You might well ask, ``Since we have to start off with one of the other
schemes anyway, and since the Mid-point method is already very simple
to program, why should I ever bother with the Leapfrog scheme?'' The
answer is that, unlike any of the other methods we have described, the
Leapfrog integrator is * time reversible* -- and that property
gives it some very important advantages.

To see the time reversibility explicitly , reconsider equation (24) and imagine that we wished to ``reverse our tracks'' and step backward from to . Applying the algorithm, we do the following:

But these are precisely the steps (in reverse) that we took to advance
the system in the first place! In other words, if we use the Leapfrog
scheme to integrate forward in time, then reverse the velocities (and
the sign of the timestep) and use the same integrator to return to
time * t* = 0, we will arrive * precisely* our starting point --
not approximately, as would be the case with the other integrators,
but exactly, at least up to rounding error. Verify this for yourself
by modifying ` leapfrog.c` to reverse itself and integrate
backwards after integrating forward for some interval -- 10 time
units, say.

The Leapfrog scheme is time reversible because of the symmetric way in
which it is defined. None of the earlier schemes have this property,
because they all evaluate derivatives in an asymmetrical way. For
example, in the Euler method, it is clear that the forward and backward
steps would not cancel out precisely -- they use different derivatives,
evaluated at different times. In the Mid-point method, which uses an
estimate of the derivative at the center of the range, that estimate is
still based on an extrapolation from the * left-hand* side of the
interval. On time reversal, the corresponding estimate would be based
on the derivative at the right-hand edge, and would * not* yield
precisely the same result. The difference is small, but it is enough to
prevent the scheme from being exactly time reversible. Similar
reasoning applies to Runge-Kutta-4.

Time reversibility is important because it * guarantees*
conservation of energy, angular momentum -- and any other conserved
quantity -- in many cases. Consider again the problem of a simple
elliptical solution of the gravitational two-body problem. Imagine
that our integrator makes an energy error of
as it
integrates the system forward through 1 orbital period. Now imagine
reversing the integration. You might guess that the energy error in
the reverse integration would be
, but this is * not*
the case. In any system where the equations of motion are unchanged by
time reversal (and, specifically, in any case where the function *
f* depends only on the coordinates), the time-reversed orbit is itself
a solution of the original ODE (with * v* simply replaced by *
-v*), so the energy error is * still*
. But if our
itegration scheme is time-reversible, we know that the final energy
error is zero (because we return to our starting point). The only
possible way that this can occur is if
(i.e. energy is
exactly conserved!).

The following figure illustrates the error induced by the various
integration techniques in solving the problem of a mass in an
inverse square force law.
As illustrated below, even the small error
(exaggerated here by choosing a timestep 5 times greater than in the
other two integrators) made by Runge-Kutta-4 is * systematic*,
leading to a long-term drift in the orbital parameters, the energy
error in the Leapfrog scheme has no such long-term trend. There *
is* a periodic error over the course of an orbit, at the same level as
the error in the Mid-point scheme, but the errors incurred over the
outgoing portion of the orbit exactly cancel those produced on the
incoming segment, so no net error results. The Leapfrog method is only
second-order * accurate*, but it is very * stable*.

In situations where we are interested in long-term small changes in the properties of a nearly periodic orbit, and where even small systematic errors would mask the true solution, time-reversible integrators such as the Leapfrog scheme are essential.