several commenters on twitter/youtube liked the horizontally shaken pendula and asked about what was being represented. there were many pendula with different initial positions — all initial velocities were set to zero. there were several queries as to what would happen with different lengths or different masses… would resonances with the vibration and the natural frequencies kick in?

dynamical systems studies *interesting* behaviors in systems. one such class of interesting behaviors is equilibria, with stable and unstable varieties. but there’s more. consider a slight variation on the shaken inverted pendulum, where the shaking is happening horizontally. this leads to interesting and varied behaviors, depending (somewhat sensitively) on the initial conditions. some are *periodic* (they repeat over time); others seem to keep evolving and keep getting more & more complex. what is happening? how do we make sense of such? oh, there’s much more to learn about dynamical systems…

dynamical systems begins with the notion of equilibria — states that remain constant over time. In the simplest cases, one distinguishes between stable and unstable equilibria, though to specify what exactly these mean requires care (and math).

one simple example of stable and unstable equilibria is found in a rigid-rod pendulum, rotating about a pivot point (with or, as here, without, friction). letting the system evolve from a variety of initial conditions reveals a stable equilibrium (bottom) and an unstable equilibrium (top).

there’s a lot to discuss about this system. skipping ahead (for the sake of seeing something wonderful), let’s consider what happens when you give this system a shake, vibrating the pivot point up & down. the simulation indicates that past a criticla threshold of amplitude/frequency, shaking the pendulum converts the unstable equilibrium to a stable equilibrium.

that’s swell. but does the mathematics prove that this is the expected behavior? well, that’s one of the reasons why you take a dynamical systems course.

in anticipation of teaching introductory dynamical systems & bifurcations to engineering students at penn this fall, i’m going to chat off and on about visualizing and (more importantly) simulating dynamical systems. this has challenged me in terms of my programming skills, but it’s a lot of fun to see theorems work in simulated systems.