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One of the basic problems in the field of operator algebras is to develop a functional calculus for either a single operator , or a collection of operators. These operators could in principle act on any function space, but typically one either considers complex matrices (which act on a complex finite dimensional space), or operators (either bounded or unbounded) on a complex Hilbert space. (One can of course also obtain analogous results for real operators, but we will work throughout with complex operators in this post.)
Roughly speaking, a functional calculus is a way to assign an operator or to any function in a suitable function space, which is linear over the complex numbers, preserve the scalars (i.e. when ), and should be either an exact or approximate homomorphism in the sense that
to also hold either exactly or approximately. (Note that one cannot reasonably expect (1) and (2) to hold exactly for all if the and their adjoints do not commute with each other, so in those cases one has to be willing to allow some error terms in the above wish list of properties of the calculus.) Ideally, one should also be able to relate the operator norm of or with something like the uniform norm on . In principle, the existence of a good functional calculus allows one to manipulate operators as if they were scalars (or at least approximately as if they were scalars), which is very helpful for a number of applications, such as partial differential equations, spectral theory, noncommutative probability, and semiclassical mechanics. A functional calculus for multiple operators can be particularly valuable as it allows one to treat as being exact or approximate scalars simultaneously. For instance, if one is trying to solve a linear differential equation that can (formally at least) be expressed in the form
for some data , unknown function , some differential operators , and some nice function , then if one’s functional calculus is good enough (and is suitably “elliptic” in the sense that it does not vanish or otherwise degenerate too often), one should be able to solve this equation either exactly or approximately by the formula
which is of course how one would solve this equation if one pretended that the operators were in fact scalars. Formalising this calculus rigorously leads to the theory of pseudodifferential operators, which allows one to (approximately) solve or at least simplify a much wider range of differential equations than one what can achieve with more elementary algebraic transformations (e.g. integrating factors, change of variables, variation of parameters, etc.). In quantum mechanics, a functional calculus that allows one to treat operators as if they were approximately scalar can be used to rigorously justify the correspondence principle in physics, namely that the predictions of quantum mechanics approximate that of classical mechanics in the semiclassical limit .
There is no universal functional calculus that works in all situations; the strongest functional calculi, which are close to being an exact *-homomorphisms on very large class of functions, tend to only work for under very restrictive hypotheses on or (in particular, when , one needs the to commute either exactly, or very close to exactly), while there are weaker functional calculi which have fewer nice properties and only work for a very small class of functions, but can be applied to quite general operators or . In some cases the functional calculus is only formal, in the sense that or has to be interpreted as an infinite formal series that does not converge in a traditional sense. Also, when one wishes to select a functional calculus on non-commuting operators , there is a certain amount of non-uniqueness: one generally has a number of slightly different functional calculi to choose from, which generally have the same properties but differ in some minor technical details (particularly with regards to the behaviour of “lower order” components of the calculus). This is a similar to how one has a variety of slightly different coordinate systems available to parameterise a Riemannian manifold or Lie group. This is on contrast to the case when the underlying operator is (essentially) normal (so that commutes with ); in this special case (which includes the important subcases when is unitary or (essentially) self-adjoint), spectral theory gives us a canonical and very powerful functional calculus which can be used without further modification in applications.
Despite this lack of uniqueness, there is one standard choice for a functional calculus available for general operators , namely the Weyl functional calculus; it is analogous in some ways to normal coordinates for Riemannian manifolds, or exponential coordinates of the first kind for Lie groups, in that it treats lower order terms in a reasonably nice fashion. (But it is important to keep in mind that, like its analogues in Riemannian geometry or Lie theory, there will be some instances in which the Weyl calculus is not the optimal calculus to use for the application at hand.)
I decided to write some notes on the Weyl functional calculus (also known as Weyl quantisation), and to sketch the applications of this calculus both to the theory of pseudodifferential operators. They are mostly for my own benefit (so that I won’t have to redo these particular calculations again), but perhaps they will also be of interest to some readers here. (Of course, this material is also covered in many other places. e.g. Folland’s “harmonic analysis in phase space“.)