Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Flirting With Catastrophe, " by Robert H. Leary. Science, 14 September 2001, page 2013.

This short article describes the application of catastrophe theory to the studyof potential energy surfaces (PES's). PES's govern the behavior of atomic andmolecular assemblies, and they are often conceptualized as n-dimensionallandscapes determined by some number of parameters. When one of theseparameters is perturbed, critical points in the landscapes---basins, peaks, andpasses---may suddenly appear or disappear. These "catastrophes" can beanalyzed mathematically, and their possible behaviors can be classified as longas the number of parameters does not exceed 5.

--- Rafe Jones