In this post I outline the Buckingham Theorem which shows how to use dimensional analysis to compute answers to seemingly intractable physical problems. For instance, in Geoffrey Taylor used the theorem to work out the energy payload released by the 1945 Trinity test atomic explosion in New Mexico simply by looking at slow motion video records. My main source for this post is Bluman and Kumei (1989).
2. Basic Framework
The Buckingham Theorem concerns physical problems with the following form: There is a variable of interest, , which is some unknown function of different physical quantities .
Each of these physical quantities is composed of measurements in only fundamental dimensions labeled . Thus, I can define a dimension operator which gives the dimensions of an arbitrary variable and write its output as:
So, for example, if is measuring pressure on the surface of a table, I could write where , , and .
Definition (Dimensionless Quantity):
An arbitrary variable is dimensionless if:
3. Main Result
Now, I show how to reformulate this problem and apply linear algebra to the dimensional exponents to derive a characterization of the solution to as a function of dimensionless quantities. First, I define as an matrix of dimensional exponents for and as the vector of dimensional exponents for :
Next, we know that if has full rank, then there will solutions to the system of equations . Define as this matrix of solutions.
Finally, define as the solution to system of equations :
With these objects in hand, I can now state the Buckingham Theorem.
Proposition (Buckingham ):
A physical system with fundamental dimensions can be restated as:
where , is an unknown function and are dimensionless parameters constructed from the physical parameters using equations of the form below:
4. An Example
I now give an example of how to employ this theorem by working out the nuclear payload example from the introduction. For more information on this example, take a look at this blog post. Suppose that an atomic blast has a shock wave radius of with variables:
- : Energery released by the explosion,
- : Time elapsed since the explosion took place,
- : Initial density, and
- : Initial pressure.
For this problem and with fundamental dimensions of length , mass , and time yielding the dimensional matrix written below:
The energy (force) released by the bomb is the amount of mass accelerating through a unit square on the surface of the blast wave. Since , we have only dimensionless constant which can be computed as the solution to the system of equations :
Setting the scalar free parameter , I can write as:
The dimension of the shock wave radius is in units of distance yielding the dimension matrix below:
The system of equations has unknowns:
Thus, the vector will thus be defined up to a single free parameter :
Using the formula and tuning , I can compute as:
Combining all of these results yields a formulation for in terms of a constant and an unknown function of the dimensionless quantity :
Taylor expanding around where yields a formulation where with scaling constant given by: