Mathematics professor Lennard Bakker has been looking above to answer an age-old question. “One of the most inspiring questions in celestial mechanics is why is the solar system stable,” Bakker said. “Why does it keep repeating itself? Can Newtonian gravity explain it?”
Commenting about this, Jurgen Moser, a leading mathematician in celestial mechanics in the 20th century said: “The answer is still unknown, and yet this question has led to very deep results which probably are more important than the answer to the … question.” This type of a return on investment in research is typical in mathematics.
“We’re hoping to eventually develop mathematics to the point of providing an answer about the stability of the solar system, but more immediately on the stability of periodic, or repeating, motion,” Bakker said. “We’re working on simpler problems to develop new mathematics that can then be applied to more complicated problems.”
In some ways, Bakker’s research can be compared to a game of pool — only with cosmic billiard balls. When celestial objects collide, both objects sometimes rebound intact, with an elastic bounce that continues beyond the point of impact. Although such collisions are rare, these types of motions must be understood in order to have a complete picture of the mathematical consequences of Newtonian gravity.
Using a computer program to simulate the gravitational interactions, Bakker investigates how celestial objects form and may change their pattern of motion, depending on their masses and initial placements. By representing the celestial objects as colored dots on the computer screen, he can simulate stable or unstable behaviors occurring in space in an easy to understand visual model. For Bakker, this is a fun way to help others understand his research.
“A big part of what I love about celestial mechanics,” said Bakker, “is that I can show people a movie — the computer generated simulation — of the research I have done, without them having to understand the mathematics used in that research.”