CS267: Lecture 24, Apr 11 1996

Fast Hierarchical Methods for the N-body Problem, Part 1

Table of Contents

  • Motivation
  • How to reduce the number of particles in the force sum
  • Quadtrees and Octtrees
  • The Barnes-Hut Algorithm
  • Motivation

    Our original motivating example was particle simulation, which we review briefly here. The basic algorithm was
         t = 0
         while t < t_final
             for i = 1 to n          ... n = number_of_particles
                 compute f(i) = force on particle i
                 move particle i under force f(i) for time dt
             end for
             compute interesting properties of particles
             t = t + dt              ... dt = time increment
         end while
    The force on a particle is typically composed of three more basic forces:
         force = external_force 
                 + nearest_neighbor_force 
                 + far_field_force
    The external forces (e.g. current in the
    sharks and fish examples) can be computed for each particle independently, in an embarrassingly parallel way. The nearest neighbor forces (e.g. collision forces in the bouncing balls assignment) only require interactions with nearest neighbors to compute, and are still relatively easy to parallelize. The far field forces like gravity, on the other hand, are more expensive to compute because the force on each particle depends on all the other particles. The simplest expression for a far field force f(i) on particle i is
         for i = 1 to n
             f(i) = sum[ j=1,...,n,  j != i ] f(i,j)
         end for
    where f(i,j) is the force on particle i due to particle j. Thus, the cost seems to rise as O(n2), whereas the external and nearest neighbor forces appear to grow like O(n). Even with parallelism, the far field forces will be much more expensive.

    Particle simulations arise in astrophysics and celestial mechanics (gravity is the force), plasma simulation and molecular dynamics (electrostatic attraction or repulsion is the force), and computational fluid dynamics (using the vortex method). The same n-body solutions can also be used in solving elliptic partial differential equations (not just the Poisson equation, which governs gravity and electrostatics) and radiosity calculations in computer graphics (with n mutually illuminating bodies).

    All these examples strongly motivate us to find a better n-body algorithm, one that even costs less than O(n2) on a serial machine. Fortunately, it turns out that there are clever divide-and-conquer algorithms which only take O(n log n) or even just O(n) time for this problem.

    We give one example of the success of this new algorithm. An astrophysics application, which explored the creation and statistical distribution of galaxies, simulated over 17 million particles (stars) for over 600 time steps. This run took 24 hours on a 512 processor Intel Delta, where each processor sustained 10 Mflops of computational speed, for an aggregate sustained speed of over 5 Gflops. The O(n2) algorithm would have run for well over a year on the same problem. To see interesting pictures of these simulations, click here.

    How to reduce the number of particles in the force sum

    There are two kinds of divide-and-conquer algorithms we will describe later, but both depend on the following simple physical intuition. Suppose we wanted to compute the gravitational force on the earth from the known stars and planets. A glance skyward on a clear night reveals a dauntingly large number of stars that must be included in the calculation, each one contributing a term to the force sum.

    One of those dots of light we might want to include in our sum is, however, not a single star (particle) at all, but rather the Andromeda galaxy, which itself consist of billions of stars. But these appear so close together at this distance that they show up as a single dot to the naked eye. It is tempting -- and correct -- to suspect that it is good enough to treat the Andromeda galaxy as a single point anyway, located at the center of mass of the Andromeda galaxy, and with a mass equal to the total mass of the Andromeda galaxy. This is indicated below, with a red x marking the center of mass. More mathematically, since the ratio

                    size of box containing Andromeda 
          D/r  = -------------------------------------
                 distance of center of mass from Earth
    is so small, we can safely and accurately replace the sum over all stars in Andromeda with one term at their center of mass. (We will justify this more completely below.)

    This idea is hardly new. Indeed, Newton modeled the earth as a single point mass located at its center of mass in order to calculate the attracting force on the falling apple, rather than treating each tiny particle making up the earth separately.

    What is new is applying this idea recursively. First, it is clear that from the point of view of an observer in the Andromeda galaxy, our own Milky Way galaxy can also be well approximated by a point mass at our center of mass. But more importantly, within the Andromeda (or Milky Way) galaxy itself, this geometric picture repeats itself as shown below: As long as the ratio D1/r1 is also small, the stars inside the smaller box can be replaced by their center of mass in order to compute the gravitational force on, say, the planet Vulcan. This nesting of boxes within boxes can be repeated recursively.

    Quadtrees and Octtrees

    What we need is a data structure to subdivide space that makes this recursion easy. The answer in 3D is the octtree, and in 2D the answer is the quadtree. We begin by describing the quadtree, because it is easier to draw in 2D; the octtree will be analogous. The quadtree begins with a square in the plane; this is the root of the quadtree. This large square can be broken into four smaller squares of half the perimeter and a quarter the area each; these are the four children of the root. Each child can in turn be broken into 4 subsquares to get its children, and so on. This is shown below. Each colored dot in the tree corresponds to a square in the picture on the left, with edges of that color (and of colors from higher tree levels).

    An octtree is similar, but with 8 children per node, corresponding to the 8 subcubes of the larger cube, as illustrated below:

    The algorithms we will present begin by constructing a quadtree (or octtree) to store the particles. Thus, the leaves of the tree will contain (or have pointers to) the positions and masses of the particles in the corresponding box.

    The most interesting problems occur when the particles are not uniformly distributed in their bounding box, so that many of the leaves of a complete quadtree would be empty. In this case, it makes no sense to store these empty parts of the quadtree. Instead, we continue to subdivide squares only when they contain more than 1 particle (or some small number of particles). This leads to the adaptive quadtree shown in the figure below. Note that there are exactly as many leaves as particles. Children are ordered counterclockwise starting at the lower left.

    For a much more complicated adaptive quadtree, click here and look at figure 1 on page 2.

    Given a list of particle positions, this quadtree can be constructed recursively as follows:

       procedure QuadtreeBuild
         Quadtree = {empty}
           For i = 1 to n          ... loop over all particles
             QuadInsert(i, root)   ... insert particle i in quadtree
           end for
           ... at this point, the quadtree may have some empty 
           ... leaves, whose siblings are not empty
           Traverse the tree (via, say, breadth first search), 
             eliminating empty leaves
       procedure QuadInsert(i,n)   
         ... Try to insert particle i at node n in quadtree
         ... By construction, each leaf will contain either 
         ... 1 or 0 particles
         if the subtree rooted at n contains more than 1 particle
            determine which child c of node n particle i lies in
         else if the subtree rooted at n contains one particle 
            ... n is a leaf
            add n's four children to the Quadtree
            move the particle already in n into the child 
               in which it lies
            let c be child in which particle i lies
         else if the subtree rooted at n is empty        
            ... n is a leaf 
            store particle i in node n
    The complexity of QuadtreeBuild depends on the distribution of the particles inside the bounding box. The cost of inserting a particle is proportional to the distance from the root to the leaf in which the particle resides (measured by the level of the leaf, with the root at level 0). If the particles are all clustered closely together, so that they all lie in a single tiny subsquare of the bounding box, then the complexity can be large because the leaf can be far from the root. But it cannot be farther than the number of bits b used to represent the positions of the particles, which we may consider a constant. If the particles are uniformly distributed, so the leaves of the quadtree are all on the same level, the complexity of inserting all the particles will be O(n*log n) = O( n*b ). (Note that log n <= b, since we can have at most 2b distinct particles.) Whether to call this O(n*log n) or O(n) depends on your point of view.

    We will return to data structure representations of quadtrees and octtrees when we discuss parallelization. But for now we know enough to discuss the simplest hierarchical n-body algorithm, which is due to Barnes and Hut.

    The Barnes-Hut Algorithm

    This algorithm was presented in "A Hierarchical O(n log n) force calculation algorithm" by J. Barnes and P. Hut, Nature, v. 324, December 1986, and is based on an earlier algorithm of A. Appel in 1985. It is widely used in astrophysics, and has been most thoroughly parallelized. It is not as accurate, however, as the slower Fast Multipole Method (FMM), to be discussed later. Barnes-Hut is often used when 1% accuracy is desired, which is often enough for astrophysical calculations. FMM is capable of achieving full machine precision (or less, depending on an accuracy tuning parameter). Recently astrophysicists have noticed that Barnes-Hut can be much worse than 1% accurate in the worst case, and have begun trying to fix it without degrading the complexity ("Skeletons from the Treecode Closet", J. Salmon and M. Warren, J. Comp. Phys. v 111, n 1, 1994; or click here). They appear to be moving to a hybrid of Barnes-Hut and FMM. We will discuss the original Barnes-Hut algorithm in this section, and FMM in a later section. Our discussion of parallelism will concentrate on Barnes-Hut. (For a more complete bibliography related to Barnes-Hut, click here.)

    At a high level, here is the Barnes-Hut algorithm:

       1)  Build the Quadtree, using QuadtreeBuild 
           as described above.
       2)  For each subsquare in the quadtree, 
           compute the center of mass and total mass 
           for all the particles it contains.
       3)  For each particle, traverse the tree 
           to compute the force on it.

    We have already presented the first step of the algorithm in the last subsection. The second step of the algorithm is accomplished by a simple "post order traversal" of the quadtree (post order traversal means the children of a node are processed before the node). Note that the mass and center of mass of each tree node n are stored at n; this is important for the next step of the algorithm.

       ... Compute the center of mass and total mass 
       ... for particles in each subsquare
       ( mass, cm ) = Compute_Mass(root)   ... cm = center of mass
       function ( mass, cm ) = Compute_Mass(n)    
           ... Compute the mass and center of mass (cm) of 
           ... all the particles in the subtree rooted at n
           if n contains 1 particle
                ... the mass and cm of n are identical to 
                ... the particle's mass and position
                store ( mass, cm ) at n
                return ( mass, cm )
                for all four children c(i) of n (i=1,2,3,4)
                    ( mass(i), cm(i) ) = Compute_Mass(c(i))
                end for
                mass = mass(1) + mass(2) + mass(3) + mass(4) 
                     ... the mass of a node is the sum of 
                     ... the masses of the children
                cm = (  mass(1)*cm(1) + mass(2)*cm(2) 
                      + mass(3)*cm(3) + mass(4)*cm(4)) / mass
                     ... the cm of a node is a weighted sum of 
                     ... the cm's of the children
                store ( mass, cm ) at n
                return ( mass, cm )
    The cost of this algorithm is proportional to the number of nodes in the tree, which is no more than O(n), modulo the distribution of particles (in other words, it could be O(n*log n) or O(n*b) where b is the number of bits used to represent position).

    Finally, we come to the core of the algorithm, computing the force on each particle. We use the idea in the first figure above, namely that if the ratio

        D                      size of box 
        -  =  -----------------------------------------------
        r     distance from particle to center of mass of box
    is small enough, then we can compute the force due to all the particles in the box just by using the mass and center of mass of the particles in the box. We will compare D/r to a user-supplied threshold theta (usually a little less than 1) to make this decision.

    Thus, if D/r < theta, we compute the gravitational force on the particle as follows. Let

  • ( x, y, z ) be the position of the particle (in 3D),
  • m be the mass of the particle,
  • ( xcm, ycm, zcm ) be the position of the center of mass of the particles in the box,
  • mcm be the total mass of the particles in the box, and
  • G be the gravitational constant.
  • Then the gravitational force attracting the particle is approximated by
    (*)   force = G * m * mcm * 
                    xcm - x       ycm - y         zcm - z
                  ( ---------- , ---------- , ---------- )
                       r3            r3            r3
          r = sqrt(   ( xcm - x )2 
                    + ( ycm - y )2 
                    + ( zcm - z )2 )
    is the distance from the particle to the center of mass of the particles in the box.

    Here is the algorithm for step 3 of Barnes-Hut:

          ... For each particle, traverse the tree 
          ... to compute the force on it.
          For i = 1 to n
              f(i) = TreeForce(i,root)   
          end for
          function f = TreeForce(i,n)
              ... Compute gravitational force on particle i 
              ... due to all particles in the box at n
              f = 0
              if n contains one particle
                  f = force computed using formula (*) above
                  r = distance from particle i to 
                         center of mass of particles in n
                  D = size of box n
                  if D/r < theta
                      compute f using formula (*) above
                      for all children c of n
                          f = f + TreeForce(i,c)
                      end for
                  end if
              end if

    The correctness of the algorithm follows from the fact that the force from each part of the tree is accumulated in f recursively. To understand the complexity, we will show that each call to TreeForce(i,root) has a cost proportional to the depth at which the leaf holding particle i occurs in the tree. To illustrate, consider the figure below, which shows the result of calling TreeForce(i,root) with theta > 1, for the particle i shown in the lower right corner. For each of the unsubdivided squares shown, except the one containing particle i, we have D/r <= 1 < theta. (There are 3 such large blue unsubdivided squares, 3 smaller red squares, 3 yet smaller cyan squares, and 3 smallest brown squares.) Since the test D/r < theta is satisfied for each unsubdivided square, a constant amount of work is done for each unsubdivided square. Since there are at most 3 undivided squares at each level of the tree, the total amount of work for particle i is proportional to the depth at which particle i is stored.

    Thus, the total cost of step 3 of the Barnes-Hut algorithm is the sum of the depths in the quadtree at which each particle is stored; as before, this may be bounded either by O(n*log n) or O(n*b).

    When theta < 1 -- the usual case -- then it is more complicated to describe which boxes satisfy D/r < theta, but the same O(.) style analysis works.

    This completes the discussion of the serial Barnes-Hut algorithm.