The shooting method for ordinary differential equations

A book which has been sitting on a shelf in my office for some years without getting much attention is ‘Classical Methods in Ordinary Differential Equations’ by Hastings and McLeod. Recently I read the first two chapters of the book and I found the material both very pleasant to read and enlightening. A central theme of those chapters is the shooting method. I have previously used the method more than once in my own research. I used it together with Juan Velázquez to investigate the existence of self-similar solutions of the Einstein-Vlasov system as discussed here. I used it together with Pia Brechmann to prove the existence of unbounded oscillatory solutions of the Selkov system for glycolysis as discussed here. This method is associated with the idea of a certain type of numerical experiment. Suppose we consider a first order ODE with initial datum x(0)=\alpha. Suppose that for some value \alpha_1 the solution tends to +\infty for t\to\infty and for another value \alpha_2>\alpha_1 the solution tends to -\infty. Then we might expect that in between there is a value \alpha^* for which the solution is bounded. We could try to home in on the value of \alpha^* by a bisection method. What I am interested in here is a corresponding analytical procedure which sometimes provides existence theorems.

In the book the procedure is explained in topological terms. We consider a connected parameter space and a property P. Let A be the subset where P does not hold. If we can show that A=A_1\cup A_2 where A_1 and A_2 are non-empty and open and A=A_1\cap A_2=\emptyset then A is disconnected and so cannot be the whole of the parameter space. Hence there is at least one point in the complement of A and there property P holds. The most common case is where the parameter space is an interval in the real numbers. For some authors this is the only case where the term ‘shooting method’ is used. In the book it is used in a more general sense, which might be called multi-parameter shooting. The book discusses a number of cases where this type of method can be used to get an existence theorem. The first example is to show that x'=-x^3+\sin t has a periodic solution. In fact this is related to the Brouwer fixed point theorem specialised to dimension one (which of course is elementary to prove). The next example is to show that x'=x^3+\sin t has a periodic solution. After that this is generalised to the case where \sin t is replaced by an arbitrary bounded continuous function on [0,\infty) and we look for a bounded solution. The next example is a kind of forced pendulum equation x''+\sin x=f(t) and the aim is to find a solution which is at the origin at two given times. In the second chapter a wide variety of examples is presented, including those just mentioned, and used to illustrate a number of general points. The key point in a given application is to find a good choice for the subsets. There is also a discussion of two-parameter shooting and its relation to the topology of the plane. This has a very different flavour from the arguments I am familiar with. It is related to Wazewski’s theorem (which I never looked at before) and the Conley index. The latter is a subject which has crossed my path a few times in various guises but where I never really developed a warm relationship. I did spend some time looking at Conley’s book. I found it nicely written but so intense as to require more commitment than I was prepared to make at that time. Perhaps the book of Hastings and McLeod can provide me with an easier way to move in that direction.

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