July 30, 2013 | 8

Shannon Palus has a BSc in Physics from McGill University. Her work has appeared in Discover magazine, Bitch magazine, and on ScienceNOW, among other places. Her website can be found

Contact Shannon Palus via email.

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Follow Shannon Palus on Twitter as @shanpalus. Or visit their website.

“What I do is I have code that minimizes things,” says Robert Vanderbei, a Professor of Operations Research at Princeton University. He can minimize the light coming into a telescope from stars — to better see if there are more-softly lit planets traveling in their wakes. He also uses the code to analyze climate data.

But it works for other things, too.

“I was surprised to know that what I’m good at is useful for n-body problems,” he tells me.

The n-body problem is a classic in physics. Its solutions are configurations in which objects – planets, say — can travel around in each other’s gravity in a stable manner. (The moon and Earth perform a modified version of a 2-body solution — they travel in each other’s gravity, but also that of the Sun, and other planets. The n-body problem assumes bodies that are of equal mass, and in an environment where there is no other gravity. I’ll keep calling them planets, but understand that they are not ordinary planets.)

To find a solution to the n-body problem is to minimize something called an action functional, which describes the energy of group of planets — the accumulated difference between the kinetic and potential energy, to be more specific about it — as they swing and pull and dance around each other. The result is the path of least resistance, the way that the planet’s motion will naturally fall into place, without an external forces – a purely gravitational path. Out of these paths, the ones that are periodic — that is, the planets swing around in the same motion for at least some extended period of time — are the solutions to the n-body problem.

Vanderbei first learned of a solution to the n-body problem called the figure 8, discovered by physicist Cris Moore, the first physicist who used a computer to solve the n-body problem.

“I said wow, that is amazing,” he tells me. And then he went home and tried to figure it out with his minimizing code. In a couple hours, he had reproduced Moore’s figure 8:

He modified the computer code a little, so that it would run through cases with different starting positions and velocities. Some of these starting positions — most of them, actually — end up just sending the planets immediately flying off in different directions, or crashing into each other. But run through enough configurations, and you can find solutions. This is how he found “Ducati” — which he refers to as his favorite.

This one is what would happen if the Sun, Earth, and Moon all had the same mass, and there were only two months in a year. (Like Ducati, others experts had found this orbit before Vanderbei did — unbeknownst to him.)

Vanderbei says this one, the 5 point star, which was discovered by Zhifu Xie and Tiancheng Ouyang, surprised him the most. It’s the kind of thing you would draw mindlessly on a napkin. (The lines of the start aren’t technically straight, though that’s not apparent in the animation.)

He found this one in June, which is in the same family — which is to say, a tweak of starting positions and velocities — as Xie and Ouyang’s star:

(Many, many more animations of n-body orbits — in the form of applets — can be found here.

“I take other people’s ‘aha’ moments and run with them,” says Vanderbei, who works on the n-body problem sometimes when he gets home in the evenings, coming up with animations for solutions that are out there, and making tweaks of his own.

“Its totally for fun. Well, 99%.”

When I speak to him, he’s in the middle of putting together a presentation for conference at Princeton on the payload for a pair of former-spy telescopes —which could include instruments that hunt for planets, a la Kepler.

“The solutions to the n-body problem could inform what we might find out there. I always worry that [our] minds aren’t open enough.”

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Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, Future

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“The n-body problem assumes bodies that are of equal mass, and in an environment where there is no other gravity.”

Sadly true – the presumption of equal mass bodies was initially adopted as a matter of computational necessity, perhaps retained now as a matter of convenience. In the case of galactic objects, for example, this presumption renders such models unrepresentative…

Link to this“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”

Link to this~ Albert Einstein

Who would have thunk! Beautiful, stimulating simulations! I do not see how they can ever be applied to major astronomical situations because of the equal-mass requirement. But perhaps there is a way to push them in the direction of unequal masses and we can get new insights. Incidentally, Gaetu’s quote from Einstein is very inspiring.

Link to thisSomebody had found in the past century a solution to the mathematical handling of the problem of the n-body, it was not exact, as the problems is inherently irresolvable, as the squaring of a circle, but the approach allowed to send spaceships far away from Earth. A joke told about a discussion between a mathematician and an engineer, in the end of a path, a tresure was waiting for the one who first arrived to it, but they were allowed to walk just half of the distance every minute. The mathematician stayed in start, but the engineer begun walking immediatley, the mathematician said: ‘Whatever you do, you’ll never reach the end, as there are infinite half parts to be run’, the engineer reply was: ‘I know I can’t arrive to the end of path, but I can go close enough’

Link to thisWho’da thunk indeed. Wonderful stuff. One can

Link to thisimagine a very playful type II or III civilization

occasionally arranging some stars to play out some

of these patterns… maybe just to announce their

presence to other civilizations. Or cause some

head scratching.

What goes around comes around. GIFs too.

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Link to thisAre all solutions 2D? Or are there 3D solutions as well?

Link to this