Education and “The Three-Body Problem”

The brilliant math-watcher, Ian Stewart, says of this classic physics problem, the Three-Body Problem:

Newton’s Law of Gravity runs into problems with three bodies (earth, moon, sun, say).

In particular, the gravitational interaction of a mere three bodies, assumed to obey Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, stumped the mathematical world for centuries.

It still does, if what you want is a nice formula for the orbits of those bodies. In fact, we now know that three-body dynamics is chaotic–so irregular that is has elements of randomness.

There is no tidy geometric characterization of three-body orbits, not even a formula in coordinate geometry.

Until the late nineteenth century, very little was known about the motion of three celestial bodies, even if one of them were so tiny that its mass could be ignored.

(Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems, Ian Stewart, Basic Books, 2014, page 136)

Henri Poincaré, the great mathematician, wrestled with this with tremendous intricacy and ingenuity all his life:

Jules Henri Poincaré was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and philosopher of science. He is often described as a polymath, and in mathematics as “The Last Universalist,” since he excelled in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime.

Born: April 29, 1854, Nancy, France
Died: July 17, 1912, Paris, France.

We now think of applying in an evocative and not a rigorous mathematical way, the unexpected difficulties of the three-body problem to the n-body (i.e., more than three) problems of sociology or economics or history itself, and sense that social life is always multifactorial and not readily pin-downable, since “everything is causing everything else” and extracting mono-causal explanations must be elusive for all the planetary and Poincaré reasons and beyond.

This suggests to the student that novels are one attempt to say something about n-body human “orbits” based on “n-body” stances and “circumstances” with large amounts of randomness governing the untidy mess that dominates human affairs.

Words are deployed in novels and not numbers as in physics, but the “recalcitrance” of the world, social and physical, remains permanent.

Education and meta-intelligence would be more complete by seeing how the world, as someone put it, “won’t meet us halfway.” Remember Ian Stewart’s warning above:

“There is no tidy geometric characterization of three-body orbits…” and you sense that this must apply to human affairs even more deeply.