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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. ("Dispersive effects" refer to dispersion relations, relationships between the frequency and the speed of waves in the medium.) Solitons are found in many physical phenomena, as they arise as the solutions of a widespread class of weakly nonlinear dispersive partial differential equations describing physical systems. The soliton phenomenon was first described by John Scott Russell (1808–1882) who observed a solitary wave in the Union Canal (a canal in Scotland), reproduced the phenomenon in a wave tank, and named it the "Wave of Translation".


A single definition of a soliton is difficult to procure. Drazin and Johnson (1989) ascribe 3 properties to solitons:

  1. They are of permanent form;
  2. They are localised within a region;
  3. They can interact with other solitons, and emerge from the collision unchanged, except for a phase shift.

More formal definitions exist, but they require substantial mathematics. On the other hand, 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).


To see how 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 speed of light of 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 effect of dispersion, and the pulse's shape won't change over time: a soliton. See soliton (optics) for a much 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 travelling 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, or topological defect, is any solution of a set of partial differential equations that is stable against decay to the "trivial solution" due to topological constraints, rather than due to the integrability of the field equations. The constraint arises 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 solutions of the differential equations can be classified into homotopy classes. There is no continuous transformation that will map a solution in one homotopy class to another; thus 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, and cosmic strings and domain walls in cosmology.


In 1834, John Scott Russell describes his wave of translation. The discovery is described here in Russell's own words:

"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".[1]

(Note: This passage has been repeated in many papers and books on soliton theory.)

(Note: "Translation" here means that there is real mass transport such that water can be transported from one end of the canal to the other end by this "Wave of Translation". Usually there is no real mass transport from one side to another side for ordinary waves.)

Russell spent some time making practical and theoretical investigations of these waves, he built wave tanks at his home and noticed some key properties:

  • The waves are stable, and can travel over very large distances (normal waves would tend to either flatten out, or steepen and topple over)
  • The speed depends on the size of the wave, and its width on the depth of water.
  • Unlike normal waves they will never merge — so a small wave is overtaken by a large one, rather than the two combining.
  • If a wave is too big for the depth of water, it splits into two, one big and one small.

Russell's experimental work seemed at contrast with the Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli's theories of hydrodynamics. George Biddell Airy and George Gabriel Stokes had difficulty to accept Russell's experimental observations because Russell's observations could not be explained by linear water wave theory. His contemporaries spent some time attempting to extend the theory but it would take until 1895 before Diederik Korteweg and Gustav de Vries provided the theoretical explanation.[2]

(Note: Lord Rayleigh published a paper in Philosophical Magazine in 1876 to support John Scott Russell's experimental observation with his mathematical theory. In his 1876 paper, Lord Rayleigh mentioned Russell's name and also admitted that the first theoretical treatment was by Joseph Valentin Boussinesq in 1871. Joseph Boussinesq mentioned Russell's name in his 1871 paper. Thus Russell's observations on solitons were accepted as true by some prominent scientists within his own life time of 1808-1882. Korteweg and de Vries did not mention John Scott Russell's name at all in their 1895 paper but they did quote Boussinesq's paper in 1871 and Lord Rayleigh's paper in 1876. The paper by Korteweg and de Vries in 1895 was not the first theoretical treatment of this subject but it was a very important milestone in the history of the development of soliton theory.)

In 1965 Norman Zabusky of Bell Labs and Martin Kruskal of Princeton University first demonstrated soliton behaviour in media subject to the Korteweg-de Vries equation (KdV equation) in a computational investigation using a finite difference approach.

In 1967, Gardner, Greene, Kruskal and Miura discovered an inverse scattering transform enabling analytical solution of the KdV equation. The work of Peter Lax on Lax pairs and the Lax equation has since extended this to solution of many related soliton-generating systems.

Solitons in fiber optics

Much experimentation has been done using solitons in fiber optics applications. Solitons' inherent stability make long-distance transmission possible without the use of repeaters, and could potentially double transmission capacity as well.[3]

In 1973, Akira Hasegawa of AT&T Bell Labs was the first to suggest that solitons could exist in optical fibers, due to a balance between self-phase modulation and anomalous dispersion. He also proposed the idea of a soliton-based transmission system to increase performance of optical telecommunications.

Solitons in a fiber optic system are described by the Manakov equations.

In 1987, P. Emplit, J.P. Hamaide, F. Reynaud, C. Froehly and A. Barthelemy, from the Universities of Brussels and Limoges, made the first experimental observation of the propagation of a dark soliton, in an optical fiber.

In 1988, Linn Mollenauer and his team transmitted soliton pulses over 4,000 kilometers using a phenomenon called the Raman effect, named for the Indian scientist Sir C. V. Raman who first described it in the 1920s, to provide optical gain in the fiber.

In 1991, a Bell Labs research team transmitted solitons error-free at 2.5 gigabits per second over more than 14,000 kilometers, using erbium optical fiber amplifiers (spliced-in segments of optical fiber containing the rare earth element erbium). Pump lasers, coupled to the optical amplifiers, activate the erbium, which energizes the light pulses.

In 1998, Thierry Georges and his team at France Télécom R&D Center, combining optical solitons of different wavelengths (wavelength division multiplexing), demonstrated a data transmission of 1 terabit per second (1,000,000,000,000 units of information per second).

For some reasons, it is possible to observe both positive and negative solitons in optic fibre. However, usually only positive solitons are observed for water wave.

Solitons in magnets

In magnets also exist different type soliton and other nonlinear waves. These magnetic solitons are an exact solutions of classical nonlinear differential equations - magnetic equations, e.g. the Landau-Lifshitz equation, continuum Heisenberg model, Ishimori equation, Mikhailov-Yaremchuk equation, nonlinear Schrodinger equation and so on.


The bound state of two solitons is known as a bion.

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. 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".

See also


  1. J. Scott Russell. Report on waves, Fourteenth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1844.
  2. Korteweg, D.J. (1895). "On the Change of Form of Long Waves advancing in a Rectangular Canal and on a New Type of Long Stationary Waves". Philosophical Magazine. 39: pp. 422 - 443. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  3. "Photons advance on two fronts",, October 24, 2005.
  • N. J. Zabusky and M. D. Kruskal (1965). Interaction of 'Solitons' in a Collisionless Plasma and the Recurrence of Initial States. Phys Rev Lett 15, 240
  • A. Hasegawa and F. Tappert (1973). Transmission of stationary nonlinear optical pulses in dispersive dielectric fibers. I. Anomalous dispersion. Appl. Phys. Lett. Volume 23, Issue 3, pp. 142-144.
  • P. Emplit, J.P. Hamaide, F. Reynaud, C. Froehly and A. Barthelemy (1987) Picosecond steps and dark pulses through nonlinear single mode fibers. Optics. Comm. 62, 374
  • P. G. Drazin and R. S. Johnson (1989). Solitons: an introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  • N. Manton and P. Sutcliffe (2004). Topological solitons. Cambridge University Press.
  • Linn F. Mollenauer and James P. Gordon (2006). Solitons in optical fibers. Elsevier Academic Press.
  • R. Rajaraman (1982). Solitons and instantons. North-Holland.

External links

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