What is The Three Body Problem About? – The Physics behind the Show cover image

What is The Three Body Problem About? – The Physics behind the Show

The Three Body Problem is more than just a name – It still does not have a uniform formula after three centuries.

One of the most highly anticipated sci-fi shows of 2024 is Netflix’s The Three Body Problem. An adaptation of the Hugo Award winning book of the same name, The Three Body Problem is as weird and futuristic as it gets. While the story and the television series is best understood by consumption, what exactly is the ‘Three Body Problem’?

If you have read the books, or if you’re here after watching Season 1, you might still be wondering the reason for the obscure title. We’ve got you covered, but beware, some of the later sections of this article might include spoilers.

What is The Three Body Problem?

In this article, we’ll dive deep into what the Three Body Problem means in Physics and later how it relates to the show itself. The Three Body Problem is a fundamental question in physics. 

In the Three Body Problem three bodies move in space under their mutual gravitational interactions as described by Newton's Theory of Gravity.

The problem aims to find out how three different bodies move when they attract each other with gravitational forces. The first case of an extended study for a Three Body Problem was the one involving the Sun, Moon, and Earth. 

Why should we care about the Three Body Problem? Let’s take the example of the moon. We’ve all learned that the Moon revolves around the Earth. If you were to map the movement of the moon, it is essential to understand the movement of Earth. However, simply mapping the moon’s movement against the Earth would be factually incorrect. The Moon is also impacted by the Gravitational force exerted by the Sun and so is the Earth. The Three Body Problem becomes much more complex than, let’s say, a two body problem involving the Moon and Earth. 

Coming back to the show, The Three Body Problem becomes extremely important when it comes to galactic objects such as stars and planets. This is where the show derives its name. 

Physicists have been working on the Three Body Problems for decades and there is no fixed solution. Back in 1687, Isaac Newton solved the problem for two bodies. The variations of the two body problem lead to elliptical, circular, parabolic, or hyperbolic paths. During the process of solving this two-body problem, Isaac Newton derived Johannes Kepler's laws of planetary motion

In subsequent years, there have been attempts to solve the Three Body Problem. A few solutions have been put forth with severe restrictions. However, there has not yet been a single formula to cover the orbital paths of three bodies that interact with each other through gravity. The reason for this is quite often, the differing mass of the bodies. In most cases of planetary-level physics, the mass of two objects is not the same. You can view some of these solutions over at sciencedirect.com

How does the Three Body Problem relate to the Netflix show?

The Three Body Problem is the name of the book in the series by Cixin Liu. The story focuses on an alien civilization that is advancing towards Earth with a very aggressive and invasion-oriented intention. Much before the invasion, however, Earth's Top scientists get access to a video game - called the Three Body.

The Video game puts the players in a different world. This world defies the laws of Physics with irregular Weather Patterns. There are three types of weathers in this new world

  • Stable Era
  • Chaotic Era
  • Cold Night

The Stable era is quite similar to how weather patterns behave on Earth. There's a regular cycle with Day following night and vice versa. These cycles have fixed intervals, so it might be an eighteen hour day-night cycle.

The Chaotic Era is when anything and everything can happen. Players can face extreme heat which would essentially burn them alive. Players used to survive these Chaotic eras by dehydrating. When a player dehydrates, his body shrinks into a two-dimensional paper cutout. These cutouts remain on the ground or in special buildings (dehydratories) made to store the dehydrated bodies.

Survivors of the Chaotic Era (which is the case when they create massive walled palaces, which resemble bunkers), hydrate their fellow players once a Stable era arrives. All eras other than the Stable Era are Chaotic Eras.

Every round of the game starts with the bare basics - The Stone Age. Players have to survive, adapt and develop with time. The game itself speeds up eras allowing players to whiz through several years or thousands of years in a span of a few hours. However, understanding the pattern of the Chaotic and Stable Era is a continuous effort, albeit one that proves to be quite impossible.

There are certain patterns that serve as premonitions for certain events. For example, when three comets appear at the same time, it usually means that the civilization is in for a 'Cold Era'. During a long Night, players face prolonged period of snows, which are quite often frozen Carbon Dioxide. Other times they might be composed of solidified Oxygen and Nitrogen with temperatures falling to absolute zero (-273 C or -460 Fahrenheit)

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