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Let {L: H \rightarrow H} be a self-adjoint operator on a finite-dimensional Hilbert space {H}. The behaviour of this operator can be completely described by the spectral theorem for finite-dimensional self-adjoint operators (i.e. Hermitian matrices, when viewed in coordinates), which provides a sequence {\lambda_1,\ldots,\lambda_n \in {\bf R}} of eigenvalues and an orthonormal basis {e_1,\ldots,e_n} of eigenfunctions such that {L e_i = \lambda_i e_i} for all {i=1,\ldots,n}. In particular, given any function {m: \sigma(L) \rightarrow {\bf C}} on the spectrum {\sigma(L) := \{ \lambda_1,\ldots,\lambda_n\}} of {L}, one can then define the linear operator {m(L): H \rightarrow H} by the formula

\displaystyle  m(L) e_i := m(\lambda_i) e_i,

which then gives a functional calculus, in the sense that the map {m \mapsto m(L)} is a {C^*}-algebra isometric homomorphism from the algebra {BC(\sigma(L) \rightarrow {\bf C})} of bounded continuous functions from {\sigma(L)} to {{\bf C}}, to the algebra {B(H \rightarrow H)} of bounded linear operators on {H}. Thus, for instance, one can define heat operators {e^{-tL}} for {t>0}, Schrödinger operators {e^{itL}} for {t \in {\bf R}}, resolvents {\frac{1}{L-z}} for {z \not \in \sigma(L)}, and (if {L} is positive) wave operators {e^{it\sqrt{L}}} for {t \in {\bf R}}. These will be bounded operators (and, in the case of the Schrödinger and wave operators, unitary operators, and in the case of the heat operators with {L} positive, they will be contractions). Among other things, this functional calculus can then be used to solve differential equations such as the heat equation

\displaystyle  u_t + Lu = 0; \quad u(0) = f \ \ \ \ \ (1)

the Schrödinger equation

\displaystyle  u_t + iLu = 0; \quad u(0) = f \ \ \ \ \ (2)

the wave equation

\displaystyle  u_{tt} + Lu = 0; \quad u(0) = f; \quad u_t(0) = g \ \ \ \ \ (3)

or the Helmholtz equation

\displaystyle  (L-z) u = f. \ \ \ \ \ (4)

The functional calculus can also be associated to a spectral measure. Indeed, for any vectors {f, g \in H}, there is a complex measure {\mu_{f,g}} on {\sigma(L)} with the property that

\displaystyle  \langle m(L) f, g \rangle_H = \int_{\sigma(L)} m(x) d\mu_{f,g}(x);

indeed, one can set {\mu_{f,g}} to be the discrete measure on {\sigma(L)} defined by the formula

\displaystyle  \mu_{f,g}(E) := \sum_{i: \lambda_i \in E} \langle f, e_i \rangle_H \langle e_i, g \rangle_H.

One can also view this complex measure as a coefficient

\displaystyle  \mu_{f,g} = \langle \mu f, g \rangle_H

of a projection-valued measure {\mu} on {\sigma(L)}, defined by setting

\displaystyle  \mu(E) f := \sum_{i: \lambda_i \in E} \langle f, e_i \rangle_H e_i.

Finally, one can view {L} as unitarily equivalent to a multiplication operator {M: f \mapsto g f} on {\ell^2(\{1,\ldots,n\})}, where {g} is the real-valued function {g(i) := \lambda_i}, and the intertwining map {U: \ell^2(\{1,\ldots,n\}) \rightarrow H} is given by

\displaystyle  U ( (c_i)_{i=1}^n ) := \sum_{i=1}^n c_i e_i,

so that {L = U M U^{-1}}.

It is an important fact in analysis that many of these above assertions extend to operators on an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space {H}, so long as one one is careful about what “self-adjoint operator” means; these facts are collectively referred to as the spectral theorem. For instance, it turns out that most of the above claims have analogues for bounded self-adjoint operators {L: H \rightarrow H}. However, in the theory of partial differential equations, one often needs to apply the spectral theorem to unbounded, densely defined linear operators {L: D \rightarrow H}, which (initially, at least), are only defined on a dense subspace {D} of the Hilbert space {H}. A very typical situation arises when {H = L^2(\Omega)} is the square-integrable functions on some domain or manifold {\Omega} (which may have a boundary or be otherwise “incomplete”), and {D = C^\infty_c(\Omega)} are the smooth compactly supported functions on {\Omega}, and {L} is some linear differential operator. It is then of interest to obtain the spectral theorem for such operators, so that one build operators such as {e^{-tL}, e^{itL}, \frac{1}{L-z}, e^{it\sqrt{L}}} or to solve equations such as (1), (2), (3), (4).

In order to do this, some necessary conditions on the densely defined operator {L: D \rightarrow H} must be imposed. The most obvious is that of symmetry, which asserts that

\displaystyle  \langle Lf, g \rangle_H = \langle f, Lg \rangle_H \ \ \ \ \ (5)

for all {f, g \in D}. In some applications, one also wants to impose positive definiteness, which asserts that

\displaystyle  \langle Lf, f \rangle_H \geq 0 \ \ \ \ \ (6)

for all {f \in D}. These hypotheses are sufficient in the case when {L} is bounded, and in particular when {H} is finite dimensional. However, as it turns out, for unbounded operators these conditions are not, by themselves, enough to obtain a good spectral theory. For instance, one consequence of the spectral theorem should be that the resolvents {(L-z)^{-1}} are well-defined for any strictly complex {z}, which by duality implies that the image of {L-z} should be dense in {H}. However, this can fail if one just assumes symmetry, or symmetry and positive definiteness. A well-known example occurs when {H} is the Hilbert space {H := L^2((0,1))}, {D := C^\infty_c((0,1))} is the space of test functions, and {L} is the one-dimensional Laplacian {L := -\frac{d^2}{dx^2}}. Then {L} is symmetric and positive, but the operator {L-k^2} does not have dense image for any complex {k}, since

\displaystyle  \langle (L-\overline{k}^2) f, e^{\overline{k}x} \rangle_H = 0

for all test functions {f \in C^\infty_c((0,1))}, as can be seen from a routine integration by parts. As such, the resolvent map is not everywhere uniquely defined. There is also a lack of uniqueness for the wave, heat, and Schrödinger equations for this operator (note that there are no spatial boundary conditions specified in these equations).

Another example occurs when {H := L^2((0,+\infty))}, {D := C^\infty_c((0,+\infty))}, {L} is the momentum operator {L := i \frac{d}{dx}}. Then the resolvent {(L-z)^{-1}} can be uniquely defined for {z} in the upper half-plane, but not in the lower half-plane, due to the obstruction

\displaystyle  \langle (L-z) f, e^{i \bar{z} x} \rangle_H = 0

for all test functions {f} (note that the function {e^{i\bar{z} x}} lies in {L^2((0,+\infty))} when {z} is in the lower half-plane). For related reasons, the translation operators {e^{itL}} have a problem with either uniqueness or existence (depending on whether {t} is positive or negative), due to the unspecified boundary behaviour at the origin.

The key property that lets one avoid this bad behaviour is that of essential self-adjointness. Once {L} is essentially self-adjoint, then spectral theorem becomes applicable again, leading to all the expected behaviour (e.g. existence and uniqueness for the various PDE given above).

Unfortunately, the concept of essential self-adjointness is defined rather abstractly, and is difficult to verify directly; unlike the symmetry condition (5) or the positive condition (6), it is not a “local” condition that can be easily verified just by testing {L} on various inputs, but is instead a more “global” condition. In practice, to verify this property, one needs to invoke one of a number of a partial converses to the spectral theorem, which roughly speaking asserts that if at least one of the expected consequences of the spectral theorem is true for some symmetric densely defined operator {L}, then {L} is self-adjoint. Examples of “expected consequences” include:

  • Existence of resolvents {(L-z)^{-1}} (or equivalently, dense image for {L-z});
  • Existence of a contractive heat propagator semigroup {e^{tL}} (in the positive case);
  • Existence of a unitary Schrödinger propagator group {e^{itL}};
  • Existence of a unitary wave propagator group {e^{it\sqrt{L}}} (in the positive case);
  • Existence of a “reasonable” functional calculus.
  • Unitary equivalence with a multiplication operator.

Thus, to actually verify essential self-adjointness of a differential operator, one typically has to first solve a PDE (such as the wave, Schrödinger, heat, or Helmholtz equation) by some non-spectral method (e.g. by a contraction mapping argument, or a perturbation argument based on an operator already known to be essentially self-adjoint). Once one can solve one of the PDEs, then one can apply one of the known converse spectral theorems to obtain essential self-adjointness, and then by the forward spectral theorem one can then solve all the other PDEs as well. But there is no getting out of that first step, which requires some input (typically of an ODE, PDE, or geometric nature) that is external to what abstract spectral theory can provide. For instance, if one wants to establish essential self-adjointness of the Laplace-Beltrami operator {L = -\Delta_g} on a smooth Riemannian manifold {(M,g)} (using {C^\infty_c(M)} as the domain space), it turns out (under reasonable regularity hypotheses) that essential self-adjointness is equivalent to geodesic completeness of the manifold, which is a global ODE condition rather than a local one: one needs geodesics to continue indefinitely in order to be able to (unitarily) solve PDEs such as the wave equation, which in turn leads to essential self-adjointness. (Note that the domains {(0,1)} and {(0,+\infty)} in the previous examples were not geodesically complete.) For this reason, essential self-adjointness of a differential operator is sometimes referred to as quantum completeness (with the completeness of the associated Hamilton-Jacobi flow then being the analogous classical completeness).

In these notes, I wanted to record (mostly for my own benefit) the forward and converse spectral theorems, and to verify essential self-adjointness of the Laplace-Beltrami operator on geodesically complete manifolds. This is extremely standard analysis (covered, for instance, in the texts of Reed and Simon), but I wanted to write it down myself to make sure that I really understood this foundational material properly.

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