Theorem Thursday: The Intermediate Value Theorem


I am still taking requests for this Theorem Thursdays sequence. I intend to post each Thursday in June and July an essay talking about some theorem and what it means and why it’s important. I have gotten a couple of requests in, but I’m happy to take more; please just give me a little lead time. But I want to start with one that delights me.

The Intermediate Value Theorem

I own a Scion tC. It’s a pleasant car, about 2400 percent more sporty than I am in real life. I got it because it met my most important criteria: it wasn’t expensive and it had a sun roof. That it looks stylish is an unsought bonus.

But being a car, and a black one at that, it has a common problem. Leave it parked a while, then get inside. In the winter, it gets so cold that snow can fall inside it. In the summer, it gets so hot that the interior, never mind the passengers, risk melting. While pondering this slight inconvenience I wondered, isn’t there any outside temperature that leaves my car comfortable?

Scion tC covered in snow and ice from a late winter storm.

My Scion tC, here, not too warm.

Of course there is. We know this before thinking about it. The sun heats the car, yes. When the outside temperature is low enough, there’s enough heat flowing out that the car gets cold. When the outside temperature’s high enough, not enough heat flows out. The car stays warm. There must be some middle temperature where just enough heat flows out that the interior doesn’t get particularly warm or cold. Not just one middle temperature, come to that. There is a range of temperatures that are comfortable to sit in. But that just means there’s a range of outside temperatures for which the car’s interior stays comfortable. We know this range as late April, early May, here. Most years, anyway.

The reasoning that lets us know there is a comfort-producing outside temperature we can see as a use of the Intermediate Value Theorem. It addresses a function f with domain [a, b], and range of the real numbers. The domain is closed; that is, the numbers we call ‘a’ and ‘b’ are both in the set. And f has to be a continuous function. If you want to draw it, you can do so without having to lift pen from paper. (WARNING: Do not attempt to pass your Real Analysis course with that definition. But that’s what the proper definition means.)

So look at the numbers f(a) and f(b). Pick some number between them, and I’ll call that number ‘g’. There must be at least one number ‘c’, that’s between ‘a’ and ‘b’, and for which f(c) equals g.

Bernard Bolzano, an early-19th century mathematician/logician/theologist/priest, gets the credit for first proving this theorem. Bolzano’s version was a little different. It supposes that f(a) and f(b) are of opposite sign. That is, f(a) is a positive and f(b) a negative number. Or f(a) is negative and f(b) is positive. And Bolzano’s theorem says there must be some number ‘c’ for which f(c) is zero.

You can prove this by drawing any wiggly curve at all and then a horizontal line in the middle of it. Well, that doesn’t prove it to mathematician’s satisfaction. But it will prove the matter in the sense that you’ll be convinced. It’ll also convince anyone you try explaining this to.

A generic wiggly function, with vertical lines marking off the domain limits of a and b. Horizontal lines mark off f(a) and f(b), as well as a putative value g. The wiggly function indeed has at least one point for which its value is g.

Any old real-valued function, drawn in blue. The number ‘g’ is something between the number f(a) and f(b). And somewhere there’s at least one number, between a and b, for where the function’s equal to g.

You might wonder why anyone needed this proved at all. It’s a bit like proving that as you pour water into the sink there’ll come a time the last dish gets covered with water. So it is. The need for a proof came about from the ongoing attempt to make mathematics rigorous. We have an intuitive idea of what it means for functions to be continuous; see my above comment about lifting pens from paper. Can that be put in terms that don’t depend on physical intuition? … Yes, it can. And we can divorce the Intermediate Value Theorem from our physical intuitions. We can know something that’s true even if we never see a car or a sink.

This theorem might leave you feeling a little hollow inside. Proving that there is some ‘c’ for which f(c) equals g, or even equals zero, doesn’t seem to tell us much about how to find it. It doesn’t even tell us that there’s only one ‘c’, rather than two or three or a hundred million candidates that meet our criteria. Fair enough. The Intermediate Value Theorem is more about proving the existence of solutions, rather than how to find them.

But knowing there is a solution can help us find them. The Intermediate Value Theorem as we know it grew out of finding roots for polynomials. One numerical method, easy to set up for any problem, is the bisection method. If you know that somewhere between ‘a’ and ‘b’ the function goes from positive to negative, then find the midpoint, ‘c’. The function is equal to zero either between ‘a’ and ‘c’, or between ‘c’ and ‘b’. Pick the side that it’s on, and bisect that. Pick the half of that which the zero must be in. Bisect that half. And repeat until you get close enough to the answer for your needs. (The same reasoning applies to a lot of problems in which you divide the search range in two each time until the answer appears.)

We can get some pretty heady results from the Intermediate Value Theorem, too, even if we don’t know where any of them are. An example you’ll see everywhere is that there must be spots on the opposite sides of the globe with the exact same temperature. Or humidity, or daily rainfall, or any other quantity like that. I had thought everyone was ripping that example off from Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins’s masterpiece What Is Mathematics?. But I can’t find this particular example in there. I wonder what we are all ripping it off from.

Two blobby shapes, one of them larger and more complicated, the other looking kind of like the outline of a trefoil, both divided by a magenta line.

Does this magenta line bisect both the red and the greyish blobs simultaneously? … Probably not, unless I’ve been way lucky. But there is some line that does.

So here’s a neat example that is ripped off from them. Draw two blobs on the plane. Is there a straight line that bisects both of them at once? Bisecting here means there’s exactly as much of one blob on one side of the line as on the other. There certainly is. The trick is there are any number of lines that will bisect one blob, and then look at what that does to the other.

A similar ripped-off result you can do with a single blob of any shape you like. Draw any line that bisects it. There are a lot of candidates. Can you draw a line perpendicular to that so that the blob gets quartered, divided into four spots of equal area? Yes. Try it.

A generic blobby shape with two perpendicular magenta lines crossing over it.

Does this pair of magenta lines split this blue blob into four pieces of exactly the same area? … Probably not, unless I’ve been lucky. But there is some pair of perpendicular lines that will do it. Also, is it me or does that blob look kind of like a butterfly?

But surely the best use of the Intermediate Value Theorem is in the problem of wobbly tables. If the table has four legs, all the same length, and the problem is the floor isn’t level it’s all right. There is some way to adjust the table so it won’t wobble. (Well, the ground can’t be angled more than a bit over 35 degrees, but that’s all right. If the ground has a 35 degree angle you aren’t setting a table on it. You’re rolling down it.) Finally a mathematical proof can save us from despair!

Except that the proof doesn’t work if the table legs are uneven which, alas, they often are. But we can’t get everything.

Courant and Robbins put forth one more example that’s fantastic, although it doesn’t quite work. But it’s a train problem unlike those you’ve seen before. Let me give it to you as they set it out:

Suppose a train travels from station A to station B along a straight section of track. The journey need not be of uniform speed or acceleration. The train may act in any manner, speeding up, slowing down, coming to a halt, or even backing up for a while, before reaching B. But the exact motion of the train is supposed to be known in advance; that is, the function s = f(t) is given, where s is the distance of the train from station A, and t is the time, measured from the instant of departure.

On the floor of one of the cars a rod is pivoted so that it may move without friction either forward or backward until it touches the floor. If it does touch the floor, we assume that it remains on the floor henceforth; this wil be the case if the rod does not bounce.

Is it possible to place the rod in such a position that, if it is released at the instant when the train starts and allowed to move solely under the influence of gravity and the motion of the train, it will not fall to the floor during the entire journey from A to B?

They argue it is possible, and use the Intermediate Value Theorem to show it. They admit the range of angles it’s safe to start the rod from may be too small to be useful.

But they’re not quite right. Ian Stewart, in the revision of What Is Mathematics?, includes an appendix about this. Stewart credits Tim Poston with pointing out, in 1976, the flaw. It’s possible to imagine a path which causes the rod, from one angle, to just graze tipping over, let’s say forward, and then get yanked back and fall over flat backwards. This would leave no room for any starting angles that avoid falling over entirely.

It’s a subtle flaw. You might expect so. Nobody mentioned it between the book’s original publication in 1941, after which everyone liking mathematics read it, and 1976. And it is one that touches on the complications of spaces. This little Intermediate Value Theorem problem draws us close to chaos theory. It’s one of those ideas that weaves through all mathematics.

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