The Book of Mark, Chapter 2


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Late in the summer of 2021, I visited a physics paradise in a physical paradise: the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP). The KITP sits at the edge of the University of California, Santa Barbara like a bougainvillea bush at the edge of a yard. I was eating lunch outside the KITP one afternoon, across the street from the beach. PhD student Arman Babakhani, whom a colleague had just introduced me to, had joined me.

The KITP’s Kohn Hall

What physics was I working on nowadays? Arman wanted to know.

Thermodynamic exchanges.&

The world consists of physical systems exchanging quantities with other systems. When a rose blooms outside the Santa Barbara mission, it exchanges pollen with the surrounding air. The total amount of pollen across the rose-and-air whole remains constant, so we call the amount a conserved quantity. Quantum physicists usually analyze conservation of particles, energy, and magnetization. But quantum systems can conserve quantities that participate in uncertainty relations. Such quantities are called incompatible, because you can’t measure them simultaneously. The x-, y-, and z-components of a qubit’s spin are incompatible.

The Santa Barbara mission…
…and its roses

Exchanging and conserving incompatible quantities, systems can violate thermodynamic expectations. If one system is much larger than the other, we expect the smaller system to thermalize; yet incompatibility invalidates derivations of the thermal state’s form. Incompatibility reduces the thermodynamic entropy produced by exchanges. And incompatibility can raise the average amount entanglement in the pair of systems—the total system.

If the total system conserves incompatible quantities, what happens to the eigenstate thermalization hypothesis (ETH)? Last month’s blog post overviewed the ETH, a framework for understanding how quantum many-particle systems thermalize internally. That post labeled Mark Srednicki, a professor at the KITP, a high priest of the ETH. I want, I told Arman, to ask Mark what happens when you combine the ETH with incompatible conserved quantities.

I’ll do it, Arman said.

Soon after, I found myself in the fishbowl. High up in the KITP, a room filled with cushy seats overlooks the ocean. The circular windows lend the room its nickname. Arrayed on the armchairs and couches were Mark, Arman, Mark’s PhD student Fernando Iniguez, and Mark’s recent PhD student Chaitanya Murthy. The conversation went like this:

Mark was frustrated about not being able to answer the question. I was delighted to have stumped him. Over the next several weeks, the group continued meeting, and we emailed out notes for everyone to criticize. I particulary enjoyed watching Mark and Chaitanya interact. They’d grown so intellectually close throughout Chaitanya’s PhD studies, they reminded me of an old married couple. One of them had to express only half an idea for the other to realize what he’d meant and to continue the thread. Neither had any qualms with challenging the other, yet they trusted each other’s judgment.1

In vintage KITP fashion, we’d nearly completed a project by the time Chaitanya and I left Santa Barbara. Physical Review Letters published our paper this year, and I’m as proud of it as a gardener of the first buds from her garden. Here’s what we found.

Southern California spoiled me for roses.

Incompatible conserved quantities conflict with the ETH and the ETH’s prediction of internal thermalization. Why? For three reasons. First, when inferring thermalization from the ETH, we assume that the Hamiltonian lacks degeneracies (that no energy equals any other). But incompatible conserved quantities force degeneracies on the Hamiltonian.2&

Second, when inferring from the ETH that the system thermalizes, we assume that the system begins in a microcanonical subspace. That’s an eigenspace shared by the conserved quantities (other than the Hamiltonian)—usually, an eigenspace of the total particle number or the total spin’s z-component. But, if incompatible, the conserved quantities share no eigenbasis, so they might not share eigenspaces, so microcanonical subspaces won’t exist in abundance.

Third, let’s focus on a system of N qubits. Say that the Hamiltonian conserves the total spin components S_x, S_y, and S_z. The Hamiltonian obeys the Wigner–Eckart theorem, which sounds more complicated than it is. Suppose that the qubits begin in a state | s_\alpha, \, m \rangle labeled by a spin quantum number s_\alpha and a magnetic spin quantum number m. Let a particle hit the qubits, acting on them with an operator \mathcal{O} . With what probability (amplitude) do the qubits end up with quantum numbers s_{\alpha'} and m'? The answer is \langle s_{\alpha'}, \, m' | \mathcal{O} | s_\alpha, \, m \rangle. The Wigner–Eckart theorem dictates this probability amplitude’s form.&

| s_\alpha, \, m \rangle and | s_{\alpha'}, \, m' \rangle are Hamiltonian eigenstates, thanks to the conservation law. The ETH is an ansatz for the form of \langle s_{\alpha'}, \, m' | \mathcal{O} | s_\alpha, \, m \rangle—of the elements of matrices that represent operators \mathcal{O} relative to the energy eigenbasis. The ETH butts heads with the Wigner–Eckart theorem, which also predicts the matrix element’s form.

The Wigner–Eckart theorem wins, being a theorem—a proved claim. The ETH is, as the H in the acronym relates, only a hypothesis.

If conserved quantities are incompatible, we have to kiss the ETH and its thermalization predictions goodbye. But must we set ourselves adrift entirely? Can we cling to no buoy from physics’s best toolkit for quantum many-body thermalization?

No, and yes, respectively. Our clan proposed a non-Abelian ETH for Hamiltonians that conserve incompatible quantities—or, equivalently, that have non-Abelian symmetries. The non-Abelian ETH depends on s_\alpha and on Clebsch–Gordan coefficients—conversion factors between total-spin eigenstates | s_\alpha, \, m \rangle and product states | s_1, \, m_1 \rangle \otimes | s_2, \, m_2 \rangle.

Using the non-Abelian ETH, we proved that many systems thermalize internally, despite conserving incompatible quantities. Yet the incompatibility complicates the proof enormously, extending it from half a page to several pages. Also, under certain conditions, incompatible quantities may alter thermalization. According to the conventional ETH, time-averaged expectation values \overline{ \langle \mathcal{O} \rangle }_t come to equal thermal expectation values \langle \mathcal{O} \rangle_{\rm th} to within O( N^{-1} ) corrections, as I explained last month. The correction can grow polynomially larger in the system size, to O( N^{-1/2} ), if conserved quantities are incompatible. Our conclusion holds under an assumption that we argue is physically reasonable.

So incompatible conserved quantities do alter the ETH, yet another thermodynamic expectation. Physicist Jae Dong Noh began checking the non-Abelian ETH numerically, and more testing is underway. And I’m looking forward to returning to the KITP this fall. Tales do say that paradise is a garden.

View through my office window at the KITP

1Not that married people always trust each other’s judgment.

2The reason is Schur’s lemma, a group-theoretic result. Appendix A of this paper explains the details.