How to interpret the adjoint?

Let V{0} be a inner product space, and let f:VV be a linear transformation on V.

I understand the definition1 of the adjoint of f (denoted by f), but I can’t say I really grok this other linear transformation f.

For example, it is completely unexpected to me that to say that f=f1 is equivalent to saying that f preserves all distances and angles (as defined by the inner product on V).

It is even more surprising to me to learn that to say that f=f is equivalent to saying that there exists an orthonormal basis for V that consists entirely of eigenvectors of f.

Now, I can follow the proofs of these theorems perfectly well, but the exercise gives me no insight into the nature of the adjoint.

For example, I can visualize a linear transformation f:VV whose eigenvectors are orthogonal and span the space, but this visualization tells me nothing about what f should be like when this is the case, largely because I’m completely in the dark about the adjoint in general.

Similarly, I can visualize a linear transformation f:VV that preserves lengths and angles, but, again, and for the same reason, this visualization tells me nothing about what this implies for f.

Is there (coordinate-free, representation-agnostic) way to interpret the adjoint that will make theorems like the ones mentioned above less surprising?

1 The adjoint of f:VV is the unique linear transformation f:VV (guaranteed to exist for every such linear transformation f) such that, for all u,vV,



For simplicity, let me consider only the finite-dimensional picture. In the infinite-dimensional world, you should consider bounded maps between Hilbert spaces, and the continuous duals of Hilbert spaces.

Recall that an inner product on a real [complex] vector space V defines a canonical [conjugate-linear] isomorphism from V to its dual space V by v(wv,w), where I shamelessly use the mathematical physicist’s convention that an inner product is linear in the second argument and conjugate-linear in the first; let us denote this isomorphism VV by R, so that R(v)(w):=v,w.

Now, recall that a linear transformation f:VW automatically induces a linear transformation fT:WV, the transpose of f, by ϕϕf; all fT does is use f in the obvious way to turn functionals over W into functionals over V, and really represents the image of f through the looking glass, as it were, of taking dual spaces. However, if you have inner products on V and W, then you have corresponding [conjugate-linear] isomorphisms RV:VV and RW:WW, so you can use RV and RW to reinterpret fT:WV as a map WV, i.e., you can form R1VfTRW:WV. If you unpack definitions, however, you’ll find that R1VfTRW is none other than your adjoint f. So, given fixed inner products on V and W, f is simply fT, arguably a more fundamental object, except reinterpreted as a map between your original vector spaces, and not their duals. If you like commutative diagrams, then fT, f, RV and RW all fit into a very nice commutative diagram.

As for the specific cases of unitary and self-adjoint operators:

  1. If you want to be resolutely geometrical about everything, the fundamental notion is not the notion of a unitary, but rather that of an isometry, i.e., a linear transformation f:VV such that f(u),f(v)=u,v. You can then define a unitary as an invertible isometry, which is equivalent to the definition in terms of the adjoint. In fact, if you’re working on finite-dimensional V, then you can check that f is unitary if and only if it is isometric.

  2. In light of the longish discussion above, an operator f:VV is self-adjoint if and only if fT:VV is exactly the same as f after applying the [conjugate-linear] isomorphism RV:VV, i.e., f=R1VfTRV, or equivalently, RVf=fTRV, which you can interpret as commutativity of a certain diagram. That self-adjointness implies all these nice spectral properties arguably shouldn’t be considered obvious—at the end of the day, the spectral theorem, even in the finite-dimensional case, is a highly non-trivial theorem in every respect, especially conceptually!

I’m not sure that my overall spiel about adjoints and transposes is all that convincing, but I stand by my statement that the notion of isometry is the more fundamental one geometrically, one that happens to yield the notion of unitary simply out of the very definition of an adjoint, and that the spectral properties of a self-adjoint operator really are a highly non-trivial fact that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Source : Link , Question Author : kjo , Answer Author : Branimir Ćaćić

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