## Monday, November 12, 2012

### Hyperbolic Equations and Symplectic Integrators

One well-known analytic fact about the wave equation (hyperbolic equations) vs. the heat equation (parabolic equations) is that the latter always results in smooth solutions, for any time t > 0, for even very nonsmooth initial data; whereas the former has no smoothing properties at all. This is usually summed up as "Wave singularities propagate." Here is the video with the same (very nonsmooth) initial data that was given for the heat equation last time:

Not Honest Abe's hat...

Pretty ridiculously jagged, right? However, it turns out that in order to actually (reasonably) faithfully preserve the jaggedness, you have to tweak your numerical methods a bit to achieve this. (We'll give a few words on why one would want to preserve jaggedness at the end). The most basic method to discretize time evolution problems is simply to replace time derivatives with their difference quotient approximations—the derivative without a limit: u'(t) ≈ 1/∆t (u(t+∆t) - u(t)). This enables us to solve for the future time in terms of the past: u(t+∆t) ≈ u(t) + u'(t)∆t. Now the essence of differential equations is that the u' is also given by some other function (vector field) f(t,u). Fixing the ∆t to some standard "mesh size" h, and having the initial value, this gives us an iteration process (recurrence relation):

un+1 = un + hf(t0+nh,un)

and u(t0) = u0 is the given initial condition. This is called Euler's Method. It is well-known, however, that this method is sensitive to the size of the time step (it is unstable). It turns out that one can get a stable method by simply considering backward differences, that is, replacing the un in the vector field f with un+1 instead. Simple? Well, now you have un+1 on both sides of the equation, and for all but the simplest fs, it can't be easily solved algebraically (so we have to do some more numerical computations). For linear ODEs, like the heat and wave equations, this turns out to simply be inverting a different matrix.

For wave equations, with two time derivatives, one usually does a classic (but as far as I know, nameless) trick, setting v = ut, giving us the system ut = v; vt = -∆u, then treating it as first-order. It's a bit more complex than that, because we also have to discretize the spatial part (with finite elements—more fun with FEniCS). The backward Euler discretization gives:

Hey, why is it a lot smoother?! As explained to me by Prof. Melvin Leok in his class on geometric integration, it is essentially because stability theory is based on exponential decay (the model problem), and so in the goal to achieve stability, the methods actually introduce artificial dissipation (smoothing) terms. This means the solution loses energy. Energy conservation (which preserves the jaggedness) in the wave equation, however, is important for many applications. For example, if you simulate the solar system, you'll get some wildly off predictions, since energy loss there corresponds to orbits spiraling in. And even if we have a dissipative system, we probably don't want the wrong amount (however, there's one case I can think of in which it might not matter: solving an elliptic problem by running a parabolic problem to equilibrium).

The fix in this particular case (Euler-type discretizations) is interesting and almost seems like a hack at first (but really, there's lots of good theory backing this!) is that we use forward Euler in one variable (say, u) and the backward Euler in the other variable (v). Either way works (one is called Euler-A, the other Euler-B). This is called a symplectic integrator. In some sense, the dissipative behavior of the backward method, combined with the instability (where things exponentially grow) of the forward way, cancel out. Not completely, as it does have timestep sensitivity (too large a timestep causes our solution to simply blow up, even if is smooth like last time). Things can be written down a lot more explicitly with simpler, 1-particle systems such as a pendulum, or simulation of one planet in the solar system, but that is a story for another entry.

For fun, I leave you one last video, which is the symplectic case, but now with only the color-coding and not the actual displacement in 3D, which might be more informative. Note how you can really see the waves "reflecting" at the boundary—that's the Dirichlet boundary condition.

This is your brain. On math.