Numerical experiments are just what their name implies: experiments. In describing and evaluating them, one should enter the state of mind of the experimental physicist, rather than that of the mathematician. Numerical experiments cannot be used to prove theorems; but, from the physicist's point of view, they do often provide convincing evidence for the existence of a phenomenon. We will therefore follow an informal, descriptive and non-rigorous approach. Briefly stated, our aim will be to understand the fundamental properties of dynamical systems rather than to prove them.
Michel Hénon, ``Numerical Exploration of Hamiltonian Systems,'' in Chaotic Behavior of Deterministic Systems , p. 57.
The formulation of mechanics with generalized coordinates and momenta as dynamical state variables is called the Hamiltonian formulation. The Hamiltonian formulation of mechanics is equivalent to the Lagrangian formulation; however, each presents a useful point of view. The Lagrangian formulation is especially useful in the initial formulation of a system. The Hamiltonian formulation is especially useful in understanding the evolution, especially when there are symmetries and conserved quantities.
For each continuous symmetry of a mechanical system there is a conserved quantity. If the generalized coordinates can be chosen to reflect a symmetry, then, by the Lagrange equations, the conjugate momentum is conserved. We have seen that such conserved quantities allow us to deduce important properties of the motion. For instance, consideration of the energy and angular momentum allowed us to deduce that rotation of a free rigid body about the axis of intermediate moment of inertia is unstable, and that rotation about the other principal axes is stable. For the axisymmetric top, we used two conserved momenta to reexpress the equations governing the evolution of the tilt angle so that they involve only the tilt angle and its derivative. The evolution of the tilt angle can be determined independently and has simply periodic solutions. Consideration of the conserved momenta has provided key insight. The Hamiltonian formulation is motivated by the desire to focus attention on the momenta.
In the Lagrangian formulation the momenta are, in a sense, secondary quantities: the momenta are functions of the state space variables, but the evolution of the state space variables depends on the state space variables and not on the momenta. To make use of any conserved momenta requires fooling around with the specific equations. The momenta can be rewritten in terms of the coordinates and the velocities, so, locally, we can solve for the velocities in terms of the coordinates and momenta. For a given mechanical system, and a Lagrangian describing its dynamics in a given coordinate system, the momenta and the velocities can be deduced from each other. Thus we can represent the dynamical state of the system in terms of the coordinates and momenta just as well as with the coordinates and the velocities. If we use the coordinates and momenta to represent the state and write the associated state derivative in terms of the coordinates and momenta, then we have a self-contained system. This formulation of the equations governing the evolution of the system has the advantage that if some of the momenta are conserved, the remaining equations are immediately simplified.
The Lagrangian formulation of mechanics has provided the means to investigate the motion of complicated mechanical systems. We have found that dynamical systems exhibit a bewildering variety of possible motions. The motion is sometimes rather simple and sometimes very complicated. Sometimes the evolution is very sensitive to the initial conditions, and sometimes it is not. And sometimes there are orbits that maintain resonance relationships with a drive. Consider the periodically driven pendulum: it can behave more or less as an undriven pendulum with extra wiggles, it can move in a strongly chaotic manner, or it can move in resonance with the drive, oscillating once for every two cycles of the drive or looping around once per drive cycle. Or consider the Moon. The Moon rotates synchronously with its orbital motion, always pointing roughly the same face to the Earth. However, Mercury rotates three times every two times it circles the Sun, and Hyperion rotates chaotically.
How can we make sense of this? How do we put the possible motions of these systems in relation to one another? What other motions are possible? The Hamiltonian formulation of dynamics gives us much more than the stated goal of expressing the system derivative in terms of potentially conserved quantities. The Hamiltonian formulation provides a convenient framework in which the possible motions may be placed and understood. We will be able to see the range of stable resonance motions and the range of states reached by chaotic trajectories, and discover other unsuspected possible motions. The Hamiltonian formulation leads to many additional insights.