Friday, August 14, 2009

Computer Simulations Support Some New Mathematical Theorems

The current issue of Nature contains an exciting case of the productive interaction of mathematics and physics. As Cohn summarizes here, Torquato and Jiao use computer simulations and theoretical arguments to determine the densest way to pack different sorts of polyhedra together in three-dimensional space:
To find their packings, Torquato and Jiao use a powerful simulation technique. Starting with an initial guess at a dense packing, they gradually modify it in an attempt to increase its density. In addition to trying to rotate or move individual particles, they also perform random collective particle motions by means of deformation and compression or expansion of the lattice's fundamental cell. With time, the simulation becomes increasingly biased towards compression rather than expansion. Allowing the possibility of expansion means that the particles are initially given considerable freedom to explore different possible arrangements, but are eventually squeezed together into a dense packing.
A central kind of case considered is the densest packings of the Platonic solids. These are the five polyhedra formed using only regular polygons of a single sort, where the same number of polygons meet at each vertex: tetrahedron, icosahedron and octahedron (all using triangles), cube (using squares) and dodecahedron (using pentagons). Setting aside the trivial case of the cube, Torquato and Jiao argue that the densest packing for the icosohedron, octahedron and dodecahedron all have a similar feature. This is that the result from a simple lattice structure known as the Bravais lattice. Again, using Cohn's summary:
In such arrangements, all the particles are perfectly aligned with each other, and the packing is made up of lattice cells that each contain only one particle. The densest Bravais lattice packings had been determined previously, but it had seemed implausible that they were truly the densest packings, as Torquato and Jiao's simulations and theoretical analysis now suggest.
The outlier here is the tetrahedron, where the densest packing remains unknown.

Needless to say, there are many intriguing philosophical questions raised by this argument and its prominent placement in a leading scientific journal. To start, how do these arguments using computer simulations compare to other sorts of computer assisted proofs, such as the four color theorem or the more recent Kepler Conjecture? More to the point, does the physical application of these results have any bearing on the acceptability of using computer simulations in this way?

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