The Perpetual Two-Body Problem

An example of a 2-body problem: Two objects with the same weight (mass), orbiting around a point in space (credit:

An example of a 2-body problem: Two objects with the same weight (mass), orbiting around a point in space (credit:

Amongst the colleagues in my profession, the phrase “Two-Body Problem” is a geeky way to describe the challenging situation that a married (or committed) professional couple finds themselves in, when  they are looking for jobs in similar research fields in the same geographic location, in hopes of sustaining their careers and keeping their relationship intact.  StarMan and I are, by all accounts, a strongly-coupled  Two Body Problem, and we just got news today that dashed some high hopes.



The term “Two-body problem” is a nod to the classic  “N-body problem” in physics.  The N-body problem involves predicting the motions of every object (there are N of them, where N can be any number ranging from 2 to gazillions), if the motions of the objects are caused only by the mutual gravitational forces exerted on each other by the objects themselves.  Seems fairly straightforward, at least for a physicist, right? 

Wrong!  Turns out that the problem is impossible to solve “with pencil and paper” if “N” is 3 or bigger!  For any system of objects containing more than 2 objects, the individual motions of the objects can only be determined computationally.  When you think about the situation for a moment, the complexity of the problem does make sense:  imagine that you have a system of 10 gigantic basketballs in space, and the only force that any basketball feels is the mutual gravitational “tug” from the other 9 balls.  The tug is going to move the basketball in one direction, but as soon as that ball’s location changes, then the gravitational “tug” that it was exerting on the other 9 balls then changes (because gravity gets stronger, the closer that the balls are to each other).  This change in tugging force makes the other balls move, changing the over all force on the 10th ball, and so on — complicated and very intertwined reactive motions!  (And so much fun!  Computational N-body simulations is one of my research interests!)

But I digress.  Fortunately, the physics’ 2-body problem is readily solved without the need for computers (ie, the motions of the 2 objects can be determined by good old fashioned pencil-and-paper calculations).  And likewise, the “professional couple” 2-body problem is solvable, as StarMan and I have proven for the past 16 years.  In spite of challenges, we’ve managed to stay co-located together while also enjoying employment as astronomers. I am truly appreciative of this life we’ve had.

When I first arrived at the job I have now, StarMan was hired on as a science staff member for another science mission.  After 2 years in that position, he suddenly and unexpectedly lost that job due to budget cutbacks. Fortunately, a brief period of unemployment ended with his being awarded a couple of research grants which afforded him the opportunity to work on his own projects — a nirvana that I have yet to experience!  However, as “they” say, ‘all good things must come to an end’, and so is the case with grant funding. 

In preparation for the looming expiration date on his grant funding, StarMan has been in job-hunting mode. By coincidence, his previous job position was recently advertised and he applied, thinking that he had an excellent shot at it.  Not only was the topic of his recent research grant focused on the data associated with this mission, but practically all of his experiences and skill sets are aligned with the job requirements.  No one, we reasoned, could possibly be more suited to this job.  We had all but sent out invitations for the party to celebrate his impending employment.

Sadly, he received notice today that he did not receive the job.  This news has us both reeling.  I can’t help but have some disturbing suspicions. StarMan is comfortably situated in his middle age years:  I wonder how much age discrimination really does goes on behind closed doors, even in the realm of federal agencies?

Just like the physics problem, I’m sure that a solution will be found for our 2-body problem.  Patience and  perseverance are key, as any physics student struggling with a homework assignment will tell you.

4 thoughts on “The Perpetual Two-Body Problem

  1. I wanted to “like” this post, because you had me hooked from the opening to the end. I enjoyed reading it. But obviously I don’t “like” the ending result. Best of luck to you and your husband on his grant and job search.


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