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What is a 3-body problem in concrete terms ?

© Dall-E for Lemon Squeezer

The series “The 3-body problem”, available on Netflix in France since March 21, 2024, is the subject of particularly positive reviews. It tells the story of Ye Wenjie: a scientist with a complicated history, tinged with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and secret work in a remote military base. What she knows is enough to upset humanity, and for good reason… she made contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization, victim of a strange problem.

Leaving fiction, the “three-body problem” is a real concept of cosmology and physics which describes the movement of three celestial objects, generally massive bodies like planets or stars, mutually subject to their own gravitational attraction. This complex and fundamental question in the study of dynamical systems dates back to the first attempts to understand the movements of celestial bodies in our universe.

The three-body problem is one of the most difficult dynamic systems to characterize

Historically, the two-body problem was solved relatively simply by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, with his laws of motion and his universal law of gravitation. This mathematical model makes it possible to accurately predict the movement of two bodies in gravitational interaction, such as a planet and its satellite. However, the addition of a third body makes the situation exponentially more complex, resulting in a dynamic system whose solutions are generally nonlinear and unpredictable.

The difficulty with the three-body problem is that, except in a few very specific cases, there is no simple analytical solution for predicting the positions and velocities of bodies over time. This means that, for most three-body configurations, it is impossible to find a single formula that describes the movement of bodies through space over an extended period of time.

Scientists and mathematicians have explored various approaches to better understand this problem. One method is to use numerical solutions, where the equations of motion are solved step by step using powerful computers. which is able to deliver precise predictions in the short term, but very quickly becomes unreliable in the longer term due to the chaotic nature of three-body systems.

The three-body problem has important implications in many areas of astronomical and astrophysical research, including the study of triple star systems, the formation and evolution of planetary systems, and the dynamics of star cluster. Understanding this problem contributes to the development of space missions, allowing precise navigation between celestial bodies using their gravitational pull to the mission's advantage.

  • The Three-Body Problem series is coming to Netflix… but in fact, what exactly is a three-body problem ?
  • This enigma has fascinated many scientists for several centuries.
  • It aims to find better solutions to predict the movement of dynamic systems in the event of interaction between more than two objects.

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Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116