How to Teach General Relativity to Undergraduate Physics Majors

As a graduate student in physics at Berkeley in the 1980’s, I took General Relativity (aka GR), from Bruno Zumino, who was a world-famous physicist known as one of the originators of super-symmetry in quantum gravity (not to be confused with super-asymmetry of Cooper-Fowler Big Bang Theory fame).  The class textbook was Gravitation and cosmology: principles and applications of the general theory of relativity, by Steven Weinberg, another world-famous physicist, in this case known for grand unification of the electro-weak force with electromagnetism.  With so much expertise at hand, how could I fail but to absorb the simple essence of general relativity? 

The answer is that I failed miserably.  Somehow, I managed to pass the course, but I walked away with nothing!  And it bugged me for years.  What was so hard about GR?  It took me almost a decade teaching undergraduate physics classes at Purdue in the 90’s before I realized that it my biggest obstacle had been language:  I kept mistaking the words and terms of GR as if they were English.  Words like “general covariance” and “contravariant” and “contraction” and “covariant derivative”.  They sounded like English, with lots of “co” prefixes that were hard to keep straight, but they actually are part of a very different language that I call Physics-ese

Physics-ese is a language that has lots of words that sound like English, and so you think you know what the words mean, but the words have sometimes opposite meanings than what you would guess.  And the meanings of Physics-ese are precisely defined, and not something that can be left to interpretation.  I learned this while teaching the intro courses to non-majors, because so many times when the students were confused, it turned out that it was because they had mistaken a textbook jargon term to be English.  If you told them that the word wasn’t English, but just a token standing for a well-defined object or process, it would unshackle them from their misconceptions.

Then, in the early 00’s when I started to explore the physics of generalized trajectories related to some of my own research interests, I realized that the primary obstacle to my learning anything in the Gravitation course was Physics-ese.   So this raised the question in my mind: what would it take to teach GR to undergraduate physics majors in a relatively painless manner?  This is my answer. 

More on this topic can be found in Chapter 11 of the textbook IMD2: Introduction to Modern Dynamics, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2019

Trajectories as Flows

One of the culprits for my mind block learning GR was Newton himself.  His ubiquitous second law, taught as F = ma, is surprisingly misleading if one wants to have a more general understanding of what a trajectory is.  This is particularly the case for light paths, which can be bent by gravity, yet clearly cannot have any forces acting on them. 

The way to fix this is subtle yet simple.  First, express Newton’s second law as

which is actually closer to the way that Newton expressed the law in his Principia.  In three dimensions for a single particle, these equations represent a 6-dimensional dynamical space called phase space: three coordinate dimensions and three momentum dimensions.  Then generalize the vector quantities, like the position vector, to be expressed as xa for the six dynamics variables: x, y, z, px, py, and pz

Now, as part of Physics-ese, putting the index as a superscript instead as a subscript turns out to be a useful notation when working in higher-dimensional spaces.  This superscript is called a “contravariant index” which sounds like English but is uninterpretable without a Physics-ese-to-English dictionary.  All “contravariant index” means is “column vector component”.  In other words, xa is just the position vector expressed as a column vector

This superscripted index is called a “contravariant” index, but seriously dude, just forget that “contravariant” word from Physics-ese and just think “index”.  You already know it’s a column vector.

Then Newton’s second law becomes

where the index a runs from 1 to 6, and the function Fa is a vector function of the dynamic variables.  To spell it out, this is

so it’s a lot easier to write it in the one-line form with the index notation. 

The simple index notation equation is in the standard form for what is called, in Physics-ese, a “mathematical flow”.  It is an ODE that can be solved for any set of initial conditions for a given trajectory.  Or a whole field of solutions can be considered in a phase-space portrait that looks like the flow lines of hydrodynamics.  The phase-space portrait captures the essential physics of the system, whether it is a rock thrown off a cliff, or a photon orbiting a black hole.  But to get to that second problem, it is necessary to look deeper into the way that space is described by any set of coordinates, especially if those coordinates are changing from location to location.

What’s so Fictitious about Fictitious Forces?

Freshmen physics students are routinely admonished for talking about “centrifugal” forces (rather than centripetal) when describing circular motion, usually with the statement that centrifugal forces are fictitious—only appearing to be forces when the observer is in the rotating frame.  The same is said for the Coriolis force.  Yet for being such a “fictitious” force, the Coriolis effect is what drives hurricanes and the colossal devastation they cause.  Try telling a hurricane victim that they were wiped out by a fictitious force!  Looking closer at the Coriolis force is a good way of understanding how taking derivatives of vectors leads to effects often called “fictitious”, yet it opens the door on some of the simpler techniques in the topic of differential geometry.

To start, consider a vector in a uniformly rotating frame.  Such a frame is called “non-inertial” because of the angular acceleration associated with the uniform rotation.  For an observer in the rotating frame, vectors are attached to the frame, like pinning them down to the coordinate axes, but the axes themselves are changing in time (when viewed by an external observer in a fixed frame).  If the primed frame is the external fixed frame, then a position in the rotating frame is

where R is the position vector of the origin of the rotating frame and r is the position in the rotating frame relative to the origin.  The funny notation on the last term is called in Physics-ese a “contraction”, but it is just a simple inner product, or dot product, between the components of the position vector and the basis vectors.  A basis vector is like the old-fashioned i, j, k of vector calculus indicating unit basis vectors pointing along the x, y and z axes.  The format with one index up and one down in the product means to do a summation.  This is known as the Einstein summation convention, so it’s just

Taking the time derivative of the position vector gives

and by the chain rule this must be

where the last term has a time derivative of a basis vector.  This is non-zero because in the rotating frame the basis vector is changing orientation in time.  This term is non-inertial and can be shown fairly easily (see IMD2 Chapter 1) to be

which is where the centrifugal force comes from.  This shows how a so-called fictitious force arises from a derivative of a basis vector.  The fascinating point of this is that in GR, the force of gravity arises in almost the same way, making it tempting to call gravity a fictitious force, despite the fact that it can kill you if you fall out a window.  The question is, how does gravity arise from simple derivatives of basis vectors?

The Geodesic Equation

To teach GR to undergraduates, you cannot expect them to have taken a course in differential geometry, because most of them just don’t have the time in their schedule to take such an advanced mathematics course.  In addition, there is far more taught in differential geometry than is needed to make progress in GR.  So the simple approach is to teach what they need to understand GR with as little differential geometry as possible, expressed with clear English-to-Physics-ese translations. 

For example, consider the partial derivative of a vector expressed in index notation as

Taking the partial derivative, using the always-necessary chain rule, is

where the second term is just like the extra time-derivative term that showed up in the derivation of the Coriolis force.  The basis vector of a general coordinate system may change size and orientation as a function of position, so this derivative is not in general zero.  Because the derivative of a basis vector is so central to the ideas of GR, they are given their own symbol.  It is

where the new “Gamma” symbol is called a Christoffel symbol.  It has lots of indexes, both up and down, which looks daunting, but it can be interpreted as the beta-th derivative of the alpha-th component of the mu-th basis vector.  The partial derivative is now

For those of you who noticed that some of the indexes flipped from alpha to mu and vice versa, you’re right!  Swapping repeated indexes in these “contractions” is allowed and helps make derivations a lot easier, which is probably why Einstein invented this notation in the first place.

The last step in taking a partial derivative of a vector is to isolate a single vector component Va as

where a new symbol, the del-operator has been introduced.  This del-operator is known as the “covariant derivative” of the vector component.  Again, forget the “covariant” part and just think “gradient”.  Namely, taking the gradient of a vector in general includes changes in the vector component as well as changes in the basis vector.

Now that you know how to take the partial derivative of a vector using Christoffel symbols, you are ready to generate the central equation of General Relativity:  The geodesic equation. 

Everyone knows that a geodesic is the shortest path between two points, like a great circle route on the globe.  But it also turns out to be the straightest path, which can be derived using an idea known as “parallel transport”.  To start, consider transporting a vector along a curve in a flat metric.  The equation describing this process is

Because the Christoffel symbols are zero in a flat space, the covariant derivative and the partial derivative are equal, giving

If the vector is transported parallel to itself, then there is no change in V along the curve, so that

Finally, recognizing

and substituting this in gives

This is the geodesic equation! 

Fig. 1 The geodesic equation of motion is for force-free motion through a metric space. The curvature of the trajectory is analogous to acceleration, and the generalized gradient is analogous to a force. The geodesic equation is the “F = ma” of GR.

Putting this in the standard form of a flow gives the geodesic flow equations

The flow defines an ordinary differential equation that defines a curve that carries its own tangent vector onto itself.  The curve is parameterized by a parameter s that can be identified with path length.  It is the central equation of GR, because it describes how an object follows a force-free trajectory, like free fall, in any general coordinate system.  It can be applied to simple problems like the Coriolis effect, or it can be applied to seemingly difficult problems, like the trajectory of a light path past a black hole.

The Metric Connection

Arriving at the geodesic equation is a major accomplishment, and you have done it in just a few pages of this blog.  But there is still an important missing piece before we are doing General Relativity of gravitation.  We need to connect the Christoffel symbol in the geodesic equation to the warping of space-time around a gravitating object. 

The warping of space-time by matter and energy is another central piece of GR and is often the central focus of a graduate-level course on the subject.  This part of GR does have its challenges leading up to Einstein’s Field Equations that explain how matter makes space bend.  But at an undergraduate level, it is sufficient to just describe the bent coordinates as a starting point, then use the geodesic equation to solve for so many of the cool effects of black holes.

So, stating the way that matter bends space-time is as simple as writing down the length element for the Schwarzschild metric of a spherical gravitating mass as

where RS = GM/c2 is the Schwarzschild radius.  (The connection between the metric tensor gab and the Christoffel symbol can be found in Chapter 11 of IMD2.)  It takes only a little work to find that

This means that if we have the Schwarzschild metric, all we have to do is take first partial derivatives and we will arrive at the Christoffel symbols that go into the geodesic equation.  Solving for any type of force-free trajectory is then just a matter of solving ODEs with initial conditions (performed routinely with numerical ODE solvers in Python, Matlab, Mathematica, etc.).

The first problem we will tackle using the geodesic equation is the deflection of light by gravity.  This is the quintessential problem of GR because there cannot be any gravitational force on a photon, yet the path of the photon surely must bend in the presence of gravity.  This is possible through the geodesic motion of the photon through warped space time.  I’ll take up this problem in my next Blog.

Vladimir Arnold’s Cat Map

The 1960’s are known as a time of cultural revolution, but perhaps less known was the revolution that occurred in the science of dynamics.  Three towering figures of that revolution were Stephen Smale (1930 – ) at Berkeley, Andrey Kolmogorov (1903 – 1987) in Moscow and his student Vladimir Arnold (1937 – 2010).  Arnold was only 20 years old in 1957 when he solved Hilbert’s thirteenth problem (that any continuous function of several variables can be constructed with a finite number of two-variable functions).  Only a few years later his work on the problem of small denominators in dynamical systems provided the finishing touches on the long elusive explanation of the stability of the solar system (the problem for which Poincaré won the King Oscar Prize in mathematics in 1889 when he discovered chaotic dynamics ).  This theory is known as KAM-theory, using the first initials of the names of Kolmogorov, Arnold and Moser [1].  Building on his breakthrough in celestial mechanics, Arnold’s work through the 1960’s remade the theory of Hamiltonian systems, creating a shift in perspective that has permanently altered how physicists look at dynamical systems.

Hamiltonian Physics on a Torus

Traditionally, Hamiltonian physics is associated with systems of inertial objects that conserve the sum of kinetic and potential energy, in other words, conservative non-dissipative systems.  But a modern view (after Arnold) of Hamiltonian systems sees them as hyperdimensional mathematical mappings that conserve volume.  The space that these mappings inhabit is phase space, and the conservation of phase-space volume is known as Liouville’s Theorem [2].  The geometry of phase space is called symplectic geometry, and the universal position that symplectic geometry now holds in the physics of Hamiltonian mechanics is largely due to Arnold’s textbook Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics (1974, English translation 1978) [3]. Arnold’s famous quote from that text is “Hamiltonian mechanics is geometry in phase space”. 

One of the striking aspects of this textbook is the reduction of phase-space geometry to the geometry of a hyperdimensional torus for a large number of Hamiltonian systems.  If there are as many conserved quantities as there are degrees of freedom in a Hamiltonian system, then the system is called “integrable” (because you can integrated the equations of motion to find a constant of the motion). Then it is possible to map the physics onto a hyperdimensional torus through the transformation of dynamical coordinates into what are known as “action-angle” coordinates [4].  Each independent angle has an associated action that is conserved during the motion of the system.  The periodicity of the dynamical angle coordinate makes it possible to identify it with the angular coordinate of a multi-dimensional torus.  Therefore, every integrable Hamiltonian system can be mapped to motion on a multi-dimensional torus (one dimension for each degree of freedom of the system). 

Actually, integrable Hamiltonian systems are among the most boring dynamical systems you can imagine. They literally just go in circles (around the torus). But as soon as you add a small perturbation that cannot be integrated they produce some of the most complex and beautiful patterns of all dynamical systems. It was Arnold’s focus on motions on a torus, and perturbations that shift the dynamics off the torus, that led him to propose a simple mapping that captured the essence of Hamiltonian chaos.

The Arnold Cat Map

Motion on a two-dimensional torus is defined by two angles, and trajectories on a two-dimensional torus are simple helixes. If the periodicities of the motion in the two angles have an integer ratio, the helix repeats itself. However, if the ratio of periods (also known as the winding number) is irrational, then the helix never repeats and passes arbitrarily closely to any point on the surface of the torus. This last case leads to an “ergodic” system, which is a term introduced by Boltzmann to describe a physical system whose trajectory fills phase space. The behavior of a helix for rational or irrational winding number is not terribly interesting. It’s just an orbit going in circles like an integrable Hamiltonian system. The helix can never even cross itself.

However, if you could add a new dimension to the torus (or add a new degree of freedom to the dynamical system), then the helix could pass over or under itself by moving into the new dimension. By weaving around itself, a trajectory can become chaotic, and the set of many trajectories can become as mixed up as a bowl of spaghetti. This can be a little hard to visualize, especially in higher dimensions, but Arnold thought of a very simple mathematical mapping that captures the essential motion on a torus, preserving volume as required for a Hamiltonian system, but with the ability for regions to become all mixed up, just like trajectories in a nonintegrable Hamiltonian system.

A unit square is isomorphic to a two-dimensional torus. This means that there is a one-to-one mapping of each point on the unit square to each point on the surface of a torus. Imagine taking a sheet of paper and forming a tube out of it. One of the dimensions of the sheet of paper is now an angle coordinate that is cyclic, going around the circumference of the tube. Now if the sheet of paper is flexible (like it is made of thin rubber) you can bend the tube around and connect the top of the tube with the bottom, like a bicycle inner tube. The other dimension of the sheet of paper is now also an angle coordinate that is cyclic. In this way a flat sheet is converted (with some bending) into a torus.

Arnold’s key idea was to create a transformation that takes the torus into itself, preserving volume, yet including the ability for regions to pass around each other. Arnold accomplished this with the simple map

where the modulus 1 takes the unit square into itself. This transformation can also be expressed as a matrix

followed by taking modulus 1. The transformation matrix is called a Floquet matrix, and the determinant of the matrix is equal to unity, which ensures that volume is conserved.

Arnold decided to illustrate this mapping by using a crude image of the face of a cat (See Fig. 1). Successive applications of the transformation stretch and shear the cat, which is then folded back into the unit square. The stretching and folding preserve the volume, but the image becomes all mixed up, just like mixing in a chaotic Hamiltonian system, or like an immiscible dye in water that is stirred.

Fig. 1 Arnold’s illustration of his cat map from pg. 6 of V. I. Arnold and A. Avez, Ergodic Problems of Classical Mechanics (Benjamin, 1968) [5]
Fig. 2 Arnold Cat Map operation is an iterated succession of stretching with shear of a unit square, and translation back to the unit square. The mapping preserves and mixes areas, and is invertible.

Recurrence

When the transformation matrix is applied to continuous values, it produces a continuous range of transformed values that become thinner and thinner until the unit square is uniformly mixed. However, if the unit square is discrete, made up of pixels, then something very different happens (see Fig. 3). The image of the cat in this case is composed of a 50×50 array of pixels. For early iterations, the image becomes stretched and mixed, but at iteration 50 there are 4 low-resolution upside-down versions of the cat, and at iteration 75 the cat fully reforms, but is upside-down. Continuing on, the cat eventually reappears fully reformed and upright at iteration 150. Therefore, the discrete case displays a recurrence and the mapping is periodic. Calculating the period of the cat map on lattices can lead to interesting patterns, especially if the lattice is composed of prime numbers [6].

Fig. 3 A discrete cat map has a recurrence period. This example with a 50×50 lattice has a period of 150.

The Cat Map and the Golden Mean

The golden mean, or the golden ratio, 1.618033988749895 is never far away when working with Hamiltonian systems. Because the golden mean is the “most irrational” of all irrational numbers, it plays an essential role in KAM theory on the stability of the solar system. In the case of Arnold’s cat map, it pops up its head in several ways. For instance, the transformation matrix has eigenvalues

with the remarkable property that

which guarantees conservation of area.


Selected V. I. Arnold Publications

Arnold, V. I. “FUNCTIONS OF 3 VARIABLES.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 114(4): 679-681. (1957)

Arnold, V. I. “GENERATION OF QUASI-PERIODIC MOTION FROM A FAMILY OF PERIODIC MOTIONS.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 138(1): 13-&. (1961)

Arnold, V. I. “STABILITY OF EQUILIBRIUM POSITION OF A HAMILTONIAN SYSTEM OF ORDINARY DIFFERENTIAL EQUATIONS IN GENERAL ELLIPTIC CASE.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 137(2): 255-&. (1961)

Arnold, V. I. “BEHAVIOUR OF AN ADIABATIC INVARIANT WHEN HAMILTONS FUNCTION IS UNDERGOING A SLOW PERIODIC VARIATION.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 142(4): 758-&. (1962)

Arnold, V. I. “CLASSICAL THEORY OF PERTURBATIONS AND PROBLEM OF STABILITY OF PLANETARY SYSTEMS.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 145(3): 487-&. (1962)

Arnold, V. I. “BEHAVIOUR OF AN ADIABATIC INVARIANT WHEN HAMILTONS FUNCTION IS UNDERGOING A SLOW PERIODIC VARIATION.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 142(4): 758-&. (1962)

Arnold, V. I. and Y. G. Sinai. “SMALL PERTURBATIONS OF AUTHOMORPHISMS OF A TORE.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 144(4): 695-&. (1962)

Arnold, V. I. “Small denominators and problems of the stability of motion in classical and celestial mechanics (in Russian).” Usp. Mat. Nauk. 18: 91-192. (1963)

Arnold, V. I. and A. L. Krylov. “UNIFORM DISTRIBUTION OF POINTS ON A SPHERE AND SOME ERGODIC PROPERTIES OF SOLUTIONS TO LINEAR ORDINARY DIFFERENTIAL EQUATIONS IN COMPLEX REGION.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 148(1): 9-&. (1963)

Arnold, V. I. “INSTABILITY OF DYNAMICAL SYSTEMS WITH MANY DEGREES OF FREEDOM.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 156(1): 9-&. (1964)

Arnold, V. “SUR UNE PROPRIETE TOPOLOGIQUE DES APPLICATIONS GLOBALEMENT CANONIQUES DE LA MECANIQUE CLASSIQUE.” Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires Des Seances De L Academie Des Sciences 261(19): 3719-&. (1965)

Arnold, V. I. “APPLICABILITY CONDITIONS AND ERROR ESTIMATION BY AVERAGING FOR SYSTEMS WHICH GO THROUGH RESONANCES IN COURSE OF EVOLUTION.” Doklady Akademii Nauk Sssr 161(1): 9-&. (1965)


Bibliography

[1] Dumas, H. S. The KAM Story: A friendly introduction to the content, history and significance of Classical Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser Theory, World Scientific. (2014)

[2] See Chapter 6, “The Tangled Tale of Phase Space” in Galileo Unbound (D. D. Nolte, Oxford University Press, 2018)

[3] V. I. Arnold, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics (Nauk 1974, English translation Springer 1978)

[4] See Chapter 3, “Hamiltonian Dynamics and Phase Space” in Introduction to Modern Dynamics, 2nd ed. (D. D. Nolte, Oxford University Press, 2019)

[5] V. I. Arnold and A. Avez, Ergodic Problems of Classical Mechanics (Benjamin, 1968)

[6] Gaspari, G. “THE ARNOLD CAT MAP ON PRIME LATTICES.” Physica D-Nonlinear Phenomena 73(4): 352-372. (1994)

Biased Double-well Potential: Bistability, Bifurcation and Hysteresis

Bistability, bifurcation and hysteresis are ubiquitous phenomena that arise from nonlinear dynamics and have considerable importance for technology applications.  For instance, the hysteresis associated with the flipping of magnetic domains under magnetic fields is the central mechanism for magnetic memory, and bistability is a key feature of switching technology.

… one of the most commonly encountered bifurcations is called a saddle-node bifurcation, which is the bifurcation that occurs in the biased double-well potential.

One of the simplest models for bistability and hysteresis is the one-dimensional double-well potential biased by a changing linear potential.  An example of a double-well potential with a bias is

where the parameter c is a control parameter (bias) that can be adjusted or that changes slowly in time c(t).  This dynamical system is also known as the Duffing oscillator. The net double-well potentials for several values of the control parameter c are shown in Fig. 1.   With no bias, there are two degenerate energy minima.  As c is made negative, the left well has the lowest energy, and as c is made positive the right well has the lowest energy.

The dynamics of this potential energy profile can be understood by imagining a small ball that responds to the local forces exerted by the potential.  For large negative values of c the ball will have its minimum energy in the left well.  As c is increased, the energy of the left well increases, and rises above the energy of the right well.  If the ball began in the left well, even when the left well has a higher energy than the right, there is a potential barrier that the ball cannot overcome and it remains on the left.  This local minimum is a stable equilibrium, but it is called “metastable” because it is not a global minimum of the system.  Metastability is the origin of hysteresis.

Fig. 1 A biased double-well potential in one dimension. The thresholds to destroy the local metastable minima are c = +/-1.05. For values beyond threshold, only a single minimum exists with no barrier. Hysteresis is caused by the mass being stuck in the metastable (upper) minimum because it has insufficient energy to overcome the potential barrier, until the barrier disappears at threshold and the ball rolls all the way down to the bottom to the new location. When the bias is slowly reversed, the new location becomes metastable, until the ball can overcome the barrier and roll down to its original minimum, etc.

           Once sufficient bias is applied that the local minimum disappears, the ball will roll downhill to the new minimum on the right, and in the presence of dissipation, it will come to rest in the new minimum.  The bias can then be slowly lowered, reversing this process. Because of the potential barrier, the bias must change sign and be strong enough to remove the stability of the now metastable fixed point with the ball on the right, allowing the ball to roll back down to its original location on the left.  This “overshoot” defines the extent of the hysteresis. The fact that there are two minima, and that one is metastable with a barrier between the two, produces “bistability”, meaning that there are two stable fixed points for the same control parameter.

           For illustration, assume a mass obeys the flow equation

including a damping term, where the force is the negative gradient of the potential energy.  The bias parameter c can be time dependent, beginning beyond the negative threshold and slowly increasing until it exceeds the positive threshold, and then reversing and decreasing again.  The position of the mass is locally a damped oscillator until a threshold is passed, and then the mass falls into the global minimum, as shown in Fig. 2. As the bias is reversed, it remains in the metastable minimum on the right until the control parameter passes threshold, and then the mass drops into the left minimum that is now a global minimum.

Fig. 2 Hysteresis diagram. The mass begins in the left well. As the parameter c increases, the mass remains in the well, even though it is no longer the global minimum when c becomes positive. When c passes the positive threshold (around 1.05 for this example), the mass falls into the right well, with damped oscillation. Then the control parameter c is decreased slowly until the negative threshold is passed, and the mass switches to the left well with damped oscillations. The difference between the “switch up” and “switch down” values of the control parameter represents the “hysteresis” of the this system.

The sudden switching of the biased double-well potential represents what is known as a “bifurcation”. A bifurcation is a sudden change in the qualitative behavior of a system caused by a small change in a control variable. Usually, a bifurcation occurs when the number of attractors of a system changes. There is a fairly large menagerie of different types of bifurcations, but one of the most commonly encountered bifurcations is called a saddle-node bifurcation, which is the bifurcation that occurs in the biased double-well potential. In fact, there are two saddle-node bifurcations.

Bifurcations are easily portrayed by creating a joint space between phase space and the one (or more) control parameters that induce the bifurcation. The phase space of the double well is two dimensional (position, velocity) with three fixed points, but the change in the number of fixed points can be captured by taking a projection of the phase space onto a lower-dimensional manifold. In this case, the projection is simply along the x-axis. Therefore a “co-dimensional phase space” can be constructed with the x-axis as one dimension and the control parameter as the other. This is illustrated in Fig. 3. The cubic curve traces out the solutions to the fixed-point equation

For a given value of the control parameter c there are either three solutions or one solution. The values of c where the number of solutions changes discontinuously is the bifurcation point c*. Two examples of the potential function are shown on the right for c = +1 and c = -0.5 showing the locations of the three fixed points.

Fig. 3 The co-dimension phase space combines the one-dimensional dynamics along the position x with the control parameter. For a given value of c, there are three or one solution for the fixed point. When there are three solutions, two are stable (the double minima) and one is unstable (the saddle). As the magnitude of the bias increases, one stable node annihilates with the unstable node (a minimum and the saddle merge) and the dynamics “switch” to the other minimum.

The threshold value in this example is c* = 1.05. When |c| < c* the two stable fixed points are the two minima of the double-well potential, and the unstable fixed point is the saddle between them. When |c| > c* then the single stable fixed point is the single minimum of the potential function. The saddle-node bifurcation takes its name from the fact (illustrated here) that the unstable fixed point is a saddle, and at the bifurcation the saddle point annihilates with one of the stable fixed points.

The following Python code illustrates the behavior of a biased double-well potential, with damping, in which the control parameter changes slowly with a sinusoidal time dependence.

Python Code

#!/usr/bin/env python3
# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
"""
Created on Wed Apr 17 15:53:42 2019

@author: nolte
"""

import numpy as np
from scipy import integrate
from scipy import signal
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt

plt.close('all')
T = 400
Amp = 3.5

def solve_flow(y0,c0,lim = [-3,3,-3,3]):

    def flow_deriv(x_y, t, c0):
        #"""Compute the time-derivative of a Medio system."""
        x, y = x_y

        return [y,-0.5*y - x**3 + 2*x + x*(2*np.pi/T)*Amp*np.cos(2*np.pi*t/T) + Amp*np.sin(2*np.pi*t/T)]

    tsettle = np.linspace(0,T,101)   
    yinit = y0;
    x_tsettle = integrate.odeint(flow_deriv,yinit,tsettle,args=(T,))
    y0 = x_tsettle[100,:]
    
    t = np.linspace(0, 1.5*T, 2001)
    x_t = integrate.odeint(flow_deriv, y0, t, args=(T,))
    c  = Amp*np.sin(2*np.pi*t/T)
        
    return t, x_t, c

eps = 0.0001

for loop in range(0,100):
    c = -1.2 + 2.4*loop/100 + eps;
    xc[loop]=c
    
    coeff = [-1, 0, 2, c]
    y = np.roots(coeff)
    
    xtmp = np.real(y[0])
    ytmp = np.real(y[1])
    
    X[loop] = np.min([xtmp,ytmp])
    Y[loop] = np.max([xtmp,ytmp])
    Z[loop]= np.real(y[2])


plt.figure(1)
lines = plt.plot(xc,X,xc,Y,xc,Z)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)
plt.show()
plt.title('Roots')

y0 = [1.9, 0]
c0 = -2.

t, x_t, c = solve_flow(y0,c0)
y1 = x_t[:,0]
y2 = x_t[:,1]

plt.figure(2)
lines = plt.plot(t,y1)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)
plt.show()
plt.ylabel('X Position')
plt.xlabel('Time')

plt.figure(3)
lines = plt.plot(c,y1)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)
plt.show()
plt.ylabel('X Position')
plt.xlabel('Control Parameter')
plt.title('Hysteresis Figure')

Further Reading:

D. D. Nolte, Introduction to Modern Dynamics: Chaos, Networks, Space and Time (2nd Edition) (Oxford University Press, 2019)

The Pendulum Lab

Georg Duffing’s Equation

Although coal and steam launched the industrial revolution, gasoline and controlled explosions have sustained it for over a century.  After early precursors, the internal combustion engine that we recognize today came to life in 1876 from the German engineers Otto and Daimler with later variations by Benz and Diesel.  In the early 20th century, the gasoline engine was replacing coal and oil in virtually all mobile conveyances and had become a major industry attracting the top mechanical engineering talent.  One of those talents was the German engineer Georg Duffing (1861 – 1944) whose unlikely side interest in the quantum mechanics revolution brought him to Berlin to hear lectures by Max Planck, where he launched his own revolution in nonlinear oscillators.

The publication of this highly academic book by a nonacademic would establish Duffing as the originator of one of the most iconic oscillators in modern dynamics.

An Academic Non-Academic

Georg Duffing was born in 1861 in the German town of Waldshut on the border with Switzerland north of Zurich.  Within a year the family moved to Mannheim near Heidelberg where Georg received a good education in mathematics as well as music.  His mathematical interests attracted him to engineering, and he built a reputation that led to an invitation to work at Westinghouse in the United States in 1910.  When he returned to Germany he set himself up as a consultant and inventor with the freedom to move where he wished.  In early 1913 he wished to move to Berlin where Max Planck was lecturing on the new quantum mechanics at the University.  He was always searching for new knowledge, and sitting in on Planck’s lectures must have made him feel like he was witnessing the beginnings of a new era.            

At that time Duffing was interested in problems related to brakes, gears and engines.  In particular, he had become fascinated by vibrations that often were the limiting factors in engine performance.  He stripped the problem of engine vibration down to its simplest form, and he began a careful and systematic study of nonlinear oscillations.  While in Berlin, he had became acquainted with Prof. Meyer at the University who had a mechanical engineering laboratory.  Meyer let Duffing perform his experiments in the lab on the weekends, sometime accompanied by his eldest daughter.  By 1917 he had compiled a systematic investigation of various nonlinear effects in oscillators and had written a manuscript that collected all of this theoretical and experimental work.  He extended this into a small book that he published with Vieweg & Sohn in 1918 to be purchased for a price of 5 Deutsch Marks [1].   The publication of this highly academic book by a nonacademic would establish Duffing as the originator of one of the most iconic oscillators in modern dynamics.

Fig. 1 Cover of Duffing’s 1918 publication on nonlinear oscillators.

Duffing’s Nonlinear Oscillator

The mathematical and technical focus of Duffing’s book was low-order nonlinear corrections to the linear harmonic oscillator.  In one case, he considered a spring that either became stiffer or softer as it stretched.  This happens when a cubic term is added to the usual linear Hooke’s law.  In another case, he considered a spring that was stiffer in one direction than another, making the stiffness asymmetric.  This happens when a quadratic term is added.  These terms are shown in Fig. 2 from Duffing’s book.  The top equation is a free oscillation, and the bottom equation has a harmonic forcing function.  These were the central equations that Duffing explored, plus the addition of damping that he considered in a later chapter as shown in Fig. 3. The book lays out systematically, chapter by chapter, approximate and series solutions to the nonlinear equations, and in special cases described analytically exact solutions (such as for the nonlinear pendulum).

Fig. 2 Duffing’s equations without damping for free oscillation and driven oscillation with quadratic (producing an asymmetric potential) and cubic (producing stiffening or softening) corrections to the spring force.
Fig. 3 Inclusion of damping in the case with cubic corrections to the spring force.

Duffing was a practical engineer as well as a mathematical one, and he built experimental systems to test his solutions.  An engineering drawing of his experimental test apparatus is shown in Fig. 4. The small test pendulum is at S in the figure. The large pendulum at B is the drive pendulum, chosen to be much heavier than the test pendulum so that it can deliver a steady harmonic force through spring F1 to the test system. The cubic nonlinearity of the test system was controlled through the choice of the length of the test pendulum, and the quadratic nonlinearity (the asymmetry) was controlled by allowing the equilibrium angle to be shifted from vertical. The relative strength of the quadratic and cubic terms was adjusted by changing the position of the mass at G. Duffing derived expressions for all the coefficients of the equations in Fig. 1 in terms of experimentally-controlled variables. Using this apparatus, Duffing verified to good accuracy his solutions for various special cases.

Fig. 4 Duffing’s experimental system he used to explore and verify his equations and solutions.

           Duffing’s book is a masterpiece of careful systematic investigation, beginning in general terms, and then breaking the problem down into its special cases, finding solutions for each one with accurate experimental verifications. These attributes established the importance of this little booklet in the history of science and technology, but because it was written in German, most of the early citations were by German scientists.  The first use of Duffing’s name associated to the nonlinear oscillator problem occurred in 1928 [2], as was the first reference to him in a work in English in a book by Timoshenko [3].  The first use of the phrase “Duffing Equation” specifically to describe an oscillator with a linear and cubic restoring force was in 1942 in a series of lectures presented at Brown University [4], and this nomenclature had become established by the end of that decade [5].  Although Duffing had spent considerable attention in his book to the quadratic term for an asymmetric oscillator, the term “Duffing Equation” now refers to the stiffening and softening problem rather than to the asymmetric problem.

Fig. 5 The Duffing equation is generally expressed as a harmonic oscillator (first three terms plus the harmonic drive) modified by a cubic nonlinearity and driven harmonically.

Duffing Rediscovered

Nonlinear oscillations remained mainly in the realm of engineering for nearly half a century, until a broad spectrum of physical scientists began to discover deep secrets hiding behind the simple equations.  In 1963 Edward Lorenz (1917 – 2008) of MIT published a paper that showed how simple nonlinearities in three equations describing the atmosphere could produce a deterministic behavior that appeared to be completely chaotic.  News of this paper spread as researchers in many seemingly unrelated fields began to see similar signatures in chemical reactions, turbulence, electric circuits and mechanical oscillators.  By 1972 when Lorenz was invited to give a talk on the “Butterfly Effect” the science of chaos was emerging as new frontier in physics, and in 1975 it was given its name “chaos theory” by James Yorke (1941 – ).  By 1976 it had become one of the hottest new areas of science. 

        Through the period of the emergence of chaos theory, the Duffing oscillator was known to be one of the archetypical nonlinear oscillators.  A particularly attractive aspect of the general Duffing equations is the possibility of studying a “double-well” potential.  This happens when the “alpha” in the equation in Fig. 5 is negative and the “beta” is positive.  The double-well potential has a long history in physics, both classical and modern, because it represents a “two-state” system that exhibits bistability, bifurcations, and hysteresis.  For a fixed “beta” the potential energy as a function of “alpha” is shown in Fig. 6.  The bifurcation cascades of the double-well Duffing equation was investigated by Phillip Holmes (1945 – ) in 1976 [6], and the properties of the strange attractor were demonstrated in 1978 [7] by Yoshisuke Ueda (1936 – ).  Holmes, and others, continued to do detailed work on the chaotic properties of the Duffing oscillator, helping to make it one of the most iconic systems of chaos theory.

Fig. 6 Potential energy of the Duffing Oscillator. The position variable is x, and changing alpha is along the other axis. For positive beta and alpha the potential is a quartic. For positive beta and negative alpha the potential is a double well.

Python Code for the Duffing Oscillator

This Python code uses the simple ODE solver on the driven-damped Duffing double-well oscillator to display the configuration-space trajectories and the Poincaré map of the strange attractor.

#!/usr/bin/env python3
# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
"""
Created on Wed May 21 06:03:32 2018
@author: nolte
"""
import numpy as np
import matplotlib as mpl
from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D
from scipy import integrate
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt
from matplotlib import cm
import time
import os

plt.close('all')

# model_case 1 = Pendulum
# model_case 2 = Double Well
print(' ')
print('Duffing.py')

alpha = -1       # -1
beta = 1         # 1
delta = 0.3       # 0.3
gam = 0.15    # 0.15
w = 1
def flow_deriv(x_y_z,tspan):
    x, y, z = x_y_z
    a = y
    b = delta*np.cos(w*tspan) - alpha*x - beta*x**3 - gam*y
    c = w
    return[a,b,c]
                
T = 2*np.pi/w

px1 = np.random.rand(1)
xp1 = np.random.rand(1)
w1 = 0

x_y_z = [xp1, px1, w1]

# Settle-down Solve for the trajectories
t = np.linspace(0, 2000, 40000)
x_t = integrate.odeint(flow_deriv, x_y_z, t)
x0 = x_t[39999,0:3]

tspan = np.linspace(1,20000,400000)
x_t = integrate.odeint(flow_deriv, x0, tspan)
siztmp = np.shape(x_t)
siz = siztmp[0]

y1 = x_t[:,0]
y2 = x_t[:,1]
y3 = x_t[:,2]
    
plt.figure(2)
lines = plt.plot(y1[1:2000],y2[1:2000],'ko',ms=1)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)
plt.show()

for cloop in range(0,3):

#phase = np.random.rand(1)*np.pi;
    phase = np.pi*cloop/3

    repnum = 5000
    px = np.zeros(shape=(2*repnum,))
    xvar = np.zeros(shape=(2*repnum,))
    cnt = -1
    testwt = np.mod(tspan-phase,T)-0.5*T;
    last = testwt[1]
    for loop in range(2,siz):
        if (last < 0)and(testwt[loop] > 0):
            cnt = cnt+1
            del1 = -testwt[loop-1]/(testwt[loop] - testwt[loop-1])
            px[cnt] = (y2[loop]-y2[loop-1])*del1 + y2[loop-1]
            xvar[cnt] = (y1[loop]-y1[loop-1])*del1 + y1[loop-1]
            last = testwt[loop]
        else:
            last = testwt[loop]
 
    plt.figure(3)
    if cloop == 0:
        lines = plt.plot(xvar,px,'bo',ms=1)
    elif cloop == 1:
        lines = plt.plot(xvar,px,'go',ms=1)
    else:
        lines = plt.plot(xvar,px,'ro',ms=1)
        
    plt.show()

plt.savefig('Duffing')
Fig. 7 Strange attractor of the double-well Duffing equation for three selected phases.

[1] G. Duffing, Erzwungene Schwingungen bei veranderlicher Eigenfrequenz und ihre technische Bedeutung, Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig, 1918.

[2] Lachmann, K. “Duffing’s vibration problem.” Mathematische Annalen 99: 479-492. (1928)

[3] S. Timoshenko, Vibration Problems in Engineering, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.,New York, 1928.

[4] K.O. Friedrichs, P. Le Corbeiller, N. Levinson, J.J. Stoker, Lectures on Non-Linear Mechanics delivered at Brown University, New York, 1942.

[5] Kovacic, I. and M. J. Brennan, Eds. The Duffing Equation: Nonlinear Oscillators and their Behavior. Chichester, United Kingdom, Wiley. (2011)

[6] Holmes, P. J. and D. A. Rand. “Bifurcations of Duffings Equation – Application of Catastrophe Theory.” Journal of Sound and Vibration 44(2): 237-253. (1976)

[7] Ueda, Y. “Randomly Transitional Phenomena in the System Governed by Duffings Equation.” Journal of Statistical Physics 20(2): 181-196. (1979)

The Wonderful World of Hamiltonian Maps

Hamiltonian systems are freaks of nature.  Unlike the everyday world we experience that is full of dissipation and inefficiency, Hamiltonian systems live in a world free of loss.  Despite how rare this situation is for us, this unnatural state happens commonly in two extremes: orbital mechanics and quantum mechanics.  In the case of orbital mechanics, dissipation does exist, most commonly in tidal effects, but effects of dissipation in the orbits of moons and planets takes eons to accumulate, making these systems effectively free of dissipation on shorter time scales.  Quantum mechanics is strictly free of dissipation, but there is a strong caveat: ALL quantum states need to be included in the quantum description.  This includes the coupling of discrete quantum states to their environment.  Although it is possible to isolate quantum systems to a large degree, it is never possible to isolate them completely, and they do interact with the quantum states of their environment, if even just the black-body radiation from their container, and even if that container is cooled to milliKelvins.  Such interactions involve so many degrees of freedom, that it all behaves like dissipation.  The origin of quantum decoherence, which poses such a challenge for practical quantum computers, is the entanglement of quantum systems with their environment.

Liouville’s theorem plays a central role in the explanation of the entropy and ergodic properties of ideal gases, as well as in Hamiltonian chaos.

Liouville’s Theorem and Phase Space

A middle ground of practically ideal Hamiltonian mechanics can be found in the dynamics of ideal gases. This is the arena where Maxwell and Boltzmann first developed their theories of statistical mechanics using Hamiltonian physics to describe the large numbers of particles.  Boltzmann applied a result he learned from Jacobi’s Principle of the Last Multiplier to show that a volume of phase space is conserved despite the large number of degrees of freedom and the large number of collisions that take place.  This was the first derivation of what is today known as Liouville’s theorem.

Close-up of the Lozi Map with B = -1 and C = 0.5.

In 1838 Joseph Liouville, a pure mathematician, was interested in classes of solutions of differential equations.  In a short paper, he showed that for one class of differential equation one could define a property that remained invariant under the time evolution of the system.  This purely mathematical paper by Liouville was expanded upon by Jacobi, who was a major commentator on Hamilton’s new theory of dynamics, contributing much of the mathematical structure that we associate today with Hamiltonian mechanics.  Jacobi recognized that Hamilton’s equations were of the same class as the ones studied by Liouville, and the conserved property was a product of differentials.  In the mid-1800’s the language of multidimensional spaces had yet to be invented, so Jacobi did not recognize the conserved quantity as a volume element, nor the space within which the dynamics occurred as a space.  Boltzmann recognized both, and he was the first to establish the principle of conservation of phase space volume. He named this principle after Liouville, even though it was actually Boltzmann himself who found its natural place within the physics of Hamiltonian systems [1].

Liouville’s theorem plays a central role in the explanation of the entropy of ideal gases, as well as in Hamiltonian chaos.  In a system with numerous degrees of freedom, a small volume of initial conditions is stretched and folded by the dynamical equations as the system evolves.  The stretching and folding is like what happens to dough in a bakers hands.  The volume of the dough never changes, but after a long time, a small spot of food coloring will eventually be as close to any part of the dough as you wish.  This analogy is part of the motivation for ergodic systems, and this kind of mixing is characteristic of Hamiltonian systems, in which trajectories can diffuse throughout the phase space volume … usually.

Interestingly, when the number of degrees of freedom are not so large, there is a middle ground of Hamiltonian systems for which some initial conditions can lead to chaotic trajectories, while other initial conditions can produce completely regular behavior.  For the right kind of systems, the regular behavior can hem in the irregular behavior, restricting it to finite regions.  This was a major finding of the KAM theory [2], named after Kolmogorov, Arnold and Moser, which helped explain the regions of regular motion separating regions of chaotic motion as illustrated in Chirikov’s Standard Map.

Discrete Maps

Hamilton’s equations are ordinary continuous differential equations that define a Hamiltonian flow in phase space.  These equations can be solved using standard techniques, such as Runge-Kutta.  However, a much simpler approach for exploring Hamiltonian chaos uses discrete maps that represent the Poincaré first-return map, also known as the Poincaré section.  Testing that a discrete map satisfies Liouville’s theorem is as simple as checking that the determinant of the Floquet matrix is equal to unity.  When the dynamics are represented in a Poincaré plane, these maps are called area-preserving maps.

There are many famous examples of area-preserving maps in the plane.  The Chirikov Standard Map is one of the best known and is often used to illustrate KAM theory.  It is a discrete representation of a kicked rotater, while a kicked harmonic oscillator leads to the Web Map.  The Henon Map was developed to explain the orbits of stars in galaxies.  The Lozi Map is a version of the Henon map that is more accessible analytically.  And the Cat Map was devised by Vladimir Arnold to illustrate what is today called Arnold Diffusion.  All of these maps display classic signatures of (low-dimensional) Hamiltonian chaos with periodic orbits hemming in regions of chaotic orbits.

Chirikov Standard Map
Kicked rotater
Web Map
Kicked harmonic oscillator
Henon Map
Stellar trajectories in galaxies
Lozi Map
Simplified Henon map
Cat MapArnold Diffusion

Table:  Common examples of area-preserving maps.

Lozi Map

My favorite area-preserving discrete map is the Lozi Map.  I first stumbled on this map at the very back of Steven Strogatz’ wonderful book on nonlinear dynamics [3].  It’s one of the last exercises of the last chapter.  The map is particularly simple, but it leads to rich dynamics, both regular and chaotic.  The map equations are

which is area-preserving when |B| = 1.  The constant C can be varied, but the choice C = 0.5 works nicely, and B = -1 produces a beautiful nested structure, as shown in the figure.

Iterated Lozi map for B = -1 and C = 0.5.  Each color is a distinct trajectory.  Many regular trajectories exist that corral regions of chaotic trajectories.  Trajectories become more chaotic farther away from the center.

Python Code for the Lozi Map

"""
Created on Wed May  2 16:17:27 2018
@author: nolte
"""
import numpy as np
from scipy import integrate
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt

B = -1
C = 0.5

np.random.seed(2)
plt.figure(1)

for eloop in range(0,100):

    xlast = np.random.normal(0,1,1)
    ylast = np.random.normal(0,1,1)

    xnew = np.zeros(shape=(500,))
    ynew = np.zeros(shape=(500,))
    for loop in range(0,500):
        xnew[loop] = 1 + ylast - C*abs(xlast)
        ynew[loop] = B*xlast
        xlast = xnew[loop]
        ylast = ynew[loop]
        
    plt.plot(np.real(xnew),np.real(ynew),'o',ms=1)
    plt.xlim(xmin=-1.25,xmax=2)
    plt.ylim(ymin=-2,ymax=1.25)
        
plt.savefig('Lozi')

References:

[1] D. D. Nolte, “The Tangled Tale of Phase Space”, Chapter 6 in Galileo Unbound: A Path Across Life, the Universe and Everything (Oxford University Press, 2018)

[2] H. S. Dumas, The KAM Story: A Friendly Introduction to the Content, History, and Significance of Classical Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser Theory (World Scientific, 2014)

[3] S. H. Strogatz, Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos (WestView Press, 1994)

Top 10 Topics of Modern Dynamics

“Modern physics” in the undergraduate physics curriculum has been monopolized, on the one hand, by quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, particle physics and astrophysics. “Classical mechanics”, on the other hand, has been monopolized by Lagrangians and Hamiltonians.  While these are all admittedly interesting, the topics of modern dynamics that monopolize the time and actions of most physics-degree holders, as they work in high-tech start-ups, established technology companies, or on Wall Street, are not to be found.  These are the topics of nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, complex networks, finance, evolutionary dynamics and neural networks, among others.

Cover

There is a growing awareness that the undergraduate physics curriculum needs to be reinvigorated to make a physics degree relevant to the modern workplace.  To that end, I am listing my top 10 topics of modern dynamics that can form the foundation of a revamped upper-division (junior level) mechanics course.  Virtually all of these topics were once reserved for graduate-student-level courses, but all can be introduced to undergraduates in simple and intuitive ways without the need for advanced math.

1) Phase Space

The key change in perspective for modern dynamics that differentiates it from classical dynamics is the emphasis on the set of all possible trajectories that fill a “space” rather than emphasizing single trajectories defined by given initial conditions.  Rather than study the motion of one rock thrown from a cliff top, modern dynamics studies an infinity of rocks thrown from every possible point and with every possible velocity.  The space that contains this infinity of trajectories is known as phase space (or more generally state space).  The equation of motion in state space becomes the dynamical flow, replacing Newton’s second law as the central mathematical structure of physics.  Modern dynamics studies the properties of phase space rather than the properties of single trajectories, and makes rigorous and unique conclusions about classes of possible motions.  This emphasis on classes of behavior is more general and more universal and more powerful, while also providing a fundamental “visual language” with which to describe the complex physics of complex systems.

2) Metric Space

The Cartesian coordinate plane that we were all taught in high school tends to dominate our thinking, biasing us towards linear flat geometries.  Yet most dynamics do not take place in such simple Cartesian spaces.  A case in point, virtually every real-world dynamics problem has constraints that confine the motion to a surface.  Furthermore, the number of degrees of freedom of a dynamical system usually exceed our common 3-space, expanding to hundreds or even to thousands of dimensions.  The surfaces of constraint are hypersurfaces of high dimensions (known as manifolds) and are almost certainly not flat hyperplanes. This daunting prospect of high-dimensional warped spaces can be surprisingly simplified through the concept of Bernhard Riemann’s “metric space”.  Understanding the geometry of a metric space can be as simple as applying Pythagoras’ Theorem to sets of coordinates.  For instance, the metric tensor can be taught and used without requiring students to know anything of tensor calculus.  At the same time, it provides a useful tool for understanding dynamical patterns in phase space as well as orbits around black holes.

3) Invariants

Introductory physics classes emphasize the conservation of energy, linear momentum and angular momentum as if they are special cases.  Yet there is a grand structure that yields a universal set of conservation laws: integrable Hamiltonian systems.  An integrable system is one for which there are as many invariants of motion as there are degrees of freedom.  Amazingly, these conservation laws can all be captured by a single procedure known as (canonical) transformation to action-angle coordinates.  When expressed in action-angle form, these Hamiltonians take on extremely simple expressions.  They are also the starting point for the study of perturbations when small nonintegrable terms are added to the Hamiltonian.  As the perturbations grow, this provides one doorway to the emergence of chaos.

4) Chaos theory

“Chaos theory” is the more popular title for what is generally called “nonlinear dynamics”.  Nonlinear dynamics takes place in state space when the dynamical flow equations have terms that algebraically are products of variables.  One important distinction between chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics is the occurrence of unpredictability that can emerge in the dynamics when the number of variables is equal to three or higher.  The equations, and the resulting dynamics, are still deterministic, but the trajectories are incredibly sensitive to initial conditions (SIC).  In addition, the dynamical trajectories can relax to a submanifold of the original state space known as a strange attractor that typically is a fractal structure.

5) Synchronization

One of the central paradigms of nonlinear dynamics is the autonomous oscillator.  Unlike the harmonic oscillator that eventually decays due to friction, autonomous oscillators are steady-state oscillators that convert steady energy input into oscillatory behavior.  A prime example is the pendulum clock that converts the steady weight of a hanging mass into a sustained oscillation.  When two autonomous oscillators (that normally oscillator at slightly different frequencies) are coupled weakly together, they can synchronize to the same frequency.   This effect was discovered by Christiaan Huygens when he observed two pendulum clocks hanging next to each other on a wall synchronize the swings of their pendula.  Synchronization is a central paradigm in modern dynamics for several reasons.  First, it demonstrates the emergence of order when a collective behavior emerges from a collection of individual systems (this phenomenon of emergence is one of the fundamental principles of complex system science).  Second, synchronized systems include such critical systems as the beating heart and the thinking brain.  Third, synchronization becomes a useful tool to explore coupled systems that have a large number of linked subsystems, as in networks of nodes.

6) Network Dynamics

Networks have become one of the driving forces of our modern interconnected society.  The structure of networks, the dynamics of nodes in networks, and the dynamic growth of networks are all coming into focus as we live our lives in multiple interconnected webs.  Dynamics on networks include problems like diffusion and the spread of infection and connect with topics of percolation theory and critical phenomenon.  Nonlinear dynamics on networks provide key opportunities and examples to study complex interacting systems.

7) Neural Networks

Perhaps the most enigmatic network is the network of neurons in the brain.  The emergence of intelligence and of sentience is one of the greatest scientific questions.  At a much simpler level, the nonlinear dynamics of small numbers of neurons display the properties of autonomous oscillators and synchronization, while larger sets of neurons become interconnected into dynamic networks.  The dynamics of neurons and of neural networks is a  key topic in modern dynamics.  Not only can the physics of the networks be studied, but neural networks become tools for studying other complex systems.

8) Evolutionary Dynamics

The emergence of life and the evolution of species stands as another of the greatest scientific questions of our day.  Although this topic traditionally is studied by the biological sciences (and mathematical biology), physics has a surprising lot to say on the topic.  The dynamics of evolution can be captured in the same types of nonlinear flows that live in state space.  For instance, population dynamics can be described as a large ensemble of interacting individuals that are born, flourish and die dependent on their environment and on their complicated interactions with other members in their ecosystem.  These types of problems have state spaces of extremely high dimension far beyond what we can visualize.  Yet the emergence of structure and of patterns from the complex dynamics helps to reduce the complexity, as do conceptual metaphors like evolutionary fitness landscapes.

9) Economic Dynamics

A non-negligible fraction of both undergraduate and graduate physics degree holders end up on Wall Street or in related industries.  This is partly because physicists are numerically fluent while also possessing sound intuition.  Therefore, economic dynamics is a potentially valuable addition to the modern dynamics curriculum and easily expressed using the concepts of dynamical flows and state space.  Both microeconomics (business competition, business cycles) and macroeconomics (investment and savings, liquidity and money, inflation, unemployment) can be described and analyzed using mathematical flows that are the central toolkit of modern dynamics.

10) Relativity

Special relativity is a common topic in the current upper-division physics curriculum, while general relativity is viewed as too difficult to expose undergraduates to.  This is mostly an artificial division, because Einstein’s “happiest thought” occurred when he realized that an observer in free fall is in a force-free (inertial) frame.  The equivalence principle, that states that a frame in uniform acceleration is indistinguishable from a stationary frame in a uniform gravitational field, opens a wide door that connects special relativity to general relativity.  In an undergraduate course on modern dynamics, the metric tensor (described above) is introduced in simple terms, providing the foundation to develop Minkowski spacetime, and the next natural extension is to warped spacetime—all at the simple level of linear algebra combined with partial differentiation.  General relativity ties in many of the principles of the modern dynamics curriculum (dynamical flows, state space, metric space, invariants, nonlinear dynamics), and the students can simulate orbits around black holes with ease.  I have been teaching General Relativity to undergraduates for over ten years now, and it is a highlight of the course.

Introduction to Modern Dynamics

For further reading and more details, these top 10 topics of modern dynamics are defined and explored in the undergraduate physics textbook “Introduction to Modern Dynamics: Chaos, Networks, Space and Time” published by Oxford University Press (2015).  This textbook is designed for use in a two-semester junior-level mechanics course.  It introduces the topics of modern dynamics, while still presenting traditional materials that the students need for their physics GREs.

 

How to Weave a Tapestry from Hamiltonian Chaos

While virtually everyone recognizes the famous Lorenz “Butterfly”, the strange attractor  that is one of the central icons of chaos theory, in my opinion Hamiltonian chaos generates far more interesting patterns. This is because Hamiltonians conserve phase-space volume, stretching and folding small volumes of initial conditions as they evolve in time, until they span large sections of phase space. Hamiltonian chaos is usually displayed as multi-color Poincaré sections (also known as first-return maps) that are created when a set of single trajectories, each represented by a single color, pierce the Poincaré plane over and over again.

The archetype of all Hamiltonian systems is the harmonic oscillator.

MATLAB Handle Graphics

A Hamiltonian tapestry generated from the Web Map for K = 0.616 and q = 4.

Periodically-Kicked Hamiltonian

The classic Hamiltonian system, perhaps the archetype of all Hamiltonian systems, is the harmonic oscillator. The physics of the harmonic oscillator are taught in the most elementary courses, because every stable system in the world is approximated, to lowest order, as a harmonic oscillator. As the simplest dynamical system, one would think that it held no surprises. But surprisingly, it can create the most beautiful tapestries of color when pulsed periodically and mapped onto the Poincaré plane.

The Hamiltonian of the periodically kicked harmonic oscillator is converted into the Web Map, represented as an iterative mapping as

WebMap

There can be resonance between the sequence of kicks and the natural oscillator frequency such that α = 2π/q. At these resonances, intricate web patterns emerge. The Web Map produces a web of stochastic layers when plotted on an extended phase plane. The symmetry of the web is controlled by the integer q, and the stochastic layer width is controlled by the perturbation strength K.

MATLAB Handle Graphics

A tapestry for q = 6.

Web Map Python Program

Iterated maps are easy to implement in code.  Here is a simple Python code to generate maps of different types.  You can play with the coupling constant K and the periodicity q.  For small K, the tapestries are mostly regular.  But as the coupling K increases, stochastic layers emerge.  When q is a small even number, tapestries of regular symmetric are generated.  However, when q is an odd small integer, the tapestries turn into quasi-crystals.

#!/usr/bin/env python3
# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
“”
@author: nolte
“””

import numpy as np
from scipy import integrate
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt
plt.close(‘all’)
phi = (1+np.sqrt(5))/2
K = 1-phi     # (0.618, 4) (0.618,5) (0.618,7) (1.2, 4)
q = 4         # 4, 5, 6, 7
alpha = 2*np.pi/q

np.random.seed(2)
plt.figure(1)
for eloop in range(0,1000):

xlast = 50*np.random.random()
ylast = 50*np.random.random()

xnew = np.zeros(shape=(300,))
ynew = np.zeros(shape=(300,))

for loop in range(0,300):

xnew[loop] = (xlast + K*np.sin(ylast))*np.cos(alpha) + ylast*np.sin(alpha)
ynew[loop] = -(xlast + K*np.sin(ylast))*np.sin(alpha) + ylast*np.cos(alpha)

xlast = xnew[loop]
ylast = ynew[loop]

plt.plot(np.real(xnew),np.real(ynew),’o’,ms=1)
plt.xlim(xmin=-60,xmax=60)
plt.ylim(ymin=-60,ymax=60)

plt.title(‘WebMap’)
plt.savefig(‘WebMap’)

References and Further Reading

D. D. Nolte, Introduction to Modern Dynamics: Chaos, Networks, Space and Time (Oxford, 2015)

G. M. Zaslavsky,  Hamiltonian chaos and fractional dynamics. (Oxford, 2005)