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.


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. 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. “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)



[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)

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.


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.