# 3.5: Energy Landscapes

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In the previous section we proved that the total energy is conserved. In the section before that, we looked at potential energies. Typically, the potential energy is a function of your position in space. When we plot it as a function of spatial coordinates, we get an energy landscape, measuring an amount of energy on the vertical axis. Of course we can also plot the total energy of the system - and since that is conserved, it is the same everywhere, and thus becomes a horizontal line or plane. Because kinetic energy cannot be negative, any point where the potential energy is higher than the total energy is not allowed: the system cannot reach this point. When the potential energy equals the total energy, the kinetic energy (and thus the speed) has to be zero. Whenever the potential energy is lower than the total energy, there is a positive kinetic energy and thus a positive speed.

Probably the simplest energy landscape is that of the harmonic oscillator (mass on a spring) - it’s a simple parabola. The point at which the horizontal line representing the total energy crosses the parabola corresponds to the extrema of the oscillation: these are its turning points. The bottom of the parabola is its mid-point, and you can immediately see that that’s where the kinetic energy (and thus the speed) will be highest.

Of course you can have more complex energy landscapes than that. In particular, you can have a landscape with multiple extrema, see for example Figure 3.3. A particle that is being acted upon by forces described by this potential energy, follows a trajectory in this landscape, which can be visualized as a ball rolling over the hills and valleys of the landscape. Think back to the harmonic oscillator example. If we let go of a ball in a parabolic vase at some point on the slope, the ball will roll down and pick up speed, then roll up the opposite slope and lose speed, until it reaches the same height where its speed will again be zero. The same is true in more complicated landscapes. Particularly interesting are local maxima. If you put a ball exactly on top of one of them, it will stay there - it is a fixed point, but an unstable one, as any arbitrarily small perturbation will push it down. If you let go of a ball at a level above a local maximum, it may hop over it to the next minimum,but if your initial position (your initial energy) was too low, your ball can get stuck oscillating about a local minimum - a metastable point.

Energy landscapes are even useful when the total energy is not conserved - for example because of friction terms. Friction causes energy to dissipate from the system, which is equivalent to having your ball move in the landscape with friction. For low friction, your ball will oscillate, but get less high every time, until it comes to rest at the minimum. For high friction, it won’t even oscillate, but just get to the minimum - exactly what an over damped system in real life does.