My Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z: Ordinary Differential Equations


Mr Wu, my Singapore Maths Tuition friend, has offered many fine ideas for A-to-Z topics. This week’s is another of them, and I’m grateful for it.

Ordinary Differential Equations

As a rule, if you can do something with a number, you can do the same thing with a function. Not always, of course, but the exceptions are fewer than you might imagine. I’ll start with one of those things you can do to both.

A powerful thing we learn in (high school) algebra is that we can use a number without knowing what it is. We give it a name like ‘x’ or ‘y’ and describe what we find interesting about it. If we want to know what it is, we (usually) find some equation or set of equations and find what value of x could make that true. If we study enough (college) mathematics we learn its equivalent in functions. We give something a name like f or g or Ψ and describe what we know about it. And then try to find functions which make that true.

There are a couple common types of equation for these not-yet-known functions. The kind you expect to learn as a mathematics major involves differential equations. These are ones where your equation (or equations) involve derivatives of the not-yet-known f. A derivative describes the rate at which something changes. If we imagine the original f is a position, the derivative is velocity. Derivatives can have derivatives also; this second derivative would be the acceleration. And then second derivatives can have derivatives also, and so on, into infinity. When an equation involves a function and its derivatives we have a differential equation.

(The second common type is the integral equation, using a function and its integrals. And a third involves both derivatives and integrals. That’s known as an integro-differential equation, and isn’t life complicated enough? )

Differential equations themselves naturally divide into two kinds, ordinary and partial. They serve different roles. Usually an ordinary differential equation we can describe the change for from knowing only the current situation. (This may include velocities and accelerations and stuff. We could ask what the velocity at an instant means. But never mind that here.) Usually a partial differential equation bases the change where you are on the neighborhood of where your location. If you see holes you can pick in that, you’re right. The precise difference is about the independent variables. If the function f has more than one independent variable, it’s possible to take a partial derivative. This describes how f changes if one variable changes while the others stay fixed. If the function f has only the one independent variable, you can only take ordinary derivatives. So you get an ordinary differential equation.

But let’s speak casually here. If what you’re studying can be fully represented with a dashboard readout? Like, an ordered list of positions and velocities and stuff? You probably have an ordinary differential equation. If you need a picture with a three-dimensional surface or a color map to understand it? You probably have a partial differential equation.

One more metaphor. If you can imagine the thing you’re modeling as a marble rolling around on a hilly table? Odds are that’s an ordinary differential equation. And that representation covers a lot of interesting problems. Marbles on hills, obviously. But also rigid pendulums: we can treat the angle a pendulum makes and the rate at which those change as dimensions of space. The pendulum’s swinging then matches exactly a marble rolling around the right hilly table. Planets in space, too. We need more dimensions — three space dimensions and three velocity dimensions — for each planet. So, like, the Sun-Earth-and-Moon would be rolling around a hilly table with 18 dimensions. That’s all right. We don’t have to draw it. The mathematics works about the same. Just longer.

[ To be precise we need three momentum dimensions for each orbiting body. If they’re not changing mass appreciably, and not moving too near the speed of light, velocity is just momentum times a constant number, so we can use whichever is easier to visualize. ]

We mostly work with ordinary differential equations of either the first or the second order. First order means we have first derivatives in the equation, but never have to deal with more than the original function and its first derivative. Second order means we have second derivatives in the equation, but never have to deal with more than the original function or its first or second derivatives. You’ll never guess what a “third order” differential equation is unless you have experience in reading words. There are some reasons we stick to these low orders like first and second, though. One is that we know of good techniques for solving most first- and second-order ordinary differential equations. For higher-order differential equations we often use techniques that find a related normal old polynomial. Its solution helps with the thing we want. Or we break a high-order differential equation into a set of low-order ones. So yes, again, we search for answers where the light is good. But the good light covers many things we like to look at.

There’s simple harmonic motion, for example. It covers pendulums and springs and perturbations around stable equilibriums and all. This turns out to cover so many problems that, as a physics major, you get a little sick of simple harmonic motion. There’s the Airy function, which started out to describe the rainbow. It turns out to describe particles trapped in a triangular quantum well. The van der Pol equation, about systems where a small oscillation gets energy fed into it while a large oscillation gets energy drained. All kinds of exponential growth and decay problems. Very many functions where pairs of particles interact.

This doesn’t cover everything we would like to do. That’s all right. Ordinary differential equations lend themselves to numerical solutions. It requires considerable study and thought to do these numerical solutions well. But this doesn’t make the subject unapproachable. Few of us could animate the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene from Dumbo. But could you draw a flip book of two stick figures tossing a ball back and forth? If you’ve had a good rest, a hearty breakfast, and have not listened to the news yet today, so you’re in a good mood?

The flip book ball is a decent example here, too. The animation will look good if the ball moves about the “right” amount between pages. A little faster when it’s first thrown, a bit slower as it reaches the top of its arc, a little faster as it falls back to the catcher. The ordinary differential equation tells us how fast our marble is rolling on this hilly table, and in what direction. So we can calculate how far the marble needs to move, and in what direction, to make the next page in the flip book.

Almost. The rate at which the marble should move will change, in the interval between one flip-book page and the next. The difference, the error, may not be much. But there is a difference between the exact and the numerical solution. Well, there is a difference between a circle and a regular polygon. We have many ways of minimizing and estimating and controlling the error. Doing that is what makes numerical mathematics the high-paid professional industry it is. Our game of catch we can verify by flipping through the book. The motion of four dozen planets and moons attracting one another is harder to be sure we calculate it right.

I said at the top that most anything one can do with numbers one can do with functions also. I would like to close the essay with some great parallel. Like, the way that trying to solve cubic equations made people realize complex numbers were good things to have. I don’t have a good example like that for ordinary differential equations, where the study expanded our ideas of what functions could be. Part of that is that complex numbers are more accessible than the stranger functions. Part of that is that complex numbers have a story behind them. The story features titanic figures like Gerolamo Cardano, Niccolò Tartaglia and Ludovico Ferrari. We see some awesome and weird personalities in 19th century mathematics. But their fights are generally harder to watch from the sidelines and cheer on. And part is that it’s easier to find pop historical treatments of the kinds of numbers. The historiography of what a “function” is is a specialist occupation.

But I can think of a possible case. A tool that’s sometimes used in solving ordinary differential equations is the “Dirac delta function”. Yes, that Paul Dirac. It’s a weird function, written as \delta(x) . It’s equal to zero everywhere, except where x is zero. When x is zero? It’s … we don’t talk about what it is. Instead we talk about what it can do. The integral of that Dirac delta function times some other function can equal that other function at a single point. It strains credibility to call this a function the way we speak of, like, sin(x) or \sqrt{x^2 + 4} being functions. Many will classify it as a distribution instead. But it is so useful, for a particular kind of problem, that it’s impossible to throw away.

So perhaps the parallels between numbers and functions extend that far. Ordinary differential equations can make us notice kinds of functions we would not have seen otherwise.


And with this — I can see the much-postponed end of the Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z! You can read all my entries for 2021 at this link, and if you’d like can find all my A-to-Z essays here. How will I finish off the shortest yet most challenging sequence I’ve done yet? Will it be yellow and equivalent to the Axiom of Choice? Answers should come, in a week, if all starts going well.

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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