The Four-Body Problem in Politics

If you take a course in celestial mechanics, one of the things learned is that there is no general solution for the motions of more than two gravitationally-bound objects. All other solutions – the “three-body” or the “four-body” problem – involve special treatment and successive approximation to get a solution under a specific set of parameters.

Not so in politics, and the current four-body problem in the mechanics of the current Democrat contenders for the presidential nomination is a good example. The smaller objects – Hutchinson and Kucinich have – eliminated themselves and up until today it looked as if it would resolve itself into a three-body problem involving Clinton, Obama and Edwards.

Had Edwards simply bowed out instead of just suspending his campaign, then it would have resolved it into an elegantly simple Clinton-Obama dynamical that could then be approximated over the next few with the usual tools of polls, etc.; however, by suspending his campaign, Edwards has not disappeared from the equation but has become something like a high-order term in a drivative of an equation: He cannot be dismissed until a further analysis of his influence is gauged.

And just when it appears that the dynamical system will end up as a three-body problem, a fourth component – Ralph Nader – must now be inserted into the equation. Like Percival Lowell’s mathematical pursuit of Planet X, the distant, invisible body whose subtle gravitational influence he thought he detected in the residual error in the motion of Neptune, a new and uncertain force must be reckoned with in the expanded equation of the political system.

Now, Democrats and Republicans alike must consider the new dynamic problem. Will Clinton and Obama dominate the system, with Edwards only slightly perturbing their rush to resolution, or will they be so tidally locked that he can influence the outcome by vectoring in and applying a subtle differential that will resolve the political impasse? And Planet Nader, that mysterious and erratic body wandering the political solar system, what will he do? Just as Lowell’s mysterious body – ultimately named Pluto and then 75 years later demoted in status – proved not able to fulfill its predictions, will Nader prove to be, as he did in 2000, not the primary cause of VP Gore’s inability to attain orbit?

The old tools – the polls – are now more complicated, as each and every change of position of the four bodies between and among themselves requires a new and special analysis, and how does each position interact with the “dark matter” of the political solar system – the electorate – which both affects and is affected by the interaction?

Let the calculations begin.

Most sincerely,

T. J. Flapsaddle


  1. adb8917

    Somewhere back around the time Stonehenge was our only launch facility, I worked in the field. This was when reconnaissance satellites were in their infancy — we were still taking pictures and parachuting the packages back to be snagged by C-130s. Notwithstanding, a deorbit or payload drop/re-entry had many of our team running “slipstick” and/or E6B “Confuser” calculations, in order to vector our orbital vehicles and aircraft. I can remember some of our ops controllers muttering about virgin sacrifices and pentagrams in order to “get it right.”

    But my point is that your orbital mechanics model might actually be a useful if only analogous tool for analyzing the behaviors of interest groups and “less than stellar bodies” in orbit around multiple candidates.

    Thanks again for a provocative posting.

    Mrr-mee, mrr-mee…