The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Integration

One more mathematics term suggested by Gaurish for the A-To-Z today, and then I’ll move on to a couple of others. Today’s is a good one.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.


Stand on the edge of a plot of land. Walk along its boundary. As you walk the edge pay attention. Note how far you walk before changing direction, even in the slightest. When you return to where you started consult your notes. Contained within them is the area you circumnavigated.

If that doesn’t startle you perhaps you haven’t thought about how odd that is. You don’t ever touch the interior of the region. You never do anything like see how many standard-size tiles would fit inside. You walk a path that is as close to one-dimensional as your feet allow. And encoded in there somewhere is an area. Stare at that incongruity and you realize why integrals baffle the student so. They have a deep strangeness embedded in them.

We who do mathematics have always liked integration. They grow, in the western tradition, out of geometry. Given a shape, what is a square that has the same area? There are shapes it’s easy to find the area for, given only straightedge and compass: a rectangle? Easy. A triangle? Just as straightforward. A polygon? If you know triangles then you know polygons. A lune, the crescent-moon shape formed by taking a circular cut out of a circle? We can do that. (If the cut is the right size.) A circle? … All right, we can’t do that, but we spent two thousand years trying before we found that out for sure. And we can do some excellent approximations.

That bit of finding-a-square-with-the-same-area was called “quadrature”. The name survives, mostly in the phrase “numerical quadrature”. We use that to mean that we computed an integral’s approximate value, instead of finding a formula that would get it exactly. The otherwise obvious choice of “numerical integration” we use already. It describes computing the solution of a differential equation. We’re not trying to be difficult about this. Solving a differential equation is a kind of integration, and we need to do that a lot. We could recast a solving-a-differential-equation problem as a find-the-area problem, and vice-versa. But that’s bother, if we don’t need to, and so we talk about numerical quadrature and numerical integration.

Integrals are built on two infinities. This is part of why it took so long to work out their logic. One is the infinity of number; we find an integral’s value, in principle, by adding together infinitely many things. The other is an infinity of smallness. The things we add together are infinitesimally small. That we need to take things, each smaller than any number yet somehow not zero, and in such quantity that they add up to something, seems paradoxical. Their geometric origins had to be merged into that of arithmetic, of algebra, and it is not easy. Bishop George Berkeley made a steady name for himself in calculus textbooks by pointing this out. We have worked out several logically consistent schemes for evaluating integrals. They work, mostly, by showing that we can make the error caused by approximating the integral smaller than any margin we like. This is a standard trick, or at least it is, now that we know it.

That “in principle” above is important. We don’t actually work out an integral by finding the sum of infinitely many, infinitely tiny, things. It’s too hard. I remember in grad school the analysis professor working out by the proper definitions the integral of 1. This is as easy an integral as you can do without just integrating zero. He escaped with his life, but it was a close scrape. He offered the integral of x as a way to test our endurance, without actually doing it. I’ve never made it through that.

But we do integrals anyway. We have tools on our side. We can show, for example, that if a function obeys some common rules then we can use simpler formulas. Ones that don’t demand so many symbols in such tight formation. Ones that we can use in high school. Also, ones we can adapt to numerical computing, so that we can let machines give us answers which are near enough right. We get to choose how near is “near enough”. But then the machines decide how long we’ll have to wait to get that answer.

The greatest tool we have on our side is the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Even the name promises it’s the greatest tool we might have. This rule tells us how to connect integrating a function to differentiating another function. If we can find a function whose derivative is the thing we want to integrate, then we have a formula for the integral. It’s that function we found. What a fantastic result.

The trouble is it’s so hard to find functions whose derivatives are the thing we wanted to integrate. There are a lot of functions we can find, mind you. If we want to integrate a polynomial it’s easy. Sine and cosine and even tangent? Yeah. Logarithms? A little tedious but all right. A constant number raised to the power x? Also tedious but doable. A constant number raised to the power x2? Hold on there, that’s madness. No, we can’t do that.

There is a weird grab-bag of functions we can find these integrals for. They’re mostly ones we can find some integration trick for. An integration trick is some way to turn the integral we’re interested in into a couple of integrals we can do and then mix back together. A lot of a Freshman Calculus course is a heap of tricks we’ve learned. They have names like “u-substitution” and “integration by parts” and “trigonometric substitution”. Some of them are really exotic, such as turning a single integral into a double integral because that leads us to something we can do. And there’s something called “differentiation under the integral sign” that I don’t know of anyone actually using. People know of it because Richard Feynman, in his fun memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think: 250 Pages Of How Awesome I Was In Every Situation Ever, mentions how awesome it made him in so many situations. Mathematics, physics, and engineering nerds are required to read this at an impressionable age, so we fall in love with a technique no textbook ever mentions. Sorry.

I’ve written about all this as if we were interested just in areas. We’re not. We like calculating lengths and volumes and, if we dare venture into more dimensions, hypervolumes and the like. That’s all right. If we understand how to calculate areas, we have the tools we need. We can adapt them to as many or as few dimensions as we need. By weighting integrals we can do calculations that tell us about centers of mass and moments of inertial, about the most and least probable values of something, about all quantum mechanics.

As often happens, this powerful tool starts with something anyone might ponder: what size square has the same area as this other shape? And then think seriously about it.


Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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