Bras and Kets, Trading off Instincts

Some physics notation is a joke, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Take bras and kets. On the surface, as silly a physics name as any. If you want to find the probability that a state in quantum mechanics turns into another state, you write down a “bracket” between the two states:

\langle a | b\rangle

This leads, with typical physics logic, to the notation for the individual states: separate out the two parts, into a “bra” and a “ket”:

\langle a||b\rangle

It’s kind of a dumb joke, and it annoys the heck out of mathematicians. Not for the joke, of course, mathematicians probably have worse.

Mathematicians are annoyed when we use complicated, weird notation for something that looks like a simple, universal concept. Here, we’re essentially just taking inner products of vectors, something mathematicians have been doing in one form or another for centuries. Yet rather than use their time-tested notation we use our own silly setup.

There’s a method to the madness, though. Bras and kets are handy for our purposes because they allow us to leverage one of the most powerful instincts of programmers: the need to close parentheses.

In programming, various forms of parentheses and brackets allow you to isolate parts of code for different purposes. One set of lines might only activate under certain circumstances, another set of brackets might make text bold. But in essentially every language, you never want to leave an open parenthesis. Doing so is almost always a mistake, one that leaves the rest of your code open to whatever isolated region you were trying to create.

Open parentheses make programmers nervous, and that’s exactly what “bras” and “kets” are for. As it turns out, the states represented by “bras” and “kets” are in a certain sense un-measurable: the only things we can measure are the brackets between them. When people say that in quantum mechanics we can only predict probabilities, that’s a big part of what they mean: the states themselves mean nothing without being assembled into probability-calculating brackets.

This ends up making “bras” and “kets” very useful. If you’re calculating something in the real world and your formula ends up with a free “bra” or a “ket”, you know you’ve done something wrong. Only when all of your bras and kets are assembled into brackets will you have something physically meaningful. Since most physicists have done some programming, the programmer’s instinct to always close parentheses comes to the rescue, nagging until you turn your formula into something that can be measured.

So while our notation may be weird, it does serve a purpose: it makes our instincts fit the counter-intuitive world of quantum mechanics.

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4 thoughts on “Bras and Kets, Trading off Instincts

  1. Wyrd Smythe

    I’ve seen the notation in a lot of papers, but never had the math background to make much use of it. For example, I never realized that the bras and kets had to be coupled to resolve.

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  2. charlesflorian

    As a mathematician: I think the bra/ket notation is great. But it’s definitely not universal. I’ve seen a senior mathematician once give a student a lot of grief for using this notation in a talk.

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