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PHY 314: Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, Varsha 2009

Lectures 10
Anil Shaji
School of Physics, IISER - TVM
(Dated: 04-September-2014)
The quantum harmonic oscillator

Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again


- Douglas Adams in Mostly harmless
Quantum particles can find themselves in a variety of different potentials whether they are
mostly moving freely or confined to a lattice. Problems of interest often involve very complicated
potentials for which the Schr
odinger equation cannot be solved analytically and numerical methods
have to be resorted to. Even numerical integration of the Schrodinger equation is a tall order
because (as we will see later) of the tensor product structure of the Hilbert space of quantum states.
So one is always keen to find approximations to any given potential for which the Schrodinger
equation can be solved exactly. Fortunately for us, in a lot of interesting situations the quantum
particle of interest would be sitting in and around a minima of the potential. If the potential, V (x)
is a reasonably well behaved (analytic) function of x, then we can expand it around a minimum at
x0 as


1 d2 V (x)
dV (x)
x+
x2 + . . . .
V (x) = V (x0 ) +
dx x=x0
2 dx2 x=x0
Since the potential has a minimum at x0 , the term linear in x vanishes from this Taylor series
expansion. We can choose the origin of our coordinate system such that V (x0 ) = 0. Under these
assumptions, for small values of x, we can approximate an arbitrary potential around one of its
minima as

1 d2 V (x)
x2 = cx2 ,
V (x) '
2 dx2
x=x0

where the constant c is positive because the expansion is about a minimum.


Motivated by this observation we can now study the full problem of a quantum particle in a
potential given by
1
V (x) = m 2 x2 ,
2
where we have re-written the constant c as m 2 /2 for future convenience. In classical mechanics
this is the potential under which a particle would execute simple harmonic motion. So we refer to
the corresponding quantum case as the quantum harmonic oscillator.
A second reason for studying the quantum harmonic oscillator is that this is one of only a
handful of problems for which the Schrodinger equation admits an exact, elegant solution. In this
sense our situation is like the drunkard looking for a lost coin under the lamp. We study this
problem because we can solve it!

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I.

STATIONARY STATES OF THE QUANTUM HARMONIC OSCILLATOR

To find the stationary state of the quantum harmonic oscillator we have to solve the time
independent Schr
odinger equation,

~2 2 (x) 1
+ m 2 x2 (x) = E(x).
2m x2
2

(1)

There are two ways of solving this equation. The first is the direct approach based on standard
techniques in the theory of differential equations. The other is a rather clever approach that
simplifies the path to the solution considerably. We will study both approaches, starting with the
harder, standard method.

A.

Solving the Schr


odinger equation

The differential equation in (1) can be reduced to a nicer form by changing variables to
r
m
=
x.
~
In terms of , the Schr
odinger equation becomes
2
= ( 2 K),
2

where

K=

2E
.
~

(2)

To obtain the above equation we have used the chain rule,


 

2

=
.
2

x x
Before attempting to solve Eq. (2) we probe its solutions by considering the case where  K
(and  1). The equation reduces to
2
= 2 ,
2
which has the solution (you can easily check this),
() = Ae
Since we require
solution,

2 /2

+ Be

2 /2

dx |(x)|2 < we must have B = 0. So we have the asymptotic (long range)

() = Ae

2 /2

Now we assume that the true solution to the Schrodinger equation has the form
() = h()e

2 /2

3
where h() is a function that takes a constant value for large values of so as to match with the
asymptotic solution we have already written down. Substituting the above form (ansatz) into the
Schrodinger equation we get the following differential equation for h(),
h
2h
2
+ (K 1)h = 0
2

(3)

Since we expect h() to be a fairly well behaved function of , we expect it to have a series
expansion of the form
h() = a0 + a1 + a2 2 + . . . =

aj j .

j=0

So we have

X
h
= a1 + 2a2 + 3a3 2 + . . . =
j aj j1
d
2h
d 2

= 2 1 a2 + 3 2 a3 + . . . =

j=0

j(j 1)aj j2 =

j=0

X
(j + 2)(j + 1)aj+2 j .
j=0

Substituting these results into Eq. (3) we obtain


h
X

i
(j + 2)(j + 1)aj+2 (2j + 1 K)aj j = 0.

(4)

j=0

If the above equation has to be zero for all possible values of , then the uniqueness theorem for
series expansion says that each of the coefficients in the sum should be zero. So we obtain the
following recursion relation for the coefficients in the series expansion of h():
aj+2 =

2j + 1 K
aj .
(j + 2)(j + 1)

(5)

Because this recursion relation connects aj+2 to aj , we require the first two coefficients, a0 and a1
to determine all the remaining coefficients. This also splits the series for h() into two parts as
h() = heven () + hodd ()
where
heven () = a0 + a2 2 + a4 4 + . . .
hodd () = a1 + a3 3 + a5 5 + . . .
Before we proceed further, we note that the potential we have is symmetric about x = 0. So we
expect the stationary states to also have the same symmetry. Since we need only the observable
quantity, namely |(x)|2 to be symmetric about x = 0 we can conclude that the stationary states
can be either an even function or an odd function but not a combination of both. Accordingly, the
solutions we have correspond to either a0 = 0 or a1 = 0.

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Let us now explore one of the two parts of the series, say heven (). As we did with the wave
function () let us look at the asymptotics of the series. If we assume j  K (and j  1) the
recursion relation in Eq. (5) simplifies to
2
1
aj+2 = aj =
aj
j
j/2
we can now iterate this recursion relation to obtain (assuming j is even since we are considering
heven .
aj+2

1
1
1
1

a0 =
a0 ,
j/2 (j 2)/2
1
(j/2)!

so that
heven () ' a0

X
j=0

X 1
1
2
j = a0
2k = a0 e .
(j/2)!
k!
k=0

Using this analysis of the asymptotic behavior of the series, we find that
() = h()e

2 /2

' a0 e3

2 /2

This is not a normalizable function of . So something seems to be wrong. The only assumption
that we have made is j  K. So one concludes that j cannot be arbitrarily big if one has to find a
physically meaningful solution to the Schrodinger equation. The only way j can be prevented from
being arbitrarily big is if the recursion relation, (5) terminates. This can happen if K = 2n + 1
where n is an integer. In that case an+2 = 0 even if an 6= 0 and it follows that all subsequent terms,
an+4 , an+6 . . . will also be zero.
Let us look at the condition on K more carefully


1
2E
= 2n + 1 E = ~ n +
.
K=
~
2
This means that the possible energies that the harmonic oscillator can have is quantized in units
of ~/2. In other words, the possible oscillator energies go in steps of ~/2. We can label these
energies as En . We also note that even the ground state of the Harmonic oscillator has a finite
energy. Contrast this with the case of the classical harmonic oscillator for which the ground state
is the particle at rest at the bottom of the potential making its energy zero. Also note that the
spacing between the energy levels of the quantum harmonic oscillator is constant. This is unlike
the case of the quantum particle in a box where the spacing between energy levels grows as n2 .
The number n not only labels the energy levels of the harmonic oscillator, it also labels the
point at which the series expansion for h() terminates. So we can label the function h also as
hn () to denote the fact that we are talking about h() as it applies to the nth stationary state of
the oscillator.
Using the recursion relation (5) and the condition that the wave function is either an even or
odd function of so that only one among a0 and a1 is non-zero at a time, we can list the first few

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hn () as
h0 () = a0
h1 () = a1
h2 () = a0 (1 2 2 )
h3 () = a1 ( 2 3 /3)
1.

Eigenstates of the harmonic oscillator

The stationary state of the harmonic oscillator with energy En is


n () = hn ()e

2 /3

(6)

So
0 = a0 e

2 /2

= a0 e 2~ x

Normalization yields,
2

|a0 |

m
x2
~

r
2

= |a0 |

~
=1
m

and we get

a0 =

m
~

1/4

and

0 (x) =

m
~

1/4

e 2~ x .

In a similar manner we find that


a1 =

2a0

and

1 (x) =

m
~

1/4 r

2m m x2
x e 2~ .
~

A general expression for n can be written as




p
m 2
m 1/4 1

Hn ( m/~ x)e 2~ x ,
n (x) =
n
~
2 n!
where Hn () are the Hermite polynomials. The first few Hermite polynomials are listed below:
H0 = 1,
H1 = 2
H2 = 4 2 2
H3 = 8 3 12

(7)

6
The nth Hermite polynomial can also be obtained using the Rodriguez formula,
 n
2
n 2 d
e .
Hn () = (1) e
d
The first few energy levels and the corresponding stationary states of the quantum harmonic
oscillator are given in the figure below.