My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Differential Equations


The thing most important to know about differential equations is that for short, we call it “diff eq”. This is pronounced “diffy q”. It’s a fun name. People who aren’t taking mathematics smile when they hear someone has to get to “diffy q”.

Sometimes we need to be more exact. Then the less exciting names “ODE” and “PDE” get used. The meaning of the “DE” part is an easy guess. The meaning of “O” or “P” will be clear by the time this essay’s finished. We can find approximate answers to differential equations by computer. This is known generally as “numerical solutions”. So you will encounter talk about, say, “NSPDE”. There’s an implied “of” between the S and the P there. I don’t often see “NSODE”. For some reason, probably a quite arbitrary historical choice, this is just called “numerical integration” instead.

To write about “differential equations” was suggested by aajohannas, who is on Twitter as @aajohannas.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Differential Equations.

One of algebra’s unsettling things is the idea that we can work with numbers without knowing their values. We can give them names, like ‘x’ or ‘a’ or ‘t’. We can know things about them. Often it’s equations telling us these things. We can make collections of numbers based on them all sharing some property. Often these things are solutions to equations. We can even describe changing those collections according to some rule, even before we know whether any of the numbers is 2. Often these things are functions, here matching one set of numbers to another.

One of analysis’s unsettling things is the idea that most things we can do with numbers we can also do with functions. We can give them names, like ‘f’ and ‘g’ and … ‘F’. That’s easy enough. We can add and subtract them. Multiply and divide. This is unsurprising. We can measure their sizes. This is odd but, all right. We can know things about functions even without knowing exactly what they are. We can group together collections of functions based on some properties they share. This is getting wild. We can even describe changing these collections according to some rule. This change is itself a function, but it is usually called an “operator”, saving us some confusion.

So we can describe a function in an equation. We may not know what f is, but suppose we know \sqrt{f(x) - 2} = x is true. We can suppose that if we cared we could find what function, or functions, f made that equation true. There is shorthand here. A function has a domain, a range, and a rule. The equation part helps us find the rule. The domain and range we get from the problem. Or we take the implicit rule that both are the biggest sets of real-valued numbers for which the rule parses. Sometimes biggest sets of complex-valued numbers. We get so used to saying “the function” to mean “the rule for the function” that we’ll forget to say that’s what we’re doing.

There are things we can do with functions that we can’t do with numbers. Or at least that are too boring to do with numbers. The most important here is taking derivatives. The derivative of a function is another function. One good way to think of a derivative is that it describes how a function changes when its variables change. (The derivative of a number is zero, which is boring except when it’s also useful.) Derivatives are great. You learn them in Intro Calculus, and there are a bunch of rules to follow. But follow them and you can pretty much take the derivative of any function even if it’s complicated. Yes, you might have to look up what the derivative of the arc-hyperbolic-secant is. Nobody has ever used the arc-hyperbolic-secant, except to tease a student.

And the derivative of a function is itself a function. So you can take a derivative again. Mathematicians call this the “second derivative”, because we didn’t expect someone would ask what to call it and we had to say something. We can take the derivative of the second derivative. This is the “third derivative” because by then changing the scheme would be awkward. If you need to talk about taking the derivative some large but unspecified number of times, this is the n-th derivative. Or m-th, if you’ve already used ‘n’ to mean something else.

And now we get to differential equations. These are equations in which we describe a function using at least one of its derivatives. The original function, that is, f, usually appears in the equation. It doesn’t have to, though.

We divide the earth naturally (we think) into two pairs of hemispheres, northern and southern, eastern and western. We divide differential equations naturally (we think) into two pairs of two kinds of differential equations.

The first division is into linear and nonlinear equations. I’ll describe the two kinds of problem loosely. Linear equations are the kind you don’t need a mathematician to solve. If the equation has solutions, we can write out procedures that find them, like, all the time. A well-programmed computer can solve them exactly. Nonlinear equations, meanwhile, are the kind no mathematician can solve. They’re just too hard. There’s no processes that are sure to find an answer.

You may ask. We don’t need mathematicians to solve linear equations. Mathematicians can’t solve nonlinear ones. So what do we need mathematicians for? The answer is that I exaggerate. Linear equations aren’t quite that simple. Nonlinear equations aren’t quite that hopeless. There are nonlinear equations we can solve exactly, for example. This usually involves some ingenious transformation. We find a linear equation whose solution guides us to the function we do want.

And that is what mathematicians do in such a field. A nonlinear differential equation may, generally, be hopeless. But we can often find a linear differential equation which gives us insight to what we want. Finding that equation, and showing that its answers are relevant, is the work.

The other hemispheres we call ordinary differential equations and partial differential equations. In form, the difference between them is the kind of derivative that’s taken. If the function’s domain is more than one dimension, then there are different kinds of derivative. Or as normal people put it, if the function has more than one independent variable, then there are different kinds of derivatives. These are partial derivatives and ordinary (or “full”) derivatives. Partial derivatives give us partial differential equations. Ordinary derivatives give us ordinary differential equations. I think it’s easier to understand a partial derivative.

Suppose a function depends on three variables, imaginatively named x, y, and z. There are three partial first derivatives. One describes how the function changes if we pretend y and z are constants, but let x change. This is the “partial derivative with respect to x”. Another describes how the function changes if we pretend x and z are constants, but let y change. This is the “partial derivative with respect to y”. The third describes how the function changes if we pretend x and y are constants, but let z change. You can guess what we call this.

In an ordinary differential equation we would still like to know how the function changes when x changes. But we have to admit that a change in x might cause a change in y and z. So we have to account for that. If you don’t see how such a thing is possible don’t worry. The differential equations textbook has an example in which you wish to measure something on the surface of a hill. Temperature, usually. Maybe rainfall or wind speed. To move from one spot to another a bit east of it is also to move up or down. The change in (let’s say) x, how far east you are, demands a change in z, how far above sea level you are.

That’s structure, though. What’s more interesting is the meaning. What kinds of problems do ordinary and partial differential equations usually represent? Partial differential equations are great for describing surfaces and flows and great bulk masses of things. If you see an equation about how heat transmits through a room? That’s a partial differential equation. About how sound passes through a forest? Partial differential equation. About the climate? Partial differential equations again.

Ordinary differential equations are great for describing a ball rolling on a lumpy hill. It’s given an initial push. There are some directions (downhill) that it’s easier to roll in. There’s some directions (uphill) that it’s harder to roll in, but it can roll if the push was hard enough. There’s maybe friction that makes it roll to a stop.

Put that way it’s clear all the interesting stuff is partial differential equations. Balls on lumpy hills are nice but who cares? Miniature golf course designers and that’s all. This is because I’ve presented it to look silly. I’ve got you thinking of a “ball” and a “hill” as if I meant balls and hills. Nah. It’s usually possible to bundle a lot of information about a physical problem into something that looks like a ball. And then we can bundle the ways things interact into something that looks like a hill.

Like, suppose we have two blocks on a shared track, like in a high school physics class. We can describe their positions as one point in a two-dimensional space. One axis is where on the track the first block is, and the other axis is where on the track the second block is. Physics problems like this also usually depend on momentum. We can toss these in too, an axis that describes the momentum of the first block, and another axis that describes the momentum of the second block.

We’re already up to four dimensions, and we only have two things, both confined to one track. That’s all right. We don’t have to draw it. If we do, we draw something that looks like a two- or three-dimensional sketch, maybe with a note that says “D = 4” to remind us. There’s some point in this four-dimensional space that describes these blocks on the track. That’s the “ball” for this differential equation.

The things that the blocks can do? Like, they can collide? They maybe have rubber tips so they bounce off each other? Maybe someone’s put magnets on them so they’ll draw together or repel? Maybe there’s a spring connecting them? These possible interactions are the shape of the hills that the ball representing the system “rolls” over. An impenetrable barrier, like, two things colliding, is a vertical wall. Two things being attracted is a little divot. Two things being repulsed is a little hill. Things like that.

Now you see why an ordinary differential equation might be interesting. It can capture what happens when many separate things interact.

I write this as though ordinary and partial differential equations are different continents of thought. They’re not. When you model something you make choices and they can guide you to ordinary or to partial differential equations. My own research work, for example, was on planetary atmospheres. Atmospheres are fluids. Representing how fluids move usually calls for partial differential equations. But my own interest was in vortices, swirls like hurricanes or Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Since I was acting as if the atmosphere was a bunch of storms pushing each other around, this implied ordinary differential equations.

There are more hemispheres of differential equations. They have names like homogenous and non-homogenous. Coupled and decoupled. Separable and nonseparable. Exact and non-exact. Elliptic, parabolic, and hyperbolic partial differential equations. Don’t worry about those labels. They relate to how difficult the equations are to solve. What ways they’re difficult. In what ways they break computers trying to approximate their solutions.

What’s interesting about these, besides that they represent many physical problems, is that they capture the idea of feedback. Of control. If a system’s current state affects how it’s going to change, then it probably has a differential equation describing it. Many systems change based on their current state. So differential equations have long been near the center of professional mathematics. They offer great and exciting pure questions while still staying urgent and relevant to real-world problems. They’re great things.


Thanks again for reading. All Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. I should get to the letter E for Tuesday. All of the A To Z essays should be at this link. If you have thoughts about other topics I might cover, please offer suggestions for the letters G and H.

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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. He/him.

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