OK, I need some more background stuff before returning to the Why Stuff Can Orbit series. Last week I explained how to take derivatives, which is one of the three legs of a Calculus I course. Now I need to say something about *why* we take derivatives. This essay won’t really qualify you to do mathematical physics, but it’ll at least let you bluff your way through a meeting with one.

We care about derivatives because we’re doing physics a smart way. This involves thinking not about forces but instead potential energy. We have a function, called V or sometimes U, that changes based on where something is. If we need to know the forces on something we can take the derivative, with respect to position, of the potential energy.

The way I’ve set up these central force problems makes it easy to shift between physical intuition and calculus. Draw a scribbly little curve, something going up and down as you like, as long as it doesn’t loop back on itself. Also, don’t take the pen from paper. Also, no corners. That’s just cheating. Smooth curves. That’s your potential energy function. Take any point on this scribbly curve. If you go to the right a little from that point, is the curve going up? Then your function has a positive derivative at that point. Is the curve going down? Then your function has a negative derivative. Find some other point where the curve is going in the other direction. If it was going up to start, find a point where it’s going down. Somewhere in-between there must be a point where the curve isn’t going up or going down. The Intermediate Value Theorem says you’re welcome.

These points where the potential energy isn’t increasing or decreasing are the interesting ones. At least if you’re a mathematical physicist. They’re equilibriums. If whatever might be moving happens to be exactly there, then it’s not going to move. It’ll stay right there. Mathematically: the force is some fixed number times the derivative of the potential energy there. The potential energy’s derivative is zero there. So the force is zero and without a force nothing’s going to change. Physical intuition: imagine you laid out a track with exactly the shape of your curve. Put a marble at this point where the track isn’t rising and isn’t falling. Does the marble move? No, but if you’re not so sure about that read on past the next paragraph.

Mathematical physicists learn to look for these equilibriums. We’re taught to not bother with what will happen if we release this particle at this spot with this velocity. That is, you know, not looking at any particular problem someone might want to know. We look instead at equilibriums because they help us describe *all* the possible behaviors of a system. Mathematicians are sometimes characterized as lazy in spirit. This is fair. Mathematicians will start out with a problem looking to see if it’s just like some other problem someone already solved. But the flip side is if one is going to go to the trouble of solving a new problem, she’s going to *really* solve it. We’ll work out not just what happens from some one particular starting condition. We’ll try to describe *all* the different kinds of thing that could happen, and how to tell which of them does happen for your measly little problem.

If you actually do have a curvy track and put a marble down on its equilibrium it might yet move. Suppose the track is rising a while and then falls back again; putting the marble at top and it’s likely to roll one way or the other. If it doesn’t it’s probably because of friction; the track sticks a little. If it were a really smooth track and the marble perfectly round then it’d fall. Give me this. But even with a perfectly smooth track and perfectly frictionless marble it’ll still roll one way or another. Unless you put it exactly at the spot that’s the top of the hill, not a bit to the left or the right. Good luck.

What’s happening here is the difference between a stable and an unstable equilibrium. This is again something we all have a physical intuition for. Imagine you have something that isn’t moving. Give it a little shove. Does it stay about like it was? Then it’s stable. Does it break? Then it’s unstable. The marble at the top of the track is at an unstable equilibrium; a little nudge and it’ll roll away. If you had a marble at the bottom of a track, inside a valley, then it’s a stable equilibrium. A little nudge will make the marble rock back and forth but it’ll stay nearby.

Yes, if you give it a crazy big whack the marble will go flying off, never to be seen again. We’re talking about *small* nudges. No, smaller than that. This maybe sounds like question-begging to you. But what makes for an unstable equilibrium is that *no* nudge is too small. The nudge — perturbation, in the trade — will just keep growing. In a stable equilibrium there’s nudges small enough that they won’t keep growing. They might not shrink, but they won’t grow either.

So how to tell which is which? Well, look at your potential energy and imagine it as a track with a marble again. Where are the unstable equilibriums? They’re the ones at tops of hills. Near them the curve looks like a cup pointing down, to use the metaphor every Calculus I class takes. Where are the stable equilibriums? They’re the ones at bottoms of valleys. Near them the curve looks like a cup pointing up. Again, see Calculus I.

We may be able to tell the difference between these kinds of equilibriums without drawing the potential energy. We can use the second derivative. To find the second derivative of a function you take the derivative of a function and then — you may want to think this one over — take the derivative of *that*. That is, you take the derivative of the original function a second time. Sometimes higher mathematics gives us terms that aren’t too hard.

So if you have a spot where you know there’s an equilibrium, look at what the second derivative at that spot is. If it’s positive, you have a stable equilibrium. If it’s negative, you have an unstable equilibrium. This is called “Second Derivative Test”, as it was named by a committee that figured it was close enough to 5 pm and why cause trouble?

If the second derivative is zero there, um, we can’t say anything right now. The equilibrium may also be an inflection point. That’s where the growth of something pauses a moment before resuming. Or where the decline of something pauses a moment before resuming. In either case that’s still an unstable equilibrium. But it doesn’t have to be. It could still be a stable equilibrium. It might just have a very smoothly flat base. No telling just from that one piece of information and this is why we have to go on to other work.

But this gets at how we’d like to look at a system. We look for its equilibriums. We figure out which equilibriums are stable and which ones are unstable. With a little more work we can say, if the system starts out like *this* it’ll stay near *that* equilibrium. If it starts out like *that* it’ll stay near *this whole other* equilibrium. If it starts out this other way, it’ll go flying off to the end of the universe. We can solve every possible problem at once and never have to bother with a particular case. This feels good.

It also gives us a little something more. You maybe have heard of a tangent line. That’s a line that’s, er, tangent to a curve. Again with the not-too-hard terms. What this means is there’s a point, called the “point of tangency”, again named by a committee that wanted to get out early. And the line just touches the original curve at that point, and it’s going in exactly the same direction as the original curve at that point. Typically this means the line just grazes the curve, at least around there. If you’ve ever rolled a pencil until it just touched the edge of your coffee cup or soda can, you’ve set up a tangent line to the curve of your beverage container. You just didn’t think of it as that because you’re not daft. Fair enough.

Mathematicians will use tangents because a tangent line has values that are *so* easy to calculate. The function describing a tangent line is a polynomial and we llllllllove polynomials, correctly. The tangent line is always easy to understand, however hard the original function was. Its value, at the equilibrium, is exactly what the original function’s was. Its first derivative, at the equilibrium, is exactly what the original function’s was at that point. Its second derivative is zero, which might or might not be true of the original function. We don’t care.

We don’t use tangent lines when we look at equilibriums. This is because in this case they’re boring. If it’s an equilibrium then its tangent line is a horizontal line. No matter what the original function was. It’s trivial: you know the answer before you’ve heard the question.

Ah, but, there *is* something mathematical physicists *do* like. The tangent line is boring. Fine. But how about, using the second derivative, building a tangent … well, “parabola” is the proper term. This is a curve that’s a quadratic, that looks like an open bowl. It exactly matches the original function at the equilibrium. Its derivative exactly matches the original function’s derivative at the equilibrium. Its *second* derivative also exactly matches the original function’s second derivative, though. Third derivative we don’t care about. It’s so not important here I can’t even finish this sentence in a

What this second-derivative-based approximation gives us is a parabola. It will look very much like the original function if we’re close to the equilibrium. And this gives us something great. The great thing is this is the same potential energy shape of a weight on a spring, or anything else that oscillates back and forth. It’s the potential energy for “simple harmonic motion”.

And that’s great. We start studying simple harmonic motion, oh, somewhere in high school physics class because it’s so much fun to play with slinkies and springs and accidentally dropping weights on our lab partners. We never stop. The mathematics behind it is simple. It turns up *everywhere*. If you understand the mathematics of a mass on a spring you have a tool that relevant to pretty much every problem you ever have. This approximation is part of that. Close to a stable equilibrium, whatever system you’re looking at has the same behavior as a weight on a spring.

It may strike you that a mass on a spring is itself a central force. And now I’m saying that within the central force problem I started out doing, stuff that orbits, there’s *another* central force problem. This is true. You’ll see that in a few Why Stuff Can Orbit essays.

So far, by the way, I’ve talked entirely about a potential energy with a single variable. This is for a good reason: two or more variables is harder. Well of course it is. But the basic dynamics are still open. There’s equilibriums. They can be stable or unstable. They might have inflection points. There is a new kind of behavior. Mathematicians call it a “saddle point”. This is where in one direction the potential energy makes it look like a stable equilibrium while in another direction the potential energy makes it look unstable. Examples of it kind of look like the shape of a saddle, if you haven’t looked at an actual saddle recently. (If you really want to know, get your computer to plot the function z = x^{2} – y^{2} and look at the origin, where x = 0 and y = 0.) Well, there’s points on an actual saddle that would be saddle points to a mathematician. It’s unstable, because there’s that direction where it’s definitely unstable.

So everything about multivariable functions is longer, and a couple bits of it are harder. There’s more chances for weird stuff to happen. I think I can get through most of Why Stuff Can Orbit without having to know that. But do some reading up on that before you take a job as a mathematical physicist.

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