Koopman–von Neumann classical mechanics

The Koopman–von Neumann mechanics is a description of classical mechanics in terms of Hilbert space, introduced by Bernard Koopman and John von Neumann in 1931 and 1932. [1] [2] [3]

As Koopman and von Neumann demonstrated, a Hilbert space of complex, square integrable wavefunctions can be defined in which classical mechanics can be formulated as an operatorial theory similar to quantum mechanics.


Statistical mechanics describes macroscopic systems in terms of statistical ensembles, such as the macroscopic properties of an ideal gas. Ergodic theory is a branch of statistical mechanics arising from the study of statistical mechanics.

Ergodic theory

The origins of Koopman–von Neumann (KvN) theory are tightly connected with the rise of ergodic theory as an independent branch of mathematics, in particular with Boltzmann's ergodic hypothesis.

In 1931 Koopman and André Weil independently observed that the phase space of the classical system can be converted into a Hilbert space by postulating a natural integration rule over the points of the phase space as the definition of the scalar product, and that this transformation allows drawing of interesting conclusions about the evolution of physical observables from Stone's theorem, which had been proved shortly before. This finding inspired von Neumann to apply the novel formalism to the ergodic problem. Already in 1932 he completed the operator reformulation of quantum mechanics currently known as Koopman–von Neumann theory. Subsequently he published several seminal results in modern ergodic theory including the proof of his mean ergodic theorem.

Definition and dynamics

Derivation starting from the Liouville equation

In the approach of Koopman and von Neumann (KvN), dynamics in phase space is described by a (classical) probability density, recovered from an underlying wavefunction – the Koopman–von Neumann wavefunction – as the square of its absolute value (more precisely, as the amplitude multiplied with its own complex conjugate). This stands in analogy to the Born rule in quantum mechanics. In the KvN framework, observables are represented by commuting self-adjoint operators acting on the Hilbert space of KvN wavefunctions. The commutativity physically implies that all observables are simultaneously measurable. Contrast this with quantum mechanics, where observables need not commute, which underlines the uncertainty principle, Kochen–Specker theorem, and Bell inequalities.[4]

The KvN wavefunction is postulated to evolve according to exactly the same Liouville equation as the classical probability density. From this postulate it can be shown that indeed probability density dynamics is recovered.

Derivation starting from operator axioms

Conversely, it is possible to start from operator postulates, similar to the Hilbert space axioms of quantum mechanics, and derive the equation of motion by specifying how expectation values evolve.[7]

The relevant axioms are that as in quantum mechanics (i) the states of a system are represented by normalized vectors of a complex Hilbert space, and the observables are given by self-adjoint operators acting on that space, (ii) the expectation value of an observable is obtained in the manner as the expectation value in quantum mechanics, (iii) the probabilities of measuring certain values of some observables are calculated by the Born rule, and (iv) the state space of a composite system is the tensor product of the subsystem's spaces.

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