Theorem Thursday: One Mean Value Theorem Of Many


For this week I have something I want to follow up on. We’ll see if I make it that far.

The Mean Value Theorem.

My subject line disagrees with the header just above here. I want to talk about the Mean Value Theorem. It’s one of those things that turns up in freshman calculus and then again in Analysis. It’s introduced as “the” Mean Value Theorem. But like many things in calculus it comes in several forms. So I figure to talk about one of them here, and another form in a while, when I’ve had time to make up drawings.

Calculus can split effortlessly into two kinds of things. One is differential calculus. This is the study of continuity and smoothness. It studies how a quantity changes if someting affecting it changes. It tells us how to optimize things. It tells us how to approximate complicated functions with simpler ones. Usually polynomials. It leads us to differential equations, problems in which the rate at which something changes depends on what value the thing has.

The other kind is integral calculus. This is the study of shapes and areas. It studies how infinitely many things, all infinitely small, add together. It tells us what the net change in things are. It tells us how to go from information about every point in a volume to information about the whole volume.

They aren’t really separate. Each kind informs the other, and gives us tools to use in studying the other. And they are almost mirrors of one another. Differentials and integrals are not quite inverses, but they come quite close. And as a result most of the important stuff you learn in differential calculus has an echo in integral calculus. The Mean Value Theorem is among them.

The Mean Value Theorem is a rule about functions. In this case it’s functions with a domain that’s an interval of the real numbers. I’ll use ‘a’ as the name for the smallest number in the domain and ‘b’ as the largest number. People talking about the Mean Value Theorem often do. The range is also the real numbers, although it doesn’t matter which ones.

I’ll call the function ‘f’ in accord with a longrunning tradition of not working too hard to name functions. What does matter is that ‘f’ is continuous on the interval [a, b]. I’ve described what ‘continuous’ means before. It means that here too.

And we need one more thing. The function f has to be differentiable on the interval (a, b). You maybe noticed that before I wrote [a, b], and here I just wrote (a, b). There’s a difference here. We need the function to be continuous on the “closed” interval [a, b]. That is, it’s got to be continuous for ‘a’, for ‘b’, and for every point in-between.

But we only need the function to be differentiable on the “open” interval (a, b). That is, it’s got to be continuous for all the points in-between ‘a’ and ‘b’. If it happens to be differentiable for ‘a’, or for ‘b’, or for both, that’s great. But we won’t turn away a function f for not being differentiable at those points. Only the interior. That sort of distinction between stuff true on the interior and stuff true on the boundaries is common. This is why mathematicians have words for “including the boundaries” (“closed”) and “never minding the boundaries” (“open”).

As to what “differentiable” is … A function is differentiable at a point if you can take its derivative at that point. I’m sure that clears everything up. There are many ways to describe what differentiability is. One that’s not too bad is to imagine zooming way in on the curve representing a function. If you start with a big old wobbly function it waves all around. But pick a point. Zoom in on that. Does the function stay all wobbly, or does it get more steady, more straight? Keep zooming in. Does it get even straighter still? If you zoomed in over and over again on the curve at some point, would it look almost exactly like a straight line?

If it does, then the function is differentiable at that point. It has a derivative there. The derivative’s value is whatever the slope of that line is. The slope is that thing you remember from taking Boring Algebra in high school. That rise-over-run thing. But this derivative is a great thing to know. You could approximate the original function with a straight line, with slope equal to that derivative. Close to that point, you’ll make a small enough error nobody has to worry about it.

That there will be this straight line approximation isn’t true for every function. Here’s an example. Picture a line that goes up and then takes a 90-degree turn to go back down again. Look at the corner. However close you zoom in on the corner, there’s going to be a corner. It’s never going to look like a straight line; there’s a 90-degree angle there. It can be a smaller angle if you like, but any sort of corner breaks this differentiability. This is a point where the function isn’t differentiable.

There are functions that are nothing but corners. They can be differentiable nowhere, or only at a tiny set of points that can be ignored. (A set of measure zero, as the dialect would put it.) Mathematicians discovered this over the course of the 19th century. They got into some good arguments about how that can even make sense. It can get worse. Also found in the 19th century were functions that are continuous only at a single point. This smashes just about everyone’s intuition. But we can’t find a definition of continuity that’s as useful as the one we use now and avoids that problem. So we accept that it implies some pathological conclusions and carry on as best we can.

Now I get to the Mean Value Theorem in its differential calculus pelage. It starts with the endpoints, ‘a’ and ‘b’, and the values of the function at those points, ‘f(a)’ and ‘f(b)’. And from here it’s easiest to figure what’s going on if you imagine the plot of a generic function f. I recommend drawing one. Just make sure you draw it without lifting the pen from paper, and without including any corners anywhere. Something wiggly.

Draw the line that connects the ends of the wiggly graph. Formally, we’re adding the line segment that connects the points with coordinates (a, f(a)) and (b, f(b)). That’s coordinate pairs, not intervals. That’s clear in the minds of the mathematicians who don’t see why not to use parentheses over and over like this. (We are short on good grouping symbols like parentheses and brackets and braces.)

Per the Mean Value Theorem, there is at least one point whose derivative is the same as the slope of that line segment. If you were to slide the line up or down, without changing its orientation, you’d find something wonderful. Most of the time this line intersects the curve, crossing from above to below or vice-versa. But there’ll be at least one point where the shifted line is “tangent”, where it just touches the original curve. Close to that touching point, the “tangent point”, the shifted line and the curve blend together and can’t be easily told apart. As long as the function is differentiable on the open interval (a, b), and continuous on the closed interval [a, b], this will be true. You might convince yourself of it by drawing a couple of curves and taking a straightedge to the results.

This is an existence theorem. Like the Intermediate Value Theorem, it doesn’t tell us which point, or points, make the thing we’re interested in true. It just promises us that there is some point that does it. So it gets used in other proofs. It lets us mix information about intervals and information about points.

It’s tempting to try using it numerically. It looks as if it justifies a common differential-calculus trick. Suppose we want to know the value of the derivative at a point. We could pick a little interval around that point and find the endpoints. And then find the slope of the line segment connecting the endpoints. And won’t that be close enough to the derivative at the point we care about?

Well. Um. No, we really can’t be sure about that. We don’t have any idea what interval might make the derivative of the point we care about equal to this line-segment slope. The Mean Value Theorem won’t tell us. It won’t even tell us if there exists an interval that would let that trick work. We can’t invoke the Mean Value Theorem to let us get away with that.

Often, though, we can get away with it. Differentiable functions do have to follow some rules. Among them is that if you do pick a small enough interval then approximations that look like this will work all right. If the function flutters around a lot, we need a smaller interval. But a lot of the functions we’re interested in don’t flutter around that much. So we can get away with it. And there’s some grounds to trust in getting away with it. The Mean Value Theorem isn’t any part of the grounds. It just looks so much like it ought to be.

I hope on a later Thursday to look at an integral-calculus form of the Mean Value Theorem.

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