Pedagogical Review of Quantum Measurement Theory with an Emphasis on Weak Measurements

Bengt E. Y. Svensson


The quantum theory of measurement has been with us since quantum mechanics was invented. It has recently been invigorated, partly due to the increasing interest in quantum information science. In this partly pedagogical review I attempt to give a self-contained overview of non-relativistic quantum theory of measurement expressed in density matrix formalism. I will not dwell on the applications in quantum information theory; it is well covered by several books in that field. The focus is instead on applications to the theory of weak measurement, as developed by Aharonov and collaborators. Their development of weak measurement combined with what they call post-selection - judiciously choosing not only the initial state of a system (pre-selection) but also its final state - has received much attention recently. Not the least has it opened up new, fruitful experimental vistas, like novel approaches to amplification. But the approach has also attached to it some air of mystery. I will attempt to demystify it by showing that (almost) all results can be derived in a straight-forward way from conventional quantum mechanics. Among other things, I develop the formalism not only to first order but also to second order in the weak interaction responsible for the measurement. I apply it to the so called Leggett-Garg inequalities, also known as Bell inequalities in time. I also give an outline, even if rough, of some of the ingenious experiments that the work by Aharonov and collaborators has inspired. As an application of weak measurement, not related to the approach by Aharonov and collaborators, the formalism also allows me to derive the master equation for the density matrix of an open system in interaction with an environment. An issue that remains in the weak measurement plus post-selection approach is the interpretation of the so called weak value of an observable. Is it a bona fide property of the system considered? I have no definite answer to this question; I shall only exhibit the consequences of the proposed interpretation.

Quanta 2013; 2: 18–49.

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ISSN: 1314-7374