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In mathematics and physics, a soliton is a self-reinforcing solitary wave (a wave packet or pulse) that maintains its shape while it travels at constant speed. Solitons are caused by a cancellation of nonlinear and dispersive effects in the medium. (The term "dispersive effects" refers to a property of certain systems where the speed of the waves varies according to frequency.) Solitons arise as the solutions of a widespread class of weakly nonlinear dispersive partial differential equations describing physical systems.
The soliton phenomenon was first described in 1834 by John Scott Russell (1808–1882) who observed a solitary wave in the Union Canal in Scotland. He reproduced the phenomenon in a wave tank and named it the "Wave of Translation".
A single, consensus definition of a soliton is difficult to find. Drazin & Johnson (1989, p. 15) ascribe three properties to solitons:
More formal definitions exist, but they require substantial mathematics. Moreover, some scientists use the term soliton for phenomena that do not quite have these three properties (for instance, the 'light bullets' of nonlinear optics are often called solitons despite losing energy during interaction).^{[1]}
Dispersion and non-linearity can interact to produce permanent and localized wave forms. Consider a pulse of light traveling in glass. This pulse can be thought of as consisting of light of several different frequencies. Since glass shows dispersion, these different frequencies will travel at different speeds and the shape of the pulse will therefore change over time. However, there is also the non-linear Kerr effect: the refractive index of a material at a given frequency depends on the light's amplitude or strength. If the pulse has just the right shape, the Kerr effect will exactly cancel the dispersion effect, and the pulse's shape will not change over time: a soliton. See soliton (optics) for a more detailed description.
Many exactly solvable models have soliton solutions, including the Korteweg–de Vries equation, the nonlinear Schrödinger equation, the coupled nonlinear Schrödinger equation, and the sine-Gordon equation. The soliton solutions are typically obtained by means of the inverse scattering transform and owe their stability to the integrability of the field equations. The mathematical theory of these equations is a broad and very active field of mathematical research.
Some types of tidal bore, a wave phenomenon of a few rivers including the River Severn, are 'undular': a wavefront followed by a train of solitons. Other solitons occur as the undersea internal waves, initiated by seabed topography, that propagate on the oceanic pycnocline. Atmospheric solitons also exist, such as the Morning Glory Cloud of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where pressure solitons traveling in a temperature inversion layer produce vast linear roll clouds. The recent and not widely accepted soliton model in neuroscience proposes to explain the signal conduction within neurons as pressure solitons.
A topological soliton, also called a topological defect, is any solution of a set of partial differential equations that is stable against decay to the "trivial solution." Soliton stability is due to topological constraints, rather than integrability of the field equations. The constraints arise almost always because the differential equations must obey a set of boundary conditions, and the boundary has a non-trivial homotopy group, preserved by the differential equations. Thus, the differential equation solutions can be classified into homotopy classes.
There is no continuous transformation that will map a solution in one homotopy class to another. The solutions are truly distinct, and maintain their integrity, even in the face of extremely powerful forces. Examples of topological solitons include the screw dislocation in a crystalline lattice, the Dirac string and the magnetic monopole in electromagnetism, the Skyrmion and the Wess–Zumino–Witten model in quantum field theory, the magnetic skyrmion in condensed matter physics, and cosmic strings and domain walls in cosmology.
In 1834, John Scott Russell describes his wave of translation.^{[nb 1]} The discovery is described here in Scott Russell's own words:^{[nb 2]}
I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped – not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation.^{[2]}
Scott Russell spent some time making practical and theoretical investigations of these waves. He built wave tanks at his home and noticed some key properties:
Scott Russell's experimental work seemed at odds with Joseph Boussinesq and Lord Rayleigh published a theoretical treatment and solutions.^{[nb 3]} In 1895 Diederik Korteweg and Gustav de Vries provided what is now known as the Korteweg–de Vries equation, including solitary wave and periodic cnoidal wave solutions.^{[3]}^{[nb 4]}
In 1965 Norman Zabusky of Bell Labs and Martin Kruskal of Princeton University first demonstrated soliton behavior in media subject to the Korteweg–de Vries equation (KdV equation) in a computational investigation using a finite difference approach. They also showed how this behavior explained the puzzling earlier work of Fermi, Pasta and Ulam.^{[5]}
In 1967, Gardner, Greene, Kruskal and Miura discovered an inverse scattering transform enabling analytical solution of the KdV equation.^{[6]} The work of Peter Lax on Lax pairs and the Lax equation has since extended this to solution of many related soliton-generating systems.
Note that solitons are, by definition, unaltered in shape and speed by a collision with other solitons.^{[7]} So solitary waves on a water surface are near-solitons, but not exactly – after the interaction of two (colliding or overtaking) solitary waves, they have changed a bit in amplitude and an oscillatory residual is left behind.^{[8]}
Much experimentation has been done using solitons in fiber optics applications. Solitons in a fiber optic system are described by the Manakov equations. Solitons' inherent stability make long-distance transmission possible without the use of repeaters, and could potentially double transmission capacity as well.^{[9]}
The above impressive experiments have not translated to actual commercial soliton system deployments however, in either terrestrial or submarine systems, chiefly due to the Gordon–Haus (GH) jitter. The GH jitter requires sophisticated, expensive compensatory solutions that ultimately makes dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) soliton transmission in the field unattractive, compared to the conventional non-return-to-zero/return-to-zero paradigm. Further, the likely future adoption of the more spectrally efficient phase-shift-keyed/QAM formats makes soliton transmission even less viable, due to the Gordon–Mollenauer effect. Consequently, the long-haul fiberoptic transmission soliton has remained a laboratory curiosity.
Solitons may occur in proteins^{[13]} and DNA.^{[14]} Solitons are related to the low-frequency collective motion in proteins and DNA.^{[15]} A recently developed model in neuroscience proposes that signals are conducted within neurons in the form of solitons.^{[16]}^{[17]}^{[18]}
In magnets, there also exist different types of solitons and other nonlinear waves.^{[19]} These magnetic solitons are an exact solution of classical nonlinear differential equations — magnetic equations, e.g. the Landau–Lifshitz equation, continuum Heisenberg model, Ishimori equation, nonlinear Schrödinger equation and others.
The bound state of two solitons is known as a bion, or in systems where the bound state periodically oscillates, a "breather."
In field theory Bion usually refers to the solution of the Born–Infeld model. The name appears to have been coined by G. W. Gibbons in order to distinguish this solution from the conventional soliton, understood as a regular, finite-energy (and usually stable) solution of a differential equation describing some physical system.^{[20]} The word regular means a smooth solution carrying no sources at all. However, the solution of the Born–Infeld model still carries a source in the form of a Dirac-delta function at the origin. As a consequence it displays a singularity in this point (although the electric field is everywhere regular). In some physical contexts (for instance string theory) this feature can be important, which motivated the introduction of a special name for this class of solitons.
On the other hand, when gravity is added (i.e. when considering the coupling of the Born–Infeld model to general relativity) the corresponding solution is called EBIon, where "E" stands for Einstein.
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