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The Effectiveness of Group Theory in Quantum Mechanics

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Eugene Wigner and Hermann Weyl led the way in applying the theory of group representations to the newly formulated theory of quantum mechanics starting in 1927. My talk will focus, first, on two aspects of this early work. Physicists had long exploited symmetries as a way of simplifying problems within classical physics. Wigner recognized that the theory of group representations would similarly have enormous payoff in quantum mechanics, allowing him to solve problems in atomic spectroscopy ``almost without calculation.'' Here I will describe the novel aspects of symmetry in QM that Wigner clarified in the series of papers leading up to his 1931 textbook (Wigner's theorem, projective representations, etc.). The second aspect is less well-known: Weyl (1927) argued that group theory could also be used to address foundational questions in quantum mechanics, leading to a reformulation of the classical commutation relations and a proposal for quantization. Weyl's program had much less immediate impact, although it led to the Stone-von Neumann theorem and to Mackey's imprimitivity theorem. As a final historical point, I argue that in this early work the theory of group representations was optional (as emphasized by Slater and others) in a sense that it was not in particle physics in the 60s. The closing section of the talk turns to philosophical morals that have been drawn from this historical episode, in particular claims regarding ontic structural realism (French, Ladyman) and the group-theoretic constitution of objects (Castellani).