12 - Understanding permutation symmetry  pp. 212-238

Understanding permutation symmetry

By Steven French and Dean Rickles

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If a system in atomic physics contains a number of particles of the same kind, e.g. a number of electrons, the particles are absolutely indistinguishable one from another. No observable change is made when two of them are interchanged … A satisfactory theory ought, of course, to count any two observationally indistinguishable states as the same state and to deny that any transition does occur when two similar particles exchange places.

(Dirac, 1958, p. 207)


In our contribution to this volume we deal with discrete symmetries: these are symmetries based upon groups with a discrete set of elements (generally a set of elements that can be enumerated by the positive integers). In physics we find that discrete symmetries frequently arise as ‘internal’, non-spacetime symmetries. Permutation symmetry is such a discrete symmetry, arising as the mathematical basis underlying the statistical behaviour of ensembles of certain types of indistinguishable quantum particle (e.g. fermions and bosons). Roughly speaking, if such an ensemble is invariant under a permutation of its constituent particles (i.e. permutation symmetric) then one doesn't ‘count’ those permutations which merely ‘exchange’ indistinguishable particles; rather, the exchanged state is identified with the original state.

This principle of invariance is generally called the ‘indistinguishability postulate’ (IP), but we prefer to use the term ‘permutation invariance’ (PI).