University of Minnesota
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Michel Janssen

(Never) Mind your p’s and q’s: Von Neumann versus Jordan on the Foundations of Quantum Theory
Anthony Duncan and Michel Janssen, The European Physical Journal H—Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Physics 38 (2013): 175–259

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Abstract

In two papers entitled "On a new foundation [Neue Begrundung] of quantum mechanics," Pascual Jordan (1927b,g) presented his version of what came to be known as the Dirac-Jordan statistical transformation theory. As an alternative that avoids the mathematical diculties facing the approach of Jordan and Paul A. M. Dirac (1927), John von Neumann (1927a) developed the modern Hilbert space formalism of quantum mechanics. In this paper, we focus on Jordan and von Neumann. Central to the formalisms of both are expressions for conditional probabilities of finding some value for one quantity given the value of another. Beyond that Jordan and von Neumann had very diff erent views about the appropriate formulation of problems in quantum mechanics. For Jordan, unable to let go of the analogy to classical mechanics, the solution of such problems required the identi fication of sets of canonically conjugate variables, i.e., p's and q's. For von Neumann, not constrained by the analogy to classical mechanics, it required only the identify cation of a maximal set of commuting operators with simultaneous eigenstates. He had no need for p's and q's. Jordan and von Neumann also stated the characteristic new rules for probabilities in quantum mechanics somewhat di erently. Jordan (1927b) was the first to state those rules in full generality. Von Neumann (1927a) rephrased them and, in a subsequent paper (von Neumann, 1927b), sought to derive them from more basic considerations. In this paper we reconstruct the central arguments of these 1927 papers by Jordan and von Neumann and of a paper on Jordan's approach by Hilbert, von Neumann, and Nordheim (1928). We highlight those elements in these papers that bring out the gradual loosening of the ties between the new quantum formalism and classical mechanics.