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A Wigner function tutorial

Wigner function explanation

Consider a classical harmonic oscillator. Its motion can be completely described by a point in the phase space – the two-dimensional space with the particle’s coordinate X and momentum P as dimensions (quadratures) [Fig. 1(a)]. For a large number of identical classical oscillators, one can talk about the phase-space probability distribution – a function W(X, P) which indicates the probability of finding a particle at a certain point in the phase space [Fig. 1(b)]. This function must, of course, be non-negative and normalized: its integral over the entire phase space must be equal to one.

This classical probability distribution has another important property. Consider a series of measurements in which we only measure the oscillator’s coordinate but not the momentum. After a large number of such measurements, one obtains the probability distribution associated with the coordinate – we call this a marginal distribution pr(X). This distribution is related to the phase-space probability density in the following way: eq. In other words, a marginal distribution is just a density projection of W(X, P) onto a plane associated with the given quadrature [Fig 1(d)].

In the quantum world [Fig. 1(c)], the notion of a “certain point in the phase space” does not make sense because the position and the momentum cannot be measured simultaneously (Heisenberg's uncertainty principle). Neither does the phase-space probability density. However, even in the quantum domain one can perform quantum measurements of a single quadrature – be it X, P, or their linear combination. A multiple measurement of a quadrature on a set of identical quantum states will yield a probability density associated with this quadrature, i.e. a marginal distribution. Is there any connection between marginal distributions for different quadratures?

In the classical world this connection exists – through the phase-space probability density as discussed above. The amazing fact is that even in the quantum domain there exists so called phase space quasiprobability density – called the Wigner function – with exactly the same property. A marginal distribution associated with a particular quantum state and a particular quadrature is a projection of the state’s Wigner function upon the relevant vertical plane.

The Wigner function of a given state can be calculated from its density matrix. For each quantum ensemble there exists a Wigner function. Just as the classical phase-space probability density, it is real and normalized. However, the Wigned function has one very important difference from its classical analogue. Because by itself it does not have a meaning of a probability density, it does not have to be positive definite. An example is provided by so-called Fock states of harmonic oscillators – the states of definite energy. No matter what the energy is, the phase space has regions where the Wigner function takes on negative values.