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Last month, at the joint AMS/MAA meeting in San Diego, I spoke at the AMS “Current Events” Bulletin on the topic “Why are solitons stable?“. This talk was supposed to be a survey of many of the developments on the rigorous stability theory of solitary waves in dispersive wave models (e.g. the Kortweg-de Vries equation and its generalisations, nonlinear Schrödinger equations, etc.), although my actual talk (which was the usual 50 minutes in length) only managed to cover about half of the material I had planned.
More recently, I completed the article that accompanies the talk, and which will be submitted to the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. In this paper I describe the key conflict in these wave models between dispersion (the tendency of waves of differing frequency to move at different speeds, thus causing any localised wave to disperse in space over time) and nonlinearity (which can cause any concentrated portion of the wave to self-amplify). Solitons seem to lie at the exact balancing point between these two forces, neither dispersing nor amplifying, but instead simply traveling at a constant velocity or oscillating in phase at a constant rate. In some cases, this balancing point is unstable; remove even a tiny amount of mass from the soliton and it eventually disperses completely into radiation, or one can add a tiny amount and cause the soliton to concentrate into a point and thence exhibit blowup in finite time. In other cases, the balancing point is stable; small perturbations to a soliton may end up changing the amplitude, position, and/or velocity of the soliton slightly, but the bulk of the solution still closely resembles a soliton in size, shape, and behaviour. Stability is sometimes enforced by linear properties, such as dispersive estimates or spectral properties of the linearised dynamics, but is also often enforced by nonlinear properties, such as nonlinear conservation laws, monotonicity formulae, and local propagation estimates for mass and energy (such as those provided by virial identities). The interplay between all these properties can be remarkably subtle, especially in the critical case when a key conserved quantity is scale-invariant (thus leading to an additional degeneracy in the soliton manifold). This is particularly evident in the remarkable series of papers by Martel and Merle establishing various stability and blowup properties near the ground state soliton of the critical generalised KdV equation, which I spend some time discussing (without going into too many of the (quite numerous) technical details). The focus in my paper is primarily on the non-integrable case, in which the techniques are primarily analytic rather than algebraic or geometric.