The Anharmonic Harmonic Oscillator

Harmonic oscillators are one of the fundamental elements of physical theory.  They arise so often in so many different contexts that they can be viewed as a central paradigm that spans all aspects of physics.  Some famous physicists have been quoted to say that the entire universe is composed of simple harmonic oscillators (SHO).

Despite the physicist’s love affair with it, the SHO is pathological! First, it has infinite frequency degeneracy which makes it prone to the slightest perturbation that can tip it into chaos, in contrast to non-harmonic cyclic dynamics that actually protects us from the chaos of the cosmos (see my Blog on Chaos in the Solar System). Second, the SHO is nowhere to be found in the classical world.  Linear oscillators are purely harmonic, with a frequency that is independent of amplitude—but no such thing exists!  All oscillators must be limited, or they could take on infinite amplitude and infinite speed, which is nonsense.  Even the simplest of simple harmonic oscillators would be limited by nothing other than the speed of light.  Relativistic effects would modify the linearity, especially through time dilation effects, rendering the harmonic oscillator anharmonic.

Despite the physicist’s love affair with it, the SHO is pathological!

Therefore, for students of physics as well as practitioners, it is important to break the shackles imposed by the SHO and embrace the anharmonic harmonic oscillator as the foundation of physics. Here is a brief survey of several famous anharmonic oscillators in the history of physics, followed by the mathematical analysis of the relativistic anharmonic linear-spring oscillator.

Anharmonic Oscillators

Anharmonic oscillators have a long venerable history with many varieties.  Many of these have become central models in systems as varied as neural networks, synchronization, grandfather clocks, mechanical vibrations, business cycles, ecosystem populations and more.

Christiaan Huygens

Already by the mid 1600’s Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695) knew that the pendulum becomes slower when it has larger amplitudes.  The pendulum was one of the best candidates for constructing an accurate clock needed for astronomical observations and for the determination of longitude at sea.  Galileo (1564 – 1642) had devised the plans for a rudimentary pendulum clock that his son attempted to construct, but the first practical pendulum clock was invented and patented by Huygens in 1657.  However, Huygens’ modified verge escapement required his pendulum to swing with large amplitudes, which brought it into the regime of anharmonicity. The equations of the simple pendulum are truly simple, but the presence of the sinθ makes it the simplest anharmonic oscillator.

Therefore, Huygens searched for the mathematical form of a tautochrone curve for the pendulum (a curve that is traversed with equal times independently of amplitude) and in the process he invented the involutes and evolutes of a curve—precursors of the calculus.  The answer to the tautochrone question is a cycloid (see my Blog on Huygen’s Tautochrone Curve).

Hermann von Helmholtz

Hermann von Helmholtz (1821 – 1894) was possibly the greatest German physicist of his generation—an Einstein before Einstein—although he began as a medical doctor.  His study of muscle metabolism, drawing on the early thermodynamic work of Carnot, Clapeyron and Joule, led him to explore and to express the conservation of energy in its clearest form.  Because he postulated that all forms of physical processes—electricity, magnetism, heat, light and mechanics—contributed to the interconversion of energy, he sought to explore them all, bringing his research into the mainstream of physics.  His laboratory in Berlin became world famous, attracting to his laboratory the early American physicists Henry Rowland (founder and first president of the American Physical Society) and Albert Michelson (first American Nobel prize winner).

Even the simplest of simple harmonic oscillators would be limited by nothing other than the speed of light.  

Helmholtz also pursued a deep interest in the physics of sensory perception such as sound.  This research led to his invention of the Helmholtz oscillator which is a highly anharmonic relaxation oscillator in which a tuning fork was placed near an electromagnet that was powered by a mercury switch attached to the fork. As the tuning fork vibrated, the mercury came in and out of contact with it, turning on and off the magnet, which fed back on the tuning fork, and so on, enabling the device, once started, to continue oscillating without interruption. This device is called a tuning-fork resonator, and it became the first door-bell buzzers.  (These are not to be confused with Helmholtz resonances that are formed when blowing across the open neck of a beer bottle.)

Lord Rayleigh

Baron John Strutt, the Lord Rayleigh (1842 – 1919) like Helmholtz also was a generalist and had a strong interest in the physics of sound.  He was inspired by Helmholtz’ oscillator to consider general nonlinear anharmonic oscillators mathematically.  He was led to consider the effects of anharmonic terms added to the harmonic oscillator equation.  in a paper published in the Philosophical Magazine issue of 1883 with the title On Maintained Vibrations, he introduced an equation to describe the self-oscillation by adding an extra term to a simple harmonic oscillator. The extra term depended on the cube of the velocity, representing a balance between the gain of energy from a steady force and natural dissipation by friction.  Rayleigh suggested that this equation applied to a wide range of self-oscillating systems, such as violin strings, clarinet reeds, finger glasses, flutes, organ pipes, among others (see my Blog on Rayleigh’s Harp.)

Georg Duffing

The first systematic study of quadratic and cubic deviations from the harmonic potential was performed by the German engineer George Duffing (1861 – 1944) under the conditions of a harmonic drive. The Duffing equation incorporates inertia, damping, the linear spring and nonlinear deviations.

Fig. 1 The Duffing equation adds a nonlinear term to the spring force when alpha is positive, stiffening or weakening it for larger excursions when beta is positive or negative, respectively. And by making alpha negative and beta positive, it describes a damped driven double-well potential.

Duffing confirmed his theoretical predictions with careful experiments and established the lowest-order corrections to ideal masses on springs. His work was rediscovered in the 1960’s after Lorenz helped launch numerical chaos studies. Duffing’s driven potential becomes especially interesting when α is negative and β is positive, creating a double-well potential. The driven double-well is a classic chaotic system (see my blog on Duffing’s Oscillator).

Balthasar van der Pol

Autonomous oscillators are one of the building blocks of complex systems, providing the fundamental elements for biological oscillatorsneural networksbusiness cyclespopulation dynamics, viral epidemics, and even the rings of Saturn.  The most famous autonomous oscillator (after the pendulum clock) is named for a Dutch physicist, Balthasar van der Pol (1889 – 1959), who discovered the laws that govern how electrons oscillate in vacuum tubes, but the dynamical system that he developed has expanded to become the new paradigm of cyclic dynamical systems to replace the SHO (see my Blog on GrandFather Clocks.)

Fig. 2 The van der Pol equation is the standard simple harmonic oscillator with a gain term that saturates for large excursions leading to a limit cycle oscillator.

Turning from this general survey, let’s find out what happens when special relativity is added to the simplest SHO [1].

Relativistic Linear-Spring Oscillator

The theory of the relativistic one-dimensional linear-spring oscillator starts from a relativistic Lagrangian of a free particle (with no potential) yielding the generalized relativistic momentum

The Lagrangian that accomplishes this is [2]

where the invariant 4-velocity is

When the particle is in a potential, the Lagrangian becomes

The action integral that is minimized is

and the Lagrangian for integration of the action integral over proper time is

The relativistic modification in the potential energy term of the Lagrangian is not in the spring constant, but rather is purely a time dilation effect.  This is captured by the relativistic Lagrangian

where the dot is with respect to proper time τ. The classical potential energy term in the Lagrangian is multiplied by the relativistic factor γ, which is position dependent because of the non-constant speed of the oscillator mass.  The Euler-Lagrange equations are

where the subscripts in the variables are a = 0, 1 for the time and space dimensions, respectively.  The derivative of the time component of the 4-vector is

From the derivative of the Lagrangian with respect to speed, the following result is derived

where E is the constant total relativistic energy.  Therefore,

which provides an expression for the derivative of the coordinate time with respect to the proper time where

The position-dependent γ(x) factor is then

The Euler-Lagrange equation with a = 1 is

which gives

providing the flow equations for the (an)harmonic oscillator with respect to proper time

This flow represents a harmonic oscillator modified by the γ(x) factor, due to time dilation, multiplying the spring force term.  Therefore, at relativistic speeds, the oscillator is no longer harmonic even though the spring constant remains truly a constant.  The term in parentheses effectively softens the spring for larger displacement, and hence the frequency of oscillation becomes smaller. 

The state-space diagram of the anharmonic oscillator is shown in Fig. 3 with respect to proper time (the time read on a clock co-moving with the oscillator mass).  At low energy, the oscillator is harmonic with a natural period of the SHO.  As the maximum speed exceeds β = 0.8, the period becomes longer and the trajectory less sinusoidal.  The position and speed for β = 0.9999 is shown in Fig. 4.  The mass travels near the speed of light as it passes the origin, producing significant time dilation at that instant.  The average time dilation through a single cycle is about a factor of three, despite the large instantaneous γ = 70 when the mass passes the origin.

Fig. 3 State-space diagram in relativistic units relative to proper time of a relativistic (an)harmonic oscillator with a constant spring constant for several relative speeds β. The anharmonicity becomes pronounced above β = 0.8.
Fig. 4 Position and speed in relativistic units relative to proper time of a relativistic (an)harmonic oscillator with a constant spring constant for β = 0.9999.  The period of oscillation in this simulation is nearly three times longer than the natural frequency at small amplitudes.

[1] W. Moreau, R. Easther, and R. Neutze, “RELATIVISTIC (AN)HARMONIC OSCILLATOR,” American Journal of Physics, Article vol. 62, no. 6, pp. 531-535, Jun (1994)

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

The Transverse Doppler Effect and Relativistic Time Dilation

One of the hardest aspects to grasp about relativity theory is the question of whether an event “look as if” it is doing something, or whether it “actually is” doing something. 

Take, for instance, the classic twin paradox of relativity theory in which there are twins who wear identical high-precision wrist watches.  One of them rockets off to Alpha Centauri at relativistic speeds and returns while the other twin stays on Earth.  Each twin sees the other twin’s clock running slowly because of relativistic time dilation.  Yet when they get back together and, standing side-by-side, they compare their watches—the twin who went to Alpha Centauri is actually younger than the other, despite the paradox.  The relativistic effect of time dilation is “real”, not just apparent, regardless of whether they come back together to do the comparison.

Yet this understanding of relativistic effects took many years, even decades, to gain acceptance after Einstein proposed them.  He was aware himself that key experiments were required to prove that relativistic effects are real and not just apparent.

Einstein and the Transverse Doppler Effect

In 1905 Einstein used his new theory of special relativity to predict observable consequences that included a general treatment of the relativistic Doppler effect [1].  This included the effects of time dilation in addition to the longitudinal effect of the source chasing the wave.  Time dilation produced a correction to Doppler’s original expression for the longitudinal effect that became significant at speeds approaching the speed of light.  More significantly, it predicted a transverse Doppler effect for a source moving along a line perpendicular to the line of sight to an observer.  This effect had not been predicted either by Christian Doppler (1803 – 1853) or by Woldemar Voigt (1850 – 1919). 

( Read article in Physics Today on the history of the Doppler effect [2] )

Despite the generally positive reception of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, some of its consequences were anathema to many physicists at the time.  A key stumbling block was the question whether relativistic effects, like moving clocks running slowly, were only apparent, or were actually real, and Einstein had to fight to convince others of its reality.  When Johannes Stark (1874 – 1957) observed Doppler line shifts in ion beams called “canal rays” in 1906 (Stark received the 1919 Nobel prize in part for this discovery) [3], Einstein promptly published a paper suggesting how the canal rays could be used in a transverse geometry to directly detect time dilation through the transverse Doppler effect [4].  Thirty years passed before the experiment was performed with sufficient accuracy by Herbert Ives and G. R. Stilwell in 1938 to measure the transverse Doppler effect [5].  Ironically, even at this late date, Ives and Stilwell were convinced that their experiment had disproved Einstein’s time dilation by supporting Lorentz’ contraction theory of the electron.  The Ives-Stilwell experiment was the first direct test of time dilation, followed in 1940 by muon lifetime measurements [6].

A) Transverse Doppler Shift Relative to Emission Angle

The Doppler effect varies between blue shifts in the forward direction to red shifts in the backward direction, with a smooth variation in Doppler shift as a function of the emission angle.  Consider the configuration shown in Fig. 1 for light emitted from a source moving at speed v and emitting at an angle θ0 in the receiver frame. The source moves a distance vT in the time of a single emission cycle (assume a harmonic wave). In that time T (which is the period of oscillation of the light source — or the period of a clock if we think of it putting out light pulses) the light travels a distance cT before another cycle begins (or another pulse is emitted).

Fig. 1 Configuration for detection of Doppler shifts for emission angle θ0. The light source travels a distance vT during the time of a single cycle, while the wavefront travels a distance cT towards the detector.

[ See YouTube video on the derivation of the transverse Doppler Effect.]

The observed wavelength in the receiver frame is thus given by

where T is the emission period of the moving source.  Importantly, the emission period is time dilated relative to the proper emission time of the source


This expression can be evaluated for several special cases:

a) θ0 = 0 for forward emission

which is the relativistic blue shift for longitudinal motion in the direction of the receiver.

b) θ0 = π for backward emission

which is the relativistic red shift for longitudinal motion away from the receiver

c) θ0 = π/2 for transverse emission

This transverse Doppler effect for emission at right angles is a red shift, caused only by the time dilation of the moving light source.  This is the effect proposed by Einstein and observed by Stark that proved moving clocks tick slowly.  But it is not the only way to view the transverse Doppler effect.

B) Transverse Doppler Shift Relative to Angle at Reception

A different option for viewing the transverse Doppler effect is the angle to the moving source at the moment that the light is detected.  The geometry of this configuration relative to the previous is illustrated in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 The detection point is drawn at a finite distance. However, the relationship between θ0 and θ1 is independent of the distance to the detector

The transverse distance to the detection point is

The length of the line connecting the detection point P with the location of the light source at the moment of detection is (using the law of cosines)

Combining with the first equation gives

An equivalent expression is obtained as

Note that this result, relating θ1 to θ0, is independent of the distance to the observation point.

When θ1 = π/2, then


for which the Doppler effect is

which is a blue shift.  This creates the unexpected result that sin θ0 = π/2 produces a red shift, while sin θ1 = π/2 produces a blue shift. The question could be asked: which one represents time dilation? In fact, it is sin θ0 = π/2 that produces time dilation exclusively, because in that configuration there is no foreshortening effect on the wavelength–only the emission time.

C) Compromise: The Null Transverse Doppler Shift

The previous two configurations each could be used as a definition for the transverse Doppler effect. But one gives a red shift and one gives a blue shift, which seems contradictory. Therefore, one might try to strike a compromise between these two cases so that sin θ1 = sin θ0, and the configuration is shown in Fig. 3.

This is the case when θ1 + θ2 = π.  The sines of the two angles are equal, yielding


which is solved for

Inserting this into the Doppler equation gives

where the Taylor’s expansion of the denominator (at low speed) cancels the numerator to give zero net Doppler shift. This compromise configuration represents the condition of null Doppler frequency shift. However, for speeds approaching the speed of light, the net effect is a lengthening of the wavelength, dominated by time dilation, causing a red shift.

D) Source in Circular Motion Around Receiver

An interesting twist can be added to the problem of the transverse Doppler effect: put the source or receiver into circular motion, one about the other. In the case of a source in circular motion around the receiver, it is easy to see that this looks just like case A) above for θ0 = π/2, which is the red shift caused by the time dilation of the moving source

However, there is the possible complication that the source is no longer in an inertial frame (it experiences angular acceleration) and therefore it is in the realm of general relativity instead of special relativity. In fact, it was Einstein’s solution to this problem that led him to propose the Equivalence Principle and make his first calculations on the deflection of light by gravity. His solution was to think of an infinite number of inertial frames, each of which was instantaneously co-moving with the same linear velocity as the source. These co-moving frames are inertial and can be analyzed using the principles of special relativity. The general relativistic effects come from slipping from one inertial co-moving frame to the next. But in the case of the circular transverse Doppler effect, each instantaneously co-moving frame has the exact configuration as case A) above, and so the wavelength is red shifted exactly by the time dilation.

E) Receiver in Circular Motion Around Source

With the notion of co-moving inertial frames now in hand, this configuration is exactly the same as case B) above, and the wavelength is blue shifted


[1] A. Einstein, “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies,” Annalen Der Physik, vol. 17, no. 10, pp. 891-921, Sep (1905)

[2] D. D. Nolte, “The Fall and Rise of the Doppler Effect,” Physics Today, vol. 73, no. 3, pp. 31-35, Mar (2020)

[3] J. Stark, W. Hermann, and S. Kinoshita, “The Doppler effect in the spectrum of mercury,” Annalen Der Physik, vol. 21, pp. 462-469, Nov 1906.

[4] A. Einstein, “Possibility of a new examination of the relativity principle,” Annalen Der Physik, vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 197-198, May (1907)

[5] H. E. Ives and G. R. Stilwell, “An experimental study of the rate of a moving atomic clock,” Journal of the Optical Society of America, vol. 28, p. 215, 1938.

[6] B. Rossi and D. B. Hall, “Variation of the Rate of Decay of Mesotrons with Momentum,” Physical Review, vol. 59, pp. 223–228, 1941.