A theory of strongly interacting Fermi systems of a few particles is developed. At high excitation energies (a few times the single-particle level spacing) these systems are characterized by an extreme degree of complexity due to strong mixing of the shell-model-based many-particle basis states by the residual two-body interaction. This regime can be described as many-body quantum chaos. Practically, it occurs when the excitation energy of the system is greater than a few single-particle level spacings near the Fermi energy. Physical examples of such systems are compound nuclei, heavy open shell atoms (e.g. rare earths) and multicharged ions, molecules, clusters and quantum dots in solids. The main quantity of the theory is the strength function which describes spreading of the eigenstates over many-particle basis states (determinants) constructed using the shell-model orbital basis. A nonlinear equation for the strength function is derived, which enables one to describe the eigenstates without diagonalization of the Hamiltonian matrix. We show how to use this approach to calculate mean orbital occupation numbers and matrix elements between chaotic eigenstates and introduce typically statistical variables such as temperature in an isolated microscopic Fermi system of a few particles
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