“Basis Vector” Confusion

A Quora question asks: “The wave function is contained in a Hilbert space while its basis vectors aren’t because plane waves are not square-integrable functions. Is this true for all Hilbert spaces or only for the square-integrable sub-space?”

My response: There are a number of ways you are misusing the language here, and I thought at first that your main misunderstanding may be to think that an element of a Hilbert space has its own set of basis vectors – while in quantum theories the choice of a relevant basis is more often related to an observable than to a state. But perhaps you are not associating the “basis” with a particular wave function, and rather thinking of it as associated with the position space representation as a whole. That makes more sense so let’s go back and try to describe the situation more clearly.

A wave function is a representation of an element of the Hilbert space of quantum states by a square integrable function (but the space of such functions is actually isomorphic to the entire state space as a whole and not just a proper sub-space). There are many such representations, sometimes with associated ways of identifying bases and sometimes not. In particular for any observable with purely discrete spectrum (such as the Hamiltonian of a harmonic oscillator) there is a basis of eigenvectors, and every state is represented by a square summable sequence corresponding to its spectral decomposition. Unfortunately the position and momentum observables have pure continuous spectrum and no eigenvectors, so the corresponding representations involve elements from some larger space. The usual “position space” wave function corresponds to the spectral decomposition of the position operator, and the analogue of basis vectors are actually not functions at all but rather distributions (in particular delta functions). The plane waves on the other hand are (position-space representations of) eigenfunctions of the momentum operator (but again not eigenvectors since not in the Hilbert space).

So in the end I might answer your question by saying that there is only one Hilbert space of states but that any complete set of observables can be used to represent it in terms of square integrable functions (or sequences); and that it is only in the case of pure point spectrum that the resulting spectral decomposition can be described in terms of an actual basis, while observables with continuous spectrum generally require some kind of generalized basis involving functions or distributions that do not actually correspond to normalizable states.

In QM, how can all people see something and all report the same thing? Wouldn’t 1 person’s observation cause their reality to branch off?

Quantum physics, without any additional “interpretation”, is just a tool for predicting the probabilities of various possible future observations from knowledge of other observations we have made in the past. To do so, it summarizes the observer’s previous observations (up to the point of the observer’s last interaction with the system) in what is called the “state” of the system relative to that observer. Any new observation ends the period of isolation of the system from the observer and so requires that a new relative state be defined taking into account the result of the most recent observation.

(Actually the “observer” of the system here doesn’t have to be a person or any other conscious entity. Any other physical system that it could interact with will do – with observations just corresponding to changes of the state of the observing system relative to any other “external” observer.)

It turns out that all observers who are isolated from the system during an experiment, and who start with the same information about the system, can use the same mathematical object to represent its relative state and for making predictions about the outcome; and this has led to the idea that the state is somehow completely independent of the observer – with various convoluted “interpretations” being added to “explain” what is “really” going on. But none of these adds anything in the way of useful predictions, and they all lead to various kinds of seeming paradox which get seriously multiplied if you mix different “interpretations” (as pointed out in Johann Holzel’s answer ).

Actually, if some friend, or other observers, (or just other physical systems) observe (or just interact with) the system before you do, then the states of the system relative to them “collapse” in the sense that after the observation (or other interaction) the probabilities of future observations are changed (with some becoming no longer possible and others more likely). But the state of the system relative to you does not collapse until you interact with it – either directly (eg by observing it yourself), or indirectly (eg by observing or communicating with your friend).

Usually it is quite hard to keep things isolated, and so just by being in the same room and sharing contact with the same air and ambient radiation you are effectively always interacting with your friend; so even without consciously learning what the friend has observed you have access to that information and so the collapse occurs for you too at the same time as for the friend. But if we were to keep the friend completely isolated in a pure quantum state (which is not possible for a real person, or even a cat, but might be possible for another microscopic system as the “observer”), then the combination of experimental system and “friend” could be in a pure state relative to you which remains uncollapsed until you actually learn the outcome (either by observing the system directly or by checking with your friend).

But as soon as we have been in contact with one another, the you that I see will agree with me about the experiment, and the me that you see will agree with you.

fromQuora: Isn’t a ‘probability wave’ simply a statistical function and not a real wave? Does it no more ‘collapse’ than me turning over a card and saying that the probability ‘wave’ of a particular deal has collapsed?

Well, as other answers have noted, the wave function of quantum mechanics is not a probability wave as its values are complex and it is only the squared amplitude that gives a probability density. But the process of “collapse” involved in a quantum measurement does involve something like your playing card analogy.

There are actually two stages in the measurement and observation process. One is the interaction with an incompletely known measurement apparatus which reduces or eliminates the prospects for future interference and basically turns the previously pure state of the isolated system (considered as a subsystem of the larger world) into a statistical mixture. And the second is the collapse of that statistical mixture by observation – with the result that, from the observer’s point of view, of the many possible alternatives only one is actually true.

And if this makes it seem to you that the “state” of the system actually depends on the observer then you are on the right track. (But it is nothing special about the “consciousness” of the observer that is relevant here. Almost any localized system could play the same role relative to the rest of the universe.)

Any configuration history of any physical system can be considered as “seeing” the rest of the universe in a “relative state” which “collapses” when the configuration history in question passes a point beyond which the configuration includes information about that particular measurement value.