The Science of 3 Body Problem, Explained

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Summary

  • Scientists grapple with chaotic orbits in the three-sun solar system, facing alien deification and threats in 3 Body Problem on Netflix.
  • Audacious science questions like amplifying radio waves with the sun and nanofiber tech arise, blending real-world physics with entertainment.
  • Cryogenically freezing brains for space travel and remaking bodies poses challenges in hard sci-fi series where scientific ideas take the spotlight.



3 Body Problem sucked viewers into its orbit from the moment it dropped on Netflix late last month. Joining the ranks of other Netflix sci-fi originals, 3 Body Problem stays true to the format with its timeline-jumping, convoluted plot, and heady concepts rooted in physics, cosmology, and technology. Throw in a bunch of dazzling interstellar montages, gore, and plenty of “will-they-won’t-they” romance as a palate cleanser, and fans have found themselves motivated for more reasons than one to keep up.

3 Body Problem is a show where a grasp of these complex scientific concepts in itself is seen as a threat by the alien antagonists, which they try to correct by deifying themselves, disrupting the progress of the Oxford Five, and even getting them killed outright.


It’s a relief, then, that the writers didn’t gatekeep these concepts either, with Vulture reporting the TV adaptation to be more accessible than the once-thought “unadaptable” Liu Cixin trilogy. Still, many new fans have flocked to the Internet to learn the logic behind some of the show’s more audacious scenes. For instance, what is a three-body problem, and how is it affecting the San-ti? Can the sun be used to amplify radio waves? Can nanofibers do what Auggie’s weapon did? Can you cryogenically freeze just a brain? Let’s explore the science behind these memorable moments from 3 Body Problem.

3 Body Problem

3 Body Problem

4.5/5

Release Date
March 21, 2024

Cast
Saamer Usmani with Shailene Woodley , Marlo Kelly , Jess Hong , Jovan Adepo , Rosalind Chao


What Is the Three-Body Problem?


Jin (Jess Hong) and Jack (John Bradley) learn by playing the VR video game that San-ti’s planet is in a three-sun solar system. When three celestial bodies (suns, planets, etc.) are in close proximity, they all exert force on each other and the orbit becomes chaotic. When it’s just two celestial bodies exerting forces on each other, the objects’ rotation is a lot easier to predict, i.e., stable. The San-ti’s planet being specifically in a three-sun solar system means when their planet rotates around one sun, it’s in a stable era. But when the force of another sun snatches it away, it wanders in that gravitational field where the planetary conditions become too extreme for life to exist. So, it fluctuates between stable and chaotic eras.

Since, like Jin says, there is no known solution to the three-body problem, none of their attempts to predict eras and save the avatar work. The San-ti IRL had already figured this out for themselves and fled to try to make their home on Earth.


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Can the Sun Be Used to Amplify Radio Waves?

What about the epiphany that started it all: when Ye Wenjie (Rosalind Chao) realizes how to contact extraterrestrial life based on data she receives from the American scientist? The Wow! signal referenced in Episode 2 was, in fact, a real signal received in 1977 at the Ohio State University Observatory. It was remarkable because it was a surge far more powerful than the baseline, which is why it was speculated to be communication from extraterrestrials rather than the random result of a cosmic event. However, it is unlikely that we could use the sun to reply — even if that were the case.


The sun is a multilayered sphere composed mostly of plasma, ionized matter similar to a gas. The signal would have to reflect off the first layer but still pass onto the next, and reflect off of that, and so on. It would have to create a perfectly constructive interference in order to work like the amplifiers we are familiar with.

Can Nanofibers Be Used to Slice Through People?

In Episode 5, Auggie’s (Eiza González) nanofiber technology was weaponized when the ship Judgment Day pulled into the Panama Canal. In real life, nanofibers do exist and can slice through just about anything! However, they currently have limitations that keep them from being mass-produced like we saw.


Nanofibers are curated and grown in a lab with molecules that are specifically designed to keep them in place as they’re being built. The difficulty and cost of creating those necessary conditions as well as the rest of the production process keep them from being utilized like we saw. Everything from the weapon to the water filtration to the bulletproof garb given to Saul (Jovan Adepo) are all realistic applications, though.

Can You Cryogenically Freeze a Brain But Remake a Body?

Will (Alex Sharp) volunteers to save the day by having his brain removed from his body, put on ice, and sent into space on the Project Staircase probe. The hope is that the San-ti will reform his body, motivated by a desire to understand humans and a trust for the man who said he wouldn’t pledge his loyalty to humanity. Then, once reformed, he can gather information.


It is possible to extract a human brain and preserve it under those conditions, but we don’t have the technology to recreate a human from that brain. The task force is operating under the assumption that the San-ti do.

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3 Body Problem stamps itself as a series that many would consider “hard sci-fi,” both in The Three-Body Problem book series and in the Netflix adaptation. Hard sci-fi is characterized by scientific speculation that is grounded in reality. Although the execution here has garnered mixed reviews, one might argue that the science can never be completely accurate, or “hard.” 3 Body Problem and the genre as a whole are compelling simply because the prioritization of and passion for scientific ideas is as strong as the prioritization of and passion for storytelling.


3 Body Problem is available to stream on Netflix. Check out the trailer below:

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