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Two-body, three-body, and N-body problem

November 12 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I said that I will not talk about astronomical phenomena in this blog but I will do an exception about the so-called two-body problem in academia. Two-body problem exists outside academia and concerns couples with careers that require a physical separation. The distances can go from a few hours drive to a whole ocean.

The link with astronomy is that there is an actual physical problem, but which concerns the three-body problem. Two-body systems consist of two astronomical entities, let’s say stars, that interact according to the laws of gravity. Bound stars can have different kinds of orbit like human couples can interact in many ways. Binary stars that are in eccentric orbit are like stormy passionate couples. There are times where the lovers get very close to each other (periastron) and times where they are far apart (aspatron). When close to each other the stars can exchange matter in some energetic ways (flares) like humans do. Couples that have reached the stage of a long-term stable relationship are like stars in circular orbits. The orbits can be stable for billion of years like an entire lifetime for humans. The good news is that both in the astronomical context and in couples there are solutions to the problem. More or more research institutions and Universities are aware of the problem, which is related to the issue of gender balance in academia because unfortunately most of the time it is the woman in the couple who decides to quit her academic career. But I also know couples with very sucessful academic carreers.

The actual astronomical problem occurs when there is a third-body in the system. There is no analytical solution anymore. But most of the time one of the three bodies is ejected out of the system like humans with dramatic consequences for the remaining two bodies. Nothing will be like before.

Interestingly when the number of bodied is very high, one can find another analogy with human interaction. Binaries can either be born as binaries and I will call them twins (albeit they do not necessarily share the same characteristics) or originate from the so-call capture in clusters. In that case, a cluster is like a big party when singles can find each other to form new couples!

Funnily enough, in term of intimate relationship, humans behave like stars. This view may be too anthropocentric but the similarities are quite striking anyway.

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