- The three-body problem is a centuries-old physics question that puzzled Isaac Newton.
- It describes the orbits of three bodies, like planets or stars, trapped in each other’s gravity.
- The problem is unsolvable and led to the development of chaos theory.

While Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” is a science-fiction show, its name comes from a real math problem that’s puzzled scientists since the late 1600s.

In physics, the three-body problem refers to the motion of three bodies trapped in each other’s gravitational grip — like a three-star system.

It might sound simple enough, but once you dig into the mathematics, the orbital paths of each object get complicated very quickly.

**Two-body vs. three- and multi-body systems**

A simpler version is a two-body system like binary stars. Two-body systems** **have periodic orbits, meaning they are mathematically predictable because they follow the same trajectory over and over. So, if you have the stars’ initial positions and velocities, you can calculate where they’ve been or will be in space far into the past and future.

However, “throwing in a third body that’s close enough to interact leads to chaos,” Shane Ross, an aerospace and ocean engineering professor at Virginia Tech, told Business Insider. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to precisely predict the orbital paths of any system with three bodies or more.

While two orbiting planets might look like a ven diagram with ovular paths overlapping, the paths of three bodies interacting often resemble tangled spaghetti. Their trajectories usually aren’t as stable as systems with only two bodies.

All that uncertainty makes what’s known as the three-body problem largely unsolvable, Ross said. But there are certain exceptions.

## The three-body problem is over 300 years old

The three-body problem dates back to Isaac Newton, who published his “Principia” in 1687.

In the book, the mathematician noted that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun. Yet the gravitational pull from Jupiter seemed to affect Saturn’s orbital path.

The three-body problem didn’t just affect distant planets. Trying to understand the variations in the moon’s movements caused Newton literal headaches, he complained.

But Newton never fully figured out the three-body problem. And it remained a mathematical mystery for nearly 200 years.

In 1889, a Swedish journal awarded mathematician Henri Poincaré** **a gold medal and 2,500 Swedish crowns, roughly half a year’s salary for a professor at the time, for his essay about the three-body problem that outlined the basis for an entirely new mathematical theory called chaos theory.

According to chaos theory, when there is uncertainty about a system’s initial conditions, like an object’s mass or velocity, that uncertainty ripples out, making the future more and more unpredictable.

Think of it like taking a wrong turn on a trip. If you make a left instead of a right at the end of your journey, you’re probably closer to your destination than if you made the mistake at the very beginning.

**Can you solve the three-body problem?**

Cracking the three-body problem would help scientists chart the movements of meteors and planets, including Earth, into the extremely far future. Even comparatively small movements of our planet could have large impacts on our climate, Ross said.

Though the three-body problem is considered mathematically unsolvable, there are solutions to specific scenarios. In fact, there are a few that mathematicians have found.

For example, three bodies could stably orbit in a figure eight or equally spaced around a ring. Both are possible depending on the initial positions and velocities of the bodies.

One way researchers look for solutions is with “restricted” three-body problems, where two main bodies (like the sun and Earth) interact and a third object with much smaller mass (like the moon) offers less gravitational interference. In this case, the three-body problem looks a lot like a two-body problem since the sun and Earth comprise the majority of mass in the system.

However, if you’re looking at a three-star system, like the one in Netflix’s show “3 Body Problem,” that’s a lot more complicated.

Computers can also run simulations far more efficiently than humans, though due to the inherent uncertainties, the results are typically approximate orbits instead of exact.

Finding solutions to three-body problems is also essential to space travel, Ross said. For his work, he inputs data about the Earth, moon, and spacecraft into a computer. “We can build up a whole library of possible trajectories,” he said, “and that gives us an idea of the types of motion that are possible.”