The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The three-body problem in classical mechanics is the problem to determine the motion of three point masses interacting gravitationally and followng Newton’s laws of motion. It is often used as a type example of a physics problem that is easy to state, but where there is not possible to find a general solution in closed form. The resulting dynamical system will for almost all cases exhibit chaotic evolution. The problem also serves as inspiration for Cixin Liu when authoring his book The Three-Body Problem, just as its title may hint.

The story begins in China in 1967, during the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysics graduate who witnesses her father being beaten to death beacuse of his refusal to stop teaching modern physics. Ye is forced to work at a labour camp in Inner Mongolia, and is later recruited to forced work as a scientist at a top secret military radio project, Red Coast, with a strong transmitter and sensitive receiver used for initially unknown purposes. What can possibly go wrong when a brilliant scientist with extremely pessimistic view of the direction of human endevours has access to such equipment?

About forty years later, Wang Miao, a nanotechnology professor, is asked to work together with a blunt and rude detective to investigate why many reseachers, including Ye Wenjies daughter, in the frontline of science have recently killed themselves under what seems like coordinated cirumstances. The two further note that the governments in the world are preparing for war with some external enemy, and that there seems to be a connection to an online computer game with three-body thematics. These two plot lines are of course interconnected; there is a first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation in there. We have a few hundred years to prepare.

I must say that it was mildly confusing to read a book almost immediately after seeing it as a TV series. On one hand, I was already aware of the direction the story would take, but at the same time there are rather big changes in the collection of characters involved and also in the focus of the plot. I really enjoyed a clearly unfilmable section describing the creation of supercomputers, made from unfolding inherently 11-dimensional protons into two dimensions, etching strong-interaction based circuitry, and then refolding it back into a proton now containing artificial intelligence. These are the “sophons”.

The Three-Body Problem is fun to read. It has both a story that is exciting and some science to which I can relate. The setting is also in China, and that is an environment I do not have a lot of experience with through popular culture (the translator has actually added some footnotes to explain the context of some references that I would have had problems understanding). Those things combined have made me really enjoy the book.

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