May 18, 2024

Valley Post

Read Latest News on Sports, Business, Entertainment, Blogs and Opinions from leading columnists.

What is the “three-body problem”? The messy math behind the Netflix TV series

What is the “three-body problem”?  The messy math behind the Netflix TV series

One of the most popular recent additions to Netflix is ​​“3 Body Trouble” or “The Trouble of 3 Bodies” as it is translated in Greek.

In the Netflix series “The Three-Body Problem” – based on the science fiction novels by Liu Cixin – the drama is inspired by a real-life scientific mystery in astronomy.

Article continues after ad

Mathematician Kate Yates explains. What do Sir Isaac Newton, space solar systems and a new multi-million dollar Netflix TV series have in common?

The answer is the “three-body problem”: a puzzle in astronomy and mathematics that describes why the long-term orbits of planets, moons and stars are so difficult to predict.

Netflix: The new miniseries that makes the 8 hours pass without getting bored [βίντεο]

Netflix movie that will play with your mind for 109 minutes – make your night [βίντεο]

So what actually is the problem? And how did it end up being the title of a TV series on Netflix?

Article continues after ad

To understand this, you first need to know a little about the history and premise of the TV series. The story is based on Liu Cixin's epic science fiction trilogy, Memory of Earth's Past, of which The Three-Body Problem is the first book. The original trilogy is distinguished by the author's attention to scientific detail.

The TV series focuses on the Oxford Five, who all studied under the same professor at Oxford University. Some of them have become scientists (a postdoctoral physicist, a founder and scientific director of a nanotechnology company, an academic in theoretical physics), one has become a school physics teacher, and a fifth is now a snack food entrepreneur.

The gist of the story is that an alien race – called the Trisolarans or San-Ti Ren – is heading to Earth to colonize it. Through intergalactic communication, these travelers are trying to intimidate human scientists into slowing down our rapid technological progress, making the conquest of Earth easier.

The characters of the TV series realize that they cannot predict how the chaotic three-body solar system will develop

But why are these aliens determined to take over our planet? Here comes the role of the three-body problem.

In this context, bodies are a scientific word that means planets, moons, suns, or any other huge astronomical body. The aliens' home planet is located in a solar system with three suns, hence their name in the English translation of the book – Trisolarans. This system of three suns can be very unstable, making conditions difficult for life, hence their desire to travel across the universe in order to live in our relatively stable solar system. We only have one sun, so Earth's future is relatively predictable – at least for the next few million years.

We know this thanks to Sir Isaac Newton's universal law of gravitation, published in 1687, which describes the gravitational forces exerted by one body on another. His simple equation allowed astronomers to model the relationship between two large bodies, such as the Earth and the Sun. The Earth has a regular orbital period lasting about 365.24 days – that is, one solar year. Likewise, the Moon orbits the Earth approximately every 27.3 days, another seemingly stable two-body system. In theory, armed with the two-body solution, Newton could predict the positions of planets, moons, and comets in the solar system in the distant future.

In fact, Newton's solution for the two bodies was always just an approximation of the actual solar system. In general, the influence of small objects – such as moons or other planets – on larger objects cannot be completely ignored. Instead of the two-body problem, our solar system involves what is known as the n-body problem. Such problems generally cannot be solved by conventional mathematical techniques to give precise answers. Worse still, the paths predicted by such systems allow chaos to occur.

Chaos, in the mathematical sense, does not refer to the common use of the term “chaos and disorganization”. Instead, it is often characterized by what mathematicians call sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This means that the behavior of two identical chaotic systems, which started out with very similar (but not exactly identical) initial conditions, will eventually differ greatly from each other.

Although Newton's laws can give seemingly accurate predictions of the future formation of our solar system, the motions of celestial bodies within it are actually chaotic because there are actually more than two bodies. This planetary chaos occurs over long timescales, a chaos horizon that ranges from tens to hundreds of millions of years. So, eventually, a planet may be found on the other side of the solar system where current calculations can pinpoint its location. This is not due to any randomness in planetary dynamics – Newton's laws describe their motion well – but is a consequence of the fact that the motion of three or more celestial bodies can be a chaotic system.

San Te Ren: Living with Three Suns

In the TV series, the bodies in question are the three relatively large suns of the Tri-Solar System – the original home of San Te Rin (meaning “three-bodied people” in Mandarin). The chaos is much more visible. In their corner of the universe, the motion of suns is inherently chaotic and unstable, which means they face the possibility of being swallowed up by one of their own or falling out of order altogether.

Article continues after ad

To communicate this complex scientific idea, two Oxford Five scientists play a hyper-realistic virtual reality video game. Participants enter various historical human civilizations, all of which seem to be subject to the whims of the tripartite solar system. As the game progresses, some of the most famous scholars in history face the challenge of preparing political and religious leaders for the chaos.

See also  Ars tours the clean room of the asteroid-orbiting Psyche spacecraft at JPL

In one level of the game, Newton works with computer scientist Alan Turing to solve Newton's universal law of gravitation through a human implementation of one of Turing's computing machines. Unfortunately, their resulting predictions backfire, resulting in their deaths and the sudden end of the entire simulated civilization.

The objects in the three-body problem are distant suns and planets in an alien solar system.
The objects in the three-body problem are distant suns and planets in an alien solar system.

Realizing that the San-Ti will never be able to predict or control their planet's chaotic paths, the Oxford Five finally realize that the aliens must leave their home to save their people.

Article continues after ad

The three-body problem is the root cause of all the drama that happens in the rest of the series, and perhaps in the next two series that the creators have planned.

How will the story unfold? You can try to look into the future by reading books, but the makers of the TV series may have other ideas. As with planets and suns, when it comes to a third party, there is always room for the unexpected.

The Three Body Problem – Watch the presentation:

“Across continents and decades, five brilliant friends make shocking discoveries as the laws of science collapse and an existential threat emerges,” is Netflix’s description of “The Three-Body Problem.”

Article continues after ad

Source: BBC, Images: Netflix

follow him On Google News Be the first to know all the news
Find the latest news from Greece and the world on