Abelian Sand Pile Model

Today is January 7, 2018. I am tired of Trump bragging that he is a “very stable genius.” Yes he made a lot of money (or so he says) but he doesn’t know what genius looks like. Today’s column is devoted to work of Wesley Pegden (and friends) on the Abelian Sand Pile Model. Why this topic. Well he is coming to give a talk on Thursday in the probability seminar.

This system was introduced in 1988 by Bak, Tang, and Wiesenfeld (Phys Rev A 38, 364).  The simplest version of the model takes place on a square subset of the two dimensional integer lattice. Grains of sand are dropped at random. The number of grains at a point is ≥ 4 the pile topples and one grain is sent to each neighbor. This may cause other sites to topple setting off an avalanche.

The word Abelian refers to the property that the state after n grains have landed is independent of the order in which they are dropped. The reason that physicists are interested is that the system “self-organizes itself into a critical state” in which avalanche sizes have a power law. The Abelian sand pile has been extensively studied, and there are connections to many branaches of mathematics, but for that you’ll have to go to the Wikipedia page or to the paper “What is … a sandpile?” written by Lionel Levine and Jim Propp which appeared in the Notices of the AMS 57 (2010), 976-979.

In a 2013 article in the Duke Math Journal [162, 627-642] Wesley Pegden and Charles Smart studied what happened when you put n grains of sand at the origin on the infinite d-dimensional lattice and let the system go until it reaches its final state. They used PDE techniques to show that when space is scaled by n 1/d then the configuration converges weakly to a limit, i.e, integrals against a test function converge. As Fermat once said the proof won’t fit in the margin, but in a nutshell what they do is to who used viscosity solution theory to identify the continuum limit of the least action principle of Fey–Levine–Peres (J. Stat. Phys. 138 (2010), 143-159). A picture is worth several hundred words.


In a 2016 article in Geometric and Functional Analysis, Pegden teamed up with Lionel Levine (now at Cornell) to study the fractal structure of the limit. The solution is somewhat intricate involving solutions of PDE and Apollonian triangulations that generalize Apollonian circle packings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *