For two points and on a Riemannian manifold , the space of all paths from to on is not a finite-dimensional manifold. Nonetheless, Morse theory applies to this situation also, with a Morse function on the path space given by the energy of a path:

The first result of this infinite-dimensional Morse theory asserts that the critical points of the energy function are precisely the geodesics from to .

Two points
and
on a geodesic are *conjugate* if keeping
and
fixed, one can vary the geodesic from
to
through a family of geodesics.
For example, two antipodal points on an
-sphere are conjugate points.
The *multiplicity* of
as a conjugate point of
is the
dimension of the family of geodesics from
to
. On the
-sphere
, the multiplicity of the south pole as a conjugate point of the north
pole is therefore
.

If and are not conjugate along the geodesic, then the geodesic is nondegenerate as a critical point of the energy function on . Its index, according to the Morse index theorem, is the number of conjugate points from to counted with multiplicities.

On the -sphere let and be antipodal points and . The geodesics from to are , of index , respectively. By the Morse index theorem the energy function on the path space has one critical point each of index . It then follows from Morse theory that has the homotopy type of a CW complex with one cell in each of the dimensions .

Now consider the space of all smooth loops in , that is, smooth functions . The critical points of the energy function on are again the geodesics, but these are now closed geodesics. A closed geodesic is never isolated as a critical point, since for any rotation of the circle, is still a geodesic. In this way, any closed geodesic gives rise to a circle of closed geodesics. When the Riemannian metric on is generic, the critical manifolds of the energy function on the loop space will all be circles.

Morse had shown that the index of a geodesic is the number of negative eigenvalues of a Sturm differential equation, a boundary-value problem of the form , where is a self-adjoint second-order differential operator. For certain boundary conditions, Morse had expressed the index in terms of conjugate points, but this procedure does not apply to closed geodesics, which correspond to a Sturm problem with periodic boundary conditions.

In [14] Bott found an algorithm to compute the index of a closed geodesic. He was then able to determine the behavior of the index when the closed geodesic is iterated. Bott's method is in fact applicable to all Sturm differential equations. And so in his paper he also gave a geometric formulation and new proofs of the Sturm-Morse separation, comparison, and oscillation theorems, all based on the principle that the intersection number of two cycles of complementary dimensions is zero if one of the cycles is homologous to zero.