The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Osculating Circle


I’m happy to say it’s another request today. This one’s from HowardAt58, author of the Saving School Math blog. He’s given me some great inspiration in the past.

Osculating Circle.

It’s right there in the name. Osculating. You know what that is from that one Daffy Duck cartoon where he cries out “Greetings, Gate, let’s osculate” while wearing a moustache. Daffy’s imitating somebody there, but goodness knows who. Someday the mystery drives the young you to a dictionary web site. Osculate means kiss. This doesn’t seem to explain the scene. Daffy was imitating Jerry Colonna. That meant something in 1943. You can find him on old-time radio recordings. I think he’s funny, in that 40s style.

Make the substitution. A kissing circle. Suppose it’s not some playground antic one level up from the Kissing Bandit that plagues recess yet one or two levels down what we imagine we’d do in high school. It suggests a circle that comes really close to something, that touches it a moment, and then goes off its own way.

But then touching. We know another word for that. It’s the root behind “tangent”. Tangent is a trigonometry term. But it appears in calculus too. The tangent line is a line that touches a curve at one specific point and is going in the same direction as the original curve is at that point. We like this because … well, we do. The tangent line is a good approximation of the original curve, at least at the tangent point and for some region local to that. The tangent touches the original curve, and maybe it does something else later on. What could kissing be?

The osculating circle is about approximating an interesting thing with a well-behaved thing. So are similar things with names like “osculating curve” or “osculating sphere”. We need that a lot. Interesting things are complicated. Well-behaved things are understood. We move from what we understand to what we would like to know, often, by an approximation. This is why we have tangent lines. This is why we build polynomials that approximate an interesting function. They share the original function’s value, and its derivative’s value. A polynomial approximation can share many derivatives. If the function is nice enough, and the polynomial big enough, it can be impossible to tell the difference between the polynomial and the original function.

The osculating circle, or sphere, isn’t so concerned with matching derivatives. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Well, it matches the first and the second derivatives of the original curve. Anything past that, though, it matches only by luck. The osculating circle is instead about matching the curvature of the original curve. The curvature is what you think it would be: it’s how much a function curves. If you imagine looking closely at the original curve and an osculating circle they appear to be two arcs that come together. They must touch at one point. They might touch at others, but that’s incidental.

Osculating circles, and osculating spheres, sneak out of mathematics and into practical work. This is because we often want to work with things that are almost circles. The surface of the Earth, for example, is not a sphere. But it’s only a tiny bit off. It’s off in ways that you only notice if you are doing high-precision mapping. Or taking close measurements of things in the sky. Sometimes we do this. So we map the Earth locally as if it were a perfect sphere, with curvature exactly what its curvature is at our observation post.

Or we might be observing something moving in orbit. If the universe had only two things in it, and they were the correct two things, all orbits would be simple: they would be ellipses. They would have to be “point masses”, things that have mass without any volume. They never are. They’re always shapes. Spheres would be fine, but they’re never perfect spheres even. The slight difference between a perfect sphere and whatever the things really are affects the orbit. Or the other things in the universe tug on the orbiting things. Or the thing orbiting makes a course correction. All these things make little changes in the orbiting thing’s orbit. The actual orbit of the thing is a complicated curve. The orbit we could calculate is an osculating — well, an osculating ellipse, rather than an osculating circle. Similar idea, though. Call it an osculating orbit if you’d rather.

That osculating circles have practical uses doesn’t mean they aren’t respectable mathematics. I’ll concede they’re not used as much as polynomials or sine curves are. I suppose that’s because polynomials and sine curves have nicer derivatives than circles do. But osculating circles do turn up as ways to try solving nonlinear differential equations. We need the help. Linear differential equations anyone can solve. Nonlinear differential equations are pretty much impossible. They also turn up in signal processing, as ways to find the frequencies of a signal from a sampling of data. This, too, we would like to know.

We get the name “osculating circle” from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This might not surprise. Finding easy-to-understand shapes that approximate interesting shapes is why we have calculus. Isaac Newton described a way of making them in the Principia Mathematica. This also might not surprise. Of course they would on this subject come so close together without kissing.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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