Theorem Thursday: The Intermediate Value Theorem


I am still taking requests for this Theorem Thursdays sequence. I intend to post each Thursday in June and July an essay talking about some theorem and what it means and why it’s important. I have gotten a couple of requests in, but I’m happy to take more; please just give me a little lead time. But I want to start with one that delights me.

The Intermediate Value Theorem

I own a Scion tC. It’s a pleasant car, about 2400 percent more sporty than I am in real life. I got it because it met my most important criteria: it wasn’t expensive and it had a sun roof. That it looks stylish is an unsought bonus.

But being a car, and a black one at that, it has a common problem. Leave it parked a while, then get inside. In the winter, it gets so cold that snow can fall inside it. In the summer, it gets so hot that the interior, never mind the passengers, risk melting. While pondering this slight inconvenience I wondered, isn’t there any outside temperature that leaves my car comfortable?

Scion tC covered in snow and ice from a late winter storm.
My Scion tC, here, not too warm.

Of course there is. We know this before thinking about it. The sun heats the car, yes. When the outside temperature is low enough, there’s enough heat flowing out that the car gets cold. When the outside temperature’s high enough, not enough heat flows out. The car stays warm. There must be some middle temperature where just enough heat flows out that the interior doesn’t get particularly warm or cold. Not just one middle temperature, come to that. There is a range of temperatures that are comfortable to sit in. But that just means there’s a range of outside temperatures for which the car’s interior stays comfortable. We know this range as late April, early May, here. Most years, anyway.

The reasoning that lets us know there is a comfort-producing outside temperature we can see as a use of the Intermediate Value Theorem. It addresses a function f with domain [a, b], and range of the real numbers. The domain is closed; that is, the numbers we call ‘a’ and ‘b’ are both in the set. And f has to be a continuous function. If you want to draw it, you can do so without having to lift pen from paper. (WARNING: Do not attempt to pass your Real Analysis course with that definition. But that’s what the proper definition means.)

So look at the numbers f(a) and f(b). Pick some number between them, and I’ll call that number ‘g’. There must be at least one number ‘c’, that’s between ‘a’ and ‘b’, and for which f(c) equals g.

Bernard Bolzano, an early-19th century mathematician/logician/theologist/priest, gets the credit for first proving this theorem. Bolzano’s version was a little different. It supposes that f(a) and f(b) are of opposite sign. That is, f(a) is a positive and f(b) a negative number. Or f(a) is negative and f(b) is positive. And Bolzano’s theorem says there must be some number ‘c’ for which f(c) is zero.

You can prove this by drawing any wiggly curve at all and then a horizontal line in the middle of it. Well, that doesn’t prove it to mathematician’s satisfaction. But it will prove the matter in the sense that you’ll be convinced. It’ll also convince anyone you try explaining this to.

A generic wiggly function, with vertical lines marking off the domain limits of a and b. Horizontal lines mark off f(a) and f(b), as well as a putative value g. The wiggly function indeed has at least one point for which its value is g.
Any old real-valued function, drawn in blue. The number ‘g’ is something between the number f(a) and f(b). And somewhere there’s at least one number, between a and b, for where the function’s equal to g.

You might wonder why anyone needed this proved at all. It’s a bit like proving that as you pour water into the sink there’ll come a time the last dish gets covered with water. So it is. The need for a proof came about from the ongoing attempt to make mathematics rigorous. We have an intuitive idea of what it means for functions to be continuous; see my above comment about lifting pens from paper. Can that be put in terms that don’t depend on physical intuition? … Yes, it can. And we can divorce the Intermediate Value Theorem from our physical intuitions. We can know something that’s true even if we never see a car or a sink.

This theorem might leave you feeling a little hollow inside. Proving that there is some ‘c’ for which f(c) equals g, or even equals zero, doesn’t seem to tell us much about how to find it. It doesn’t even tell us that there’s only one ‘c’, rather than two or three or a hundred million candidates that meet our criteria. Fair enough. The Intermediate Value Theorem is more about proving the existence of solutions, rather than how to find them.

But knowing there is a solution can help us find them. The Intermediate Value Theorem as we know it grew out of finding roots for polynomials. One numerical method, easy to set up for any problem, is the bisection method. If you know that somewhere between ‘a’ and ‘b’ the function goes from positive to negative, then find the midpoint, ‘c’. The function is equal to zero either between ‘a’ and ‘c’, or between ‘c’ and ‘b’. Pick the side that it’s on, and bisect that. Pick the half of that which the zero must be in. Bisect that half. And repeat until you get close enough to the answer for your needs. (The same reasoning applies to a lot of problems in which you divide the search range in two each time until the answer appears.)

We can get some pretty heady results from the Intermediate Value Theorem, too, even if we don’t know where any of them are. An example you’ll see everywhere is that there must be spots on the opposite sides of the globe with the exact same temperature. Or humidity, or daily rainfall, or any other quantity like that. I had thought everyone was ripping that example off from Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins’s masterpiece What Is Mathematics?. But I can’t find this particular example in there. I wonder what we are all ripping it off from.

Two blobby shapes, one of them larger and more complicated, the other looking kind of like the outline of a trefoil, both divided by a magenta line.
Does this magenta line bisect both the red and the greyish blobs simultaneously? … Probably not, unless I’ve been way lucky. But there is some line that does.

So here’s a neat example that is ripped off from them. Draw two blobs on the plane. Is there a straight line that bisects both of them at once? Bisecting here means there’s exactly as much of one blob on one side of the line as on the other. There certainly is. The trick is there are any number of lines that will bisect one blob, and then look at what that does to the other.

A similar ripped-off result you can do with a single blob of any shape you like. Draw any line that bisects it. There are a lot of candidates. Can you draw a line perpendicular to that so that the blob gets quartered, divided into four spots of equal area? Yes. Try it.

A generic blobby shape with two perpendicular magenta lines crossing over it.
Does this pair of magenta lines split this blue blob into four pieces of exactly the same area? … Probably not, unless I’ve been lucky. But there is some pair of perpendicular lines that will do it. Also, is it me or does that blob look kind of like a butterfly?

But surely the best use of the Intermediate Value Theorem is in the problem of wobbly tables. If the table has four legs, all the same length, and the problem is the floor isn’t level it’s all right. There is some way to adjust the table so it won’t wobble. (Well, the ground can’t be angled more than a bit over 35 degrees, but that’s all right. If the ground has a 35 degree angle you aren’t setting a table on it. You’re rolling down it.) Finally a mathematical proof can save us from despair!

Except that the proof doesn’t work if the table legs are uneven which, alas, they often are. But we can’t get everything.

Courant and Robbins put forth one more example that’s fantastic, although it doesn’t quite work. But it’s a train problem unlike those you’ve seen before. Let me give it to you as they set it out:

Suppose a train travels from station A to station B along a straight section of track. The journey need not be of uniform speed or acceleration. The train may act in any manner, speeding up, slowing down, coming to a halt, or even backing up for a while, before reaching B. But the exact motion of the train is supposed to be known in advance; that is, the function s = f(t) is given, where s is the distance of the train from station A, and t is the time, measured from the instant of departure.

On the floor of one of the cars a rod is pivoted so that it may move without friction either forward or backward until it touches the floor. If it does touch the floor, we assume that it remains on the floor henceforth; this wil be the case if the rod does not bounce.

Is it possible to place the rod in such a position that, if it is released at the instant when the train starts and allowed to move solely under the influence of gravity and the motion of the train, it will not fall to the floor during the entire journey from A to B?

They argue it is possible, and use the Intermediate Value Theorem to show it. They admit the range of angles it’s safe to start the rod from may be too small to be useful.

But they’re not quite right. Ian Stewart, in the revision of What Is Mathematics?, includes an appendix about this. Stewart credits Tim Poston with pointing out, in 1976, the flaw. It’s possible to imagine a path which causes the rod, from one angle, to just graze tipping over, let’s say forward, and then get yanked back and fall over flat backwards. This would leave no room for any starting angles that avoid falling over entirely.

It’s a subtle flaw. You might expect so. Nobody mentioned it between the book’s original publication in 1941, after which everyone liking mathematics read it, and 1976. And it is one that touches on the complications of spaces. This little Intermediate Value Theorem problem draws us close to chaos theory. It’s one of those ideas that weaves through all mathematics.

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A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: X-Intercept


Oh, x- and y-, why are you so poor in mathematics terms? I brave my way.

X-Intercept.

I did not get much out of my eighth-grade, pre-algebra, class. I didn’t connect with the teacher at all. There were a few little bits to get through my disinterest. One came in graphing. Not graph theory, of course, but the graphing we do in middle school and high school. That’s where we find points on the plane with coordinates that make some expression true. Two major terms kept coming up in drawing curves of lines. They’re the x-intercept and the y-intercept. They had this lovely, faintly technical, faintly science-y sound. I think the teacher emphasized a few times they were “intercepts”, not “intersects”. But it’s hard to explain to an eighth-grader why this is an important difference to make. I’m not sure I could explain it to myself.

An x-intercept is a point where the plot of a curve and the x-axis meet. So we’re assuming this is a Cartesian coordinate system, the kind marked off with a pair of lines meeting at right angles. It’s usually two-dimensional, sometimes three-dimensional. I don’t know anyone who’s worried about the x-intercept for a four-dimensional space. Even higher dimensions are right out. The thing that confused me the most, when learning this, is a small one. The x-axis is points that have a y-coordinate of zero. Not an x-coordinate of zero. So in a two-dimensional space it makes sense to describe the x-intercept as a single value. That’ll be the x-coordinate, and the point with the x-coordinate of that and the y-coordinate of zero is the intercept.

If you have an expression and you want to find an x-intercept, you need to find values of x which make the expression equal to zero. We get the idea from studying lines. There are a couple of typical representations of lines. They almost always use x for the horizontal coordinate, and y for the vertical coordinate. The names are only different if the author is making a point about the arbitrariness of variable names. Sigh at such an author and move on. An x-intercept has a y-coordinate of zero, so, set any appearance of ‘y’ in the expression equal to zero and find out what value or values of x make this true. If the expression is an equation for a line there’ll be just the one point, unless the line is horizontal. (If the line is horizontal, then either every point on the x-axis is an intercept, or else none of them are. The line is either “y equals zero”, or it is “y equals something other than zero”. )

There’s also a y-intercept. It is exactly what you’d imagine once you know that. It’s usually easier to find what the y-intercept is. The equation describing a curve is typically written in the form “y = f(x)”. That is, y is by itself on one side, and some complicated expression involving x’s is on the other. Working out what y is for a given x is straightforward. Working out what x is for a given y is … not hard, for a line. For more complicated shapes it can be difficult. There might not be a unique answer. That’s all right. There may be several x-intercepts.

There are a couple names for the x-intercepts. The one that turns up most often away from the pre-algebra and high school algebra study of lines is a “zero”. It’s one of those bits in which mathematicians seem to be trying to make it hard for students. A “zero” of the function f(x) is generally not what you get when you evaluate it for x equalling zero. Sorry about that. It’s the values of x for which f(x) equals zero. We also call them “roots”.

OK, but who cares?

Well, if you want to understand the shape of a curve, the way a function looks, it helps to plot it. Today, yeah, pull up Mathematica or Matlab or Octave or some other program and you get your plot. Fair enough. If you don’t have a computer that can plot like that, the way I did in middle school, you have to do it by hand. And then the intercepts are clues to how to sketch the function. They are, relatively, easy points which you can find, and which you know must be on the curve. We may form a very rough sketch of the curve. But that rough picture may be better than having nothing.

And we can learn about the behavior of functions even without plotting, or sketching a plot. Intercepts of expressions, or of parts of expressions, are points where the value might change from positive to negative. If the denominator of a part of the expression has an x-intercept, this could be a point where the function’s value is undefined. It may be a discontinuity in the function. The function’s values might jump wildly between one side and another. These are often the important things about understanding functions. Where are they positive? Where are they negative? Where are they continuous? Where are they not?

These are things we often want to know about functions. And we learn many of them by looking for the intercepts, x- and y-.

The Intermediacy That Was Overused


However I may sulk, Chiaroscuro did show off a use of the Intermediate Value Theorem that I wanted to talk about because normally the Intermediate Value Theorem occupies a little spot around Chapter 2, Section 6 of the Intro Calculus textbook and it gets a little attention just before the class moves on to this theorem about there being some point where the slope of the derivative equals the slope of a secant line which is very testable and leaves the entire class confused.

The theorem is pretty easy to state, and looks obviously true, which is a danger sign. One bit of mathematics folklore is that the only things one should never try to prove are the false and the obvious. But it’s not hard to prove, at least based on my dim memories of the last time I went through the proof. One incarnation of the theorem, one making it look quite obvious, starts off with a function that takes as its input a real number — since we need a label for it we’ll use the traditional variable name x — and returns as output a real number, possibly a different number. And we have to also suppose that the function is continuous, which means just about what you’d expect from the meaning of “continuous” in ordinary human language. It’s a bit tricky to describe exactly, in mathematical terms, and is where students get hopelessly lost either early in Chapter 2 or early in Chapter 3 of the Intro Calculus textbook. We’ll worry about that later if at all. For us it’s enough to imagine it means you can draw a curve representing the function without having to lift your pen from the paper.

Continue reading “The Intermediacy That Was Overused”