Johannes Kepler loved geometry, so of course he was fascinated by Platonic solids. His early work Mysterium Cosmographicum, written in 1596, includes pictures showing how the 5 Platonic solids correspond to the 5 elements:
Five elements? Yes, besides earth, air, water and fire, he includes a fifth element that doesn’t feel the Earth’s gravitational pull: the ‘quintessence’, or ‘aether’, from which heavenly bodies are made.
In the same book he also tried to use the Platonic solids to explain the orbits of the planets:
The six planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. And the tetrahedron and cube, in case you’re wondering, sit outside the largest sphere shown above. You can see them another picture from Kepler’s book:
These ideas may seem goofy now, but studying the exact radii of the planets’ orbits led him to discover that these orbits aren’t circular: they’re ellipses! By 1619 this led him to what we call Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. And those, in turn, helped Newton verify Hooke’s hunch that the force of gravity goes as the inverse square of the distance between bodies!
In honor of this, the problem of a particle orbiting in an inverse square force law is called the Kepler problem.
So, I’m happy that Greg Egan, Layra Idarani and I have come across a solid mathematical connection between the Platonic solids and the Kepler problem.
But this involves a detour into the 4th dimension!
It’s a remarkable fact that the Kepler problem has not just the expected conserved quantities—energy and the 3 components of angular momentum—but also 3 more: the components of the Runge–Lenz vector. To understand those extra conserved quantities, go here:
• Greg Egan, The ellipse and the atom.
Noether proved that conserved quantities come from symmetries. Energy comes from time translation symmetry. Angular momentum comes from rotation symmetry. Since the group of rotations in 3 dimensions, called SO(3), is itself 3-dimensional, it gives 3 conserved quantities, which are the 3 components of angular momentum.
None of this is really surprising. But if we take the angular momentum together with the Runge–Lenz vector, we get 6 conserved quantities—and these turn out to come from the group of rotations in 4 dimensions, SO(4), which is itself 6-dimensional. The obvious symmetries in this group just rotate a planet’s elliptical orbit, while the unobvious ones can also squash or stretch it, changing the eccentricity of the orbit.
(To be precise, all this is true only for the ‘bound states’ of the Kepler problem: the circular and elliptical orbits, not the parabolic or hyperbolic ones, which work in a somewhat different way. I’ll only be talking about bound states in this post!)
Why should the Kepler problem have symmetries coming from rotations in 4 dimensions? This is a fascinating puzzle—we know a lot about it, but I doubt the last word has been spoken. For an overview, go here:
• John Baez, Mysteries of the gravitational 2-body problem.
This SO(4) symmetry applies not only to the classical mechanics of the inverse square force law, but also the quantum mechanics! Nobody cares much about the quantum mechanics of two particles attracting gravitationally via an inverse square force law—but people care a lot about the quantum mechanics of hydrogen atoms, where the electron and proton attract each other via their electric field, which also obeys an inverse square force law.
So, let’s talk about hydrogen. And to keep things simple, let’s pretend the proton stays fixed while the electron orbits it. This is a pretty good approximation, and experts will know how to do things exactly right. It requires only a slight correction.
It turns out that wavefunctions for bound states of hydrogen can be reinterpreted as functions on the 3-sphere, S3 The sneaky SO(4) symmetry then becomes obvious: it just rotates this sphere! And the Hamiltonian of the hydrogen atom is closely connected to the Laplacian on the 3-sphere. The Laplacian has eigenspaces of dimensions n2 where n = 1,2,3,…, and these correspond to the eigenspaces of the hydrogen atom Hamiltonian. The number n is called the principal quantum number, and the hydrogen atom’s energy is proportional to -1/n2.
If you don’t know all this jargon, don’t worry! All you need to know is this: if we find an eigenfunction of the Laplacian on the 3-sphere, it will give a state where the hydrogen atom has a definite energy. And if this eigenfunction is invariant under some subgroup of SO(4), so will this state of the hydrogen atom!
The biggest finite subgroup of SO(4) is the rotational symmetry group of the 600-cell, a wonderful 4-dimensional shape with 120 vertices and 600 dodecahedral faces. The rotational symmetry group of this shape has a whopping 7,200 elements! And here is a marvelous moving image, made by Greg Egan, of an eigenfunction of the Laplacian on S3 that’s invariant under this 7,200-element group:
We’re seeing the wavefunction on a moving slice of the 3-sphere, which is a 2-sphere. This wavefunction is actually real-valued. Blue regions are where this function is positive, yellow regions where it’s negative—or maybe the other way around—and black is where it’s almost zero. When the image fades to black, our moving slice is passing through a 2-sphere where the wavefunction is almost zero.
For a full explanation, go here:
• Greg Egan, In the chambers with seven thousand symmetries, 2 January 2018.
Layra Idarani has come up with a complete classification of all eigenfunctions of the Laplacian on S3 that are invariant under this group… or more generally, eigenfunctions of the Laplacian on a sphere of any dimension that are invariant under the even part of any Coxeter group. For the details, go here:
• Layra Idarani, SG-invariant polynomials, 4 January 2018.
All that is a continuation of a story whose beginning is summarized here:
• John Baez, Quantum mechanics and the dodecahedron.
So, there’s a lot of serious math under the hood. But right now I just want to marvel at the fact that we’ve found a wavefunction for the hydrogen atom that not only has a well-defined energy, but is also invariant under this 7,200-element group. This group includes the usual 60 rotational symmetries of a dodecahedron, but also other much less obvious symmetries.
I don’t have a good picture of what these less obvious symmetries do to the wavefunction of a hydrogen atom. I understand them a bit better classically—where, as I said, they squash or stretch an elliptical orbit, changing its eccentricity while not changing its energy.
We can have fun with this using the old quantum theory—the approach to quantum mechanics that Bohr developed with his colleague Sommerfeld from 1920 to 1925, before Schrödinger introduced wavefunctions.
In the old Bohr–Sommerfeld approach to the hydrogen atom, the quantum states with specified energy, total angular momentum and angular momentum about a fixed axis were drawn as elliptical orbits. In this approach, the symmetries that squash or stretch elliptical orbits are a bit easier to visualize:
This picture by Pieter Kuiper shows some orbits at the 5th energy level, n = 5: namely, those with different eigenvalues of the total angular momentum, ℓ.
While the old quantum theory was superseded by the approach using wavefunctions, it’s possible to make it mathematically rigorous for the hydrogen atom. So, we can draw elliptical orbits that rigorously correspond to a basis of wavefunctions for the hydrogen atom. So, I believe we can draw the orbits corresponding to the basis elements whose linear combination gives the wavefunction shown as a function on the 3-sphere in Greg’s picture above!
We should get a bunch of ellipses forming a complicated picture with dodecahedral symmetry. This would make Kepler happy.
As a first step in this direction, Greg drew the collection of orbits that results when we take a circle and apply all the symmetries of the 600-cell:
For more details, read this:
• Greg Egan, Kepler orbits with the symmetries of the 600-cell.
To do this really right, one should learn a bit about ‘old quantum theory’. I believe people have been getting it a bit wrong for quite a while—starting with Bohr and Sommerfeld!
If you look at the ℓ = 0 orbit in the picture above, it’s a long skinny ellipse. But I believe it really should be a line segment straight through the proton: that’s what’s an orbit with no angular momentum looks like.
There’s a paper about this:
• Manfred Bucher, Rise and fall of the old quantum theory.
Matt McIrvin had some comments on this:
This paper from 2008 is a kind of thing I really like: an exploration of an old, incomplete theory that takes it further than anyone actually did at the time.
It has to do with the Bohr-Sommerfeld “old quantum theory”, in which electrons followed definite orbits in the atom, but these were quantized–not all orbits were permitted. Bohr managed to derive the hydrogen spectrum by assuming circular orbits, then Sommerfeld did much more by extending the theory to elliptical orbits with various shapes and orientations. But there were some problems that proved maddeningly intractable with this analysis, and it eventually led to the abandonment of the “orbit paradigm” in favor of Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Schrödinger’s wave mechanics, what we know as modern quantum theory.
The paper argues that the old quantum theory was abandoned prematurely. Many of the problems Bohr and Sommerfeld had came not from the orbit paradigm per se, but from a much simpler bug in the theory: namely, their rejection of orbits in which the electron moves entirely radially and goes right through the nucleus! Sommerfeld called these orbits “unphysical”, but they actually correspond to the s orbital states in the full quantum theory, with zero angular momentum. And, of course, in the full theory the electron in these states does have some probability of being inside the nucleus.
So Sommerfeld’s orbital angular momenta were always off by one unit. The hydrogen spectrum came out right anyway because of the happy accident of the energy degeneracy of certain orbits in the Coulomb potential.
I guess the states they really should have been rejecting as “unphysical” were Bohr’s circular orbits: no radial motion would correspond to a certain zero radial momentum in the full theory, and we can’t have that for a confined electron because of the uncertainty principle.