Pauli spin matrices

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The Pauli spin matrices (named after physicist Wolfgang Ernst Pauli) are a set of unitary Hermitian matrices which form an orthogonal basis (along with the identity matrix) for the real Hilbert space of 2 × 2 Hermitian matrices and for the complex Hilbert spaces of all 2 × 2 matrices. They are usually denoted:[1]

Algebraic properties

For i = 1, 2, 3:

Commutation relations

The Pauli matrices obey the following commutation and anticommutation relations:

where is the Levi-Civita symbol, is the Kronecker delta, and I is the identity matrix.

The above two relations can be summarized as:


The commutation relations for the Pauli spin matrices can be rearranged as:

with αβγ any combination of xyz.

These commutation relations are the same as those satisfied by the generators of infinitesimal rotations in three-dimensional space. If the Pauli matrices are considered to act on a two-dimensional "spin" space, finite rotations in this space can be connected to rotations in three-dimensional space. These spin-space rotations are generated by the Pauli spin matrices, with a finite rotation in three-space of angle θ about the axis aligned with unit vector û becoming in spin-space the rotation:

If û is in the z direction, for example:

as can be verified using the Taylor series expansion:

Given a set of Euler angles α, β, γ describing orientation of an object in ordinary three-dimensional space, the general spin-space rotation corresponding to these angles is described as:[2]

The two-dimensional matrices describing all rotations in "spin space" form a representation of the special unitary group of transformations of two complex variables, usually denoted as SU(2), formally described as the group of transformations of two-dimensional complex vectors leaving their inner product fixed, and hence also the norm of a complex vector.[3]


These commutation relations can be viewed as applying in general, and the question opened as to what general mathematical objects might satisfy these rules. A set of symbols with a defined sum and a product taken as a commutator of the symbols is called a Lie algebra.[4]

One can construct sets of square matrices of various dimensions that satisfy these commutation rules; each set is a so-called representation of the rules. One finds that there are many such sets, but they can be sorted into two kinds: irreducible and reducible. The reducible sets of matrices can be shown to be equivalent to matrices with smaller irreducible matrices down the diagonal, so that the rules are satisfied within these smaller constituent matrices, and the entire matrix is not essential. The irreducible sets cannot be arranged this way.[5] The Pauli matrices are the basis for an irreducible two-dimensional representation of this Lie algebra.


  1. Markus Reiher, Alexander Wolf (2009). Relativistic quantum chemistry: the fundamental theory of molecular science. Wiley-VCH, p. 141. ISBN 3527312927. 
  2. Hans-Jurgen Weber, George Brown Arfken (2004). Essential mathematical methods for physicists, 5th ed. Academic Press, p. 241. ISBN 0120598779. 
  3. For example, see R. Mirman (1995). “§X.5 The unitary, unimodular group SU(2)”, Group Theory: An Intuitive Approach. World Scientific, pp. 284 ff. ISBN 9810233655. 
  4. For a mathematical discussion see R. Mirman (1997). “§X.7 Angular momentum operators and their algebra”, Group Theory: An Intuitive Approach. World Scientific Publishing Company, pp. 292 ff. ISBN 9810233655.  Matrices satisfying the commutation rules are called a matrix representation of the Lie algebra. See BG Adams, J Cizek, J Paldus (1987). “§2.2 Matrix representation of a Lie algebra”, Arno Böhm et al.: Dynamical groups and spectrum generating algebras, vol. 1, Reprint of article in Advances in Quantum Chemistry, vol. 19, Academic Press, 1987. World Scientific, pp. 114 ff. ISBN 9971501473. 
  5. For a discussion see Hermann Weyl (1950). “Chapter IV A §1 The representation induced in system space by the rotation group”, The theory of groups and quantum mechanics, Reprint of 1932 ed. Courier Dover Publications, pp. 185 ff. ISBN 0486602699. , or John M. Brown, Alan Carrington (2003). “§5.2.4 Representations of the rotation group”, Rotational spectroscopy of diatomic molecules. Cambridge University Press, pp. 143 ff. ISBN 0521530784.