The Three-Body Problem trilogy: a book review

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin

I recently read (in translation, of course) the popular The Three-Body Problem science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. These books explore the idea of first contact, and touch on several topics that I have posted about before (such as the Fermi paradox and the 3-body problem itself). I enjoyed reading them (the first two books more than the third). It was fascinating to read a Chinese view on some of the issues explored.

The novels are somewhat darker than classic Western science fiction, largely due to the shadow cast by the Cultural Revolution. But given the possibility of aliens like the Borg, the Daleks, and the Vang, perhaps interstellar optimism is just naive. And apparently, most contemporary Chinese science fiction is even more pessimistic than that of Liu (one of the characters in the first novel comments on this).

It seemed a little strange that Liu accepts the speed-of-light limit on space travel, but allows faster-than-light communication (which other authors have called an ansible). After all, both relativity and quantum mechanics forbid such a technology. Still, any depiction of truly advanced technology is going to read like fantasy, and the plot did require an ansible (although partway through the trilogy, the speed-of-light limit seemed to vanish even for ordinary communication).

These books (at least the first two) are well worth a read. Wired magazine also posted a review last year, and Nature had an interview with the author.

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin: 3.5 stars

Progress on the 3-body problem

The three-body problem involves finding the possible orbits for a set of three celestial bodies all affecting each other gravitationally. For example, a triple star system like HD 188753, seen here in a NASA artist’s impression (as viewed from a hypothetical moon of a possible planet):

The three-body problem has posed a challenge since Isaac Newton. A recent paper by Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitrašinovic, entitled “Three Classes of Newtonian Three-Body Planar Periodic Orbits” and accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters, presents several new families of solutions to the gravitational equations. Here are two of the solutions – the “Figure 8” (previously discovered by Cristopher Moore in 1993), and the “Ying-Yang 1a” (one of those discovered by Šuvakov and Dmitrašinovic):

Some of those orbits border on the chaotic! See also the draft paper by Šuvakov and Dmitrašinovic here and their gallery of images here.