Norton's dome

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Norton's dome is a thought experiment that exhibits a non-deterministic system within the bounds of Newtonian mechanics. It was devised by John D. Norton and first discussed in his 2003 paper "Causation as Folk Science".[1][2] Norton's dome problem can be regarded as a problem in physics, mathematics, or philosophy.[3][4][5] It poses interesting philosophical questions about the concepts of causality, determinism, and probability theory.

The model consists of an idealized particle initially sitting motionless at the apex of an idealized radially symmetrical frictionless dome described by the equation


where h is the vertical displacement from the top of the dome to a point on the dome, r is the geodesic distance from the dome's apex to that point (in other words, a radial coordinate r is "inscribed" on the surface),[6] and g the acceleration due to gravity.[7]

Norton shows that there are two classes of mathematical solutions to the system under Newtonian physics. In the first, the particle stays sitting at the apex of the dome forever. In the second, the particle sits at the apex of the dome for a while, and then after an arbitrary period of time starts to slide down the dome in an arbitrary direction. The apparent paradox in this second case is that this would seem to occur for no discernible reason, and without any radial force being exerted on it by any other entity, apparently contrary to both physical intuition and normal intuitive concepts of cause and effect, yet the motion is still entirely consistent with the mathematics of Newton's laws of motion.

To see that all these equations of motion are physically possible solutions, it's helpful to use the time reversibility of Newtonian Mechanics. It is possible to roll a ball up the dome in such a way that it reaches the apex in finite time and with zero energy, and stops there. By time-reversal, it is a valid solution for the ball to rest at the top for a while and then roll down in any one direction.

While many criticisms have been made of Norton's thought experiment, such as it being a violation of the principle of Lipschitz continuity (the force that appears in Newton's second law is not a Lipschitz continuous function of the particle's trajectory -- this allows evasion of the local uniqueness theorem for solutions of ordinary differential equations), or in violation of the principles of physical symmetry[citation needed], or that it is somehow in some other way "unphysical"[citation needed], there is no consensus among its critics as to why they regard it as invalid.

A simple criticism of the thought experiment is as follows, however:

The entire argument hinges on the behavior of the particle at the point , during a time period where it has zero velocity. Traditional newtonian mechanics would say that the position of the particle would, infinitesimally be for some small time , but because the second derivative of the surface does not exist at this point, the force is indeterminate. It's therefore completely sensible that the infinitesimal motion of the object is also indeterminate.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Norton, John D. (November 2003). "Causation as Folk Science". Philosopher's Imprint. 3 (4): 1–22. hdl:2027/spo.3521354.0003.004.
  2. ^ Laraudogoitia, Jon Pérez (2013). "On Norton's dome". Synthese. 190 (14): 2925–2941. doi:10.1007/s11229-012-0105-z.
  3. ^ Reutlinger, Alexander (2013). A Theory of Causation in the Social and Biological Sciences. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 109. ISBN 9781137281043.
  4. ^ Wilson, Mark (2009). "Determinism and the Mystery of the Missing Physics". The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 60 (1): 173–193. doi:10.1093/bjps/axn052.
  5. ^ Fletcher, Samuel Craig (2011). "What counts as a Newtonian system? The view from Norton's dome". European Journal for Philosophy of Science. 2 (3): 275–297. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/s13194-011-0040-8.
  6. ^ John Norton's webpage for the Norton dome problem
  7. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Causal Determinism

External links[edit]