Here’s the science refresher you need before diving into Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem.’

A planet that goes up in flames in ‘3 Body Problem’.Netflix

  • Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ is based on a science fiction trilogy and follows a group of physicists.

  • We asked an astronomer and a space engineer to explain some of the show’s scientific concepts.

  • It may help to have some background on the Fermi Paradox and the Wow! signal before you look.

The upcoming Netflix show ‘3 Body Problem’ is a science fiction story about a group of physicists struggling with the discovery of an alien civilization.

The show takes its name from a tricky bit of orbital mechanics — three celestial bodies moving around each other — and is based on Liu Cixin’s science fiction trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past.”

In the show, several of the main characters studied physics at Oxford University. Fortunately, you don’t have to come from the same background to enjoy the show.

However, there are a few scientific concepts that may be helpful to know before you tune in on March 21.

The three-body problem is unsolvable and chaotic

Some of the show’s action takes place in a virtual world surrounded by three suns. The celestial mechanics of such a planet have long baffled real-world scientists.

“This is an age-old problem,” Shane Ross, professor of aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech, told Business Insider.

Isaac Newton was able to figure out the two-body problem, how a pair of massive objects such as stars or planets move under the influence of each other’s gravity.

“The two-body problem is a kind of paradigm of stability,” Ross said. However, adding a third body turns everything upside down.

Isaac NewtonIsaac Newton

Isaac Newton.Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock

From a mathematical perspective, it’s “unsolvable,” Ross said of the three-body problem. “You can’t write out the solution as an algebraic formula forever.”

It’s a bit like the butterfly effect: a small change can dramatically change the outcome. “Any uncertainty we have about the initial conditions grows exponentially, to the point where the future state of the system is essentially unpredictable.”

Alpha Centauri is the closest galaxy to Earth

The three-body system in the story is based on a real neighboring galaxy called Alpha Centauri.

At a distance of about four light-years from Earth, this is the closest star system to ours and contains three stars: Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B and Proxima Centauri, around which two planets orbit.

“We are talking about something very close to us,” said Franck Marchis, a senior planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute. “It’s basically like looking into your neighbor’s backyard.”

Alpha Centauri.Alpha Centauri.

A view of the bright triple star system Alpha Centauri.ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2 With thanks to: Davide De Martin

However, special conditions are needed for life, at least as we know it, to survive on both planets around Proxima Centauri. “The living conditions are extremely rare,” Ross said. “I think Earth is a very special planet,” adding that “there could be life that takes another form that we don’t know about.”

If an Alpha Centauri civilization evolved at a similar pace to ours, then “they’re probably more advanced than us,” Marchis said, because the system is estimated to be between 5 and 7 billion years old, while the solar system of the Earth was 4.5 billion years old. years ago.

The Fermi Paradox asks the question: where are all the aliens?

If there are highly evolved beings on other planets, why haven’t they made contact? That’s the question astrophysicist Ye Wenjie asks when she brings up the Fermi paradox on the show.

In 1950, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi wondered where all the aliens were. Decades later, other scientists took up the question. If other civilizations existed, they must have left some evidence.

Enrico Fermi in a laboratory at Columbia UniversityEnrico Fermi in a laboratory at Columbia University

1954: Italian atomic physicist and Nobel laureate Professor Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954), inspects equipment in the laboratory of Columbia University, USA, where he will teach.Keystone/Getty Images

For Marchis, what became known as the Fermi paradox is an outdated way of thinking. “The idea is that because we are a civilization that has become technologically advanced, the first thing we do is travel across the galaxy, ‘Star Trek’ style,” he said.

Instead, he prefers the “zoo hypothesis.”

If they are truly advanced, he said, “they have probably reached a certain level of feeling or consciousness that makes them more respectful of other civilizations that are developing.”

In short, they purposefully avoid contact with our planet.

Aliens could have communicated through the Wow! signal

One of the most mysterious potential alien communications is known as the Wow! signal. In the show, Clarence (Benedict Wong) describes how the strange signal was picked up in Ohio and China.

In the 1970s, researchers at Ohio State University were really involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. They used a radio observatory nicknamed “Big Ear” to pick up alien communications.

In 1977, volunteer Jerry Ehman looked at a computer printout of a signal Big Ear had picked up three days earlier. He circled the numbers and wrote, “Wow!” next to them. The 72-second signal was strong and at a frequency known as the hydrogen line.

Wow!  signal alienWow!  signal alien

The famous – or infamous – “Wow!” signal detected in 1977.Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American Astrophysical Observatory

At the time, researchers thought aliens would communicate on that frequency “because it is the easiest way to send signals across the galaxy,” Marchis said.

The signal was never repeated or detected again, Marchis said. (And no other observatories reported picking up the signal, in China or anywhere else.)

Because the signal itself isn’t stored, you can’t know if it contained a message, Marchis said. Some more mundane explanations for the signal have been suggested, such as the radio transmission reflected from a passing comet.

SETI has come a long way since the 1970s, with many researchers using newer technology and a wider range of signals, Marchis said. “We assume that if aliens want to communicate with us,” he said, “they are a little more advanced than the humans of the 1970s.”

Occam’s razor suggests that simple explanations are often better

Like many sci-fi films and shows before it, including “Contact” and “Fringe,” “3 Body Problem” references Occam’s razor.

In 1852, philosopher Sir William Hamilton coined the term “Occam’s razor,” attributing the idea to 14th-century theologian William van Ockham.

William of Ockham had written: “Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate,” or “Plurality should never be put without necessity.” It is an idea that Aristotle and Ptolemy also expressed.

Nowadays the well-known concept is usually formulated as ‘the simplest solution is usually correct’. The oft-cited example is: when you hear the sound of hoofbeats, think of horses and not zebras (as long as you are not on the savannah).

Neutrino detectors are built deep underground

The show’s trailer features a dramatic shot of one of the characters stepping into what appears to be a neutrino detector and falling, presumably to her death.

Neutrinos, also called ghost particles, are subatomic particles that form the sun and… supernovas to create. There are billions of them going through your body at any given moment.

A person in a hard hat stands in a golden room, that is the protoDUNE experimentA person in a hard hat stands in a golden room, that is the protoDUNE experiment

A prototype detector, part of the protoDUNE experiment, at CERN.Maximilien Brice/CERN

Like particle accelerators, the devices could help unlock some of the universe’s secrets. They are often built underground to protect them from cosmic rays that can disrupt the data.

Three celestial bodies in a row is known as syzygia

During the third episode of the show, the three suns in the virtual world are all in a triple eclipse.

Ross pointed out that the show will debut around a “cosmically important day,” the spring equinox. “That’s the day when it’s like night and day all over the world,” he said.

Total solar eclipseTotal solar eclipse

The 2017 total solar eclipse at 100% totality.John Finney Photography / Getty Images

It’s also close to the upcoming solar eclipse, which will follow a full path through much of North America.

“That’s the sun, the moon and the Earth all aligned,” Ross said. “It’s called syzygia, when three celestial bodies line up exactly.”

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