We examine Bose–Einstein condensation (BEC) for particles trapped in a harmonic potential by considering it as a transition in the length of permutation cycles that arise from wave-function symmetry. This “loop-gas” approach was originally developed by Feynman in his path-integral study of BEC for a homogeneous gas in a box. For the harmonic oscillator potential it is possible to treat the ideal gas exactly so that one can easily see how standard approximations become more accurate in the thermodynamic limit (TDL). One clearly sees that the condensate is made up of very long permutation loops whose length fluctuates ever more widely as the number of particles increases. In the TDL, the Wentzel–Kramers–Brillouin approximation, equivalent to the standard approach to BEC, becomes precise for the noncondensate; however, this approximation neglects completely the long cycles that make up the condensate. We examine the exact form for the density matrix for the system and show how it describes the condensate and behaves in the TDL.
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICS