. 13.4.5 (ii).


Closure properties


(mixtures, convex combinations)

For k +k \in \mathbb{N}_+, let

  • (ρ i:𝒜) i=1 k\big( \rho_i \colon \mathcal{A} \to \mathbb{C} \big)_{i = 1}^k

    be a kk-tuple of states;

  • (p i 0) i=1 k\big( p_i \in \mathbb{R}_{\geq 0} \big)_{i = 1}^k, i=1kp i=1\underoverset{i = 1}{k}{\sum} p_i \;=\; 1

    be a probability distribution on the finite set {1,,k}\{1, \cdots, k\}

then the convex combination

i=1kp iρ i𝒜 * \underoverset{i = 1}{k}{\sum} p_i \cdot \rho_i \;\;\; \in \; \mathcal{A}^\ast

is another state on the star-algebra 𝒜\mathcal{A}.


(operator-state correspondence)

For ρ:𝒜\rho \;\colon\; \mathcal{A} \to \mathbb{C} a state, with a non-null observable O𝒜O \in \mathcal{A}, ρ(O *O)0\rho(O^\ast O) \neq 0, then also

(3)ρ O:A1ρ(O *O)ρ(O *AO) \rho_O \;\colon\; A \;\mapsto\; \tfrac{1}{ \rho(O^\ast O) } \cdot \rho\big( O^\ast \cdot A \cdot O \big)

is a state.


To check positivity (1), we compute for any A𝒜A \in \mathcal{A} as follows:

ρ O(A *A) =1ρ(O *O)ρ(O *(A *A)O) =1ρ(O *O)ρ((AO) *(AO)) 0, \begin{aligned} \rho_O \big( A^\ast \cdot A \big) & = \tfrac{1}{\rho(O^\ast O)} \cdot \rho \big( O^\ast \cdot ( A^\ast \cdot A ) \cdot O \big) \\ & = \tfrac{1}{\rho(O^\ast O)} \cdot \rho \big( ( A \cdot O )^\ast \cdot ( A \cdot O ) \big) \\ & \geq 0 \,, \end{aligned}

where the first step is the definition (3) the second step uses the anti-homomorphisms-property of the star-involution, and the last step follows by the assumed positivivity of ρ\rho.

To check normalization (2), we observe that:

ρ O(1) =1ρ(O *O)ρ(O *1O) =1ρ(O *O)ρ(O *O) =1. \begin{aligned} \rho_O(\mathbf{1}) & = \tfrac{1}{\rho(O^\ast O)} \cdot \rho \big( O^\ast \cdot \mathbf{1} \cdot O \big) \\ & = \tfrac{1}{\rho(O^\ast O)} \cdot \rho \big( O^\ast \cdot O \big) \\ & = 1 \,. \end{aligned}

Fell’s theorem

See at Fell's theorem.

Gleason’s theorem

See at Gleason's theorem.

quantum probability theoryobservables and states



Textbook account:

Discussion under the name “positive linear functionals”:

With an eye towards density matrices and their entropy:

With an eye towards Gelfand-Tsetlin algebras and in the generality of conditional expectation values:

Original articles

For more references see at operator algebra.

The case of group algebras

The characterization of states on group algebras:

Last revised on June 15, 2024 at 08:57:27. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.