The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Smooth

Mathematicians affect a pose of objectivity. We justify this by working on things whose truth we can know, and which must be true whenever we accept certain rules of deduction and certain definitions and axioms. This seems fair. But we choose to pay attention to things that interest us for particular reasons. We study things we like. My A To Z glossary term for today is about one of those things we like.


Functions. Not everything mathematicians do is functions. But functions turn up a lot. We need to set some rules. “A function” is so generic a thing we can’t handle it much. Narrow it down. Pick functions with domains that are numbers. Range too. By numbers I mean real numbers, maybe complex numbers. That gives us something.

There’s functions that are hard to work with. This is almost all of them, so we don’t touch them unless we absolutely must. But they’re functions that aren’t continuous. That means what you imagine. The value of the function at some point is wholly unrelated to its value at some nearby point. It’s hard to work with anything that’s unpredictable like that. Functions as well as people.

We like functions that are continuous. They’re predictable. We can make approximations. We can estimate the function’s value at some point using its value at some more convenient point. It’s easy to see why that’s useful for numerical mathematics, for calculations to approximate stuff. The dazzling thing is it’s useful analytically. We step into the Platonic-ideal world of pure mathematics. We have tools that let us work as if we had infinitely many digits of precision, for infinitely many numbers at once. And yet we use estimates and approximations and errors. We use them in ways to give us perfect knowledge; we get there by estimates.

Continuous functions are nice. Well, they’re nicer to us than functions that aren’t continuous. But there are even nicer functions. Functions nicer to us. A continuous function, for example, can have corners; it can change direction suddenly and without warning. A differentiable function is more predictable. It can’t have corners like that. Knowing the function well at one point gives us more information about what it’s like nearby.

The derivative of a function doesn’t have to be continuous. Grumble. It’s nice when it is, though. It makes the function easier to work with. It’s really nice for us when the derivative itself has a derivative. Nothing guarantees that the derivative of a derivative is continuous. But maybe it is. Maybe the derivative of the derivative has a derivative. That’s a function we can do a lot with.

A function is “smooth” if it has as many derivatives as we need for whatever it is we’re doing. And if those derivatives are continuous. If this seems loose that’s because it is. A proof for whatever we’re interested in might need only the original function and its first derivative. It might need the original function and its first, second, third, and fourth derivatives. It might need hundreds of derivatives. If we look through the details of the proof we might find exactly how many derivatives we need and how many of them need to be continuous. But that’s tedious. We save ourselves considerable time by saying the function is “smooth”, as in, “smooth enough for what we need”.

If we do want to specify how many continuous derivatives a function has we call it a “Ck function”. The C here means continuous. The ‘k’ means there are the number ‘k’ continuous derivatives of it. This is completely different from a “Ck function”, which would be one that’s a k-dimensional vector. Whether the “C” is boldface or not is important. A function might have infinitely many continuous derivatives. That we call a “C function”. That’s got wonderful properties, especially if the domain and range are complex-valued numbers. We couldn’t do Complex Analysis without it. Complex Analysis is the course students take after wondering how they’ll ever survive Real Analysis. It’s much easier than Real Analysis. Mathematics can be strange.