The position of a single particle is specified by giving its three coordinates, x, y, and z. To specify the positions of two particles, six coordinates are needed, x1, y1, z1, x2, y2, z2. If there are N particles, 3N coordinates will be needed. Imagine a system of 3N mutually orthogonal coordinates in a 3N-dimensional space (a space of more than three dimensions is a purely mathematical construction, sometimes known as a hyperspace). To specify the exact position of one single point in this space, 3N coordinates are needed. However, one single point can represent the entire configuration of all N particles in the problem. Furthermore, the path of that single point as a function of time is the complete solution of the problem. This 3N-dimensional space is called configuration space.
Configuration space is particularly useful for describing what is known as constraints on a problem. Constraints are generally ways of describing the effects of forces that are best not explicitly introduced into the problem. For example, consider the simple case of a falling body near the surface of the Earth. The equations of motion—equations (4), (5), and (6)—are valid only until the body hits the ground. Physically, this restriction is due to forces between atoms in the falling body and atoms in the ground, but, as a practical matter, it is preferable to say that the solutions are valid only for z > 0 (where z = 0 is ground level). This constraint, in the form of an inequality, is very difficult to incorporate directly into the equations of the problem. In the language of configuration space, however, one merely needs to specify that the problem is being solved only in the region of configuration space for which z > 0.
Notice that the constraint mentioned above, rolling without sliding on a plane, cannot easily be described in configuration space, since it is basically a condition on relative velocities of rotation and translation; but another constraint, that the body is restricted to motion along the plane, is easily described in configuration space.
Another type of constraint specifies that a body is rigid. Then, even though the body is composed of a very large number of atoms, it is not necessary to find separately the x, y, and z coordinate of each atom because these are related to those of the other atoms by the condition of rigidity. A careful analysis yields that, rather than needing 3N coordinates (where N may be, for example, 1024 atoms), only 6 are needed: 3 to specify the position of the centre of mass and 3 to give the orientation of the body. Thus, in this case, the constraint has reduced the number of independent coordinates from 3N to 6. Rather than restricting the behaviour of the system to a portion of the original 3N-dimensional configuration space, it is possible to describe the system in a much simpler 6-dimensional configuration space. It should be noted, however, that the six coordinates are not necessarily all distances. In fact, the most convenient coordinates are three distances (the x, y, and z coordinates of the centre of mass of the body) and three angles, which specify the orientation of a set of axes fixed in the body relative to a set of axes fixed in space. This is an example of the use of constraints to reduce the number of dynamic variables in a problem (the x, y, and z coordinates of each particle) to a smaller number of generalized dynamic variables, which need not even have the same dimensions as the original ones.