Differential equations revisited: the math behind oscillators

When wrapping up my previous post, I said that I might be tempted to write something about how to solve these differential equations. The math behind them is pretty essential indeed. So let’s revisit the oscillator from a formal-mathematical point of view.

Modeling the problem

The simplest equation we used was the one for a hypothetical ‘ideal’ oscillator without friction and without any external driving force. The equation for a mechanical oscillator (i.e. a mass on a spring) is md2x/dt2 = –kx. The k in this equation is a factor of proportionality: the force pulling back is assumed to be proportional to the amount of stretch, and the minus sign is there because the force is pulling back indeed. As for the equation itself, it’s just Newton’s Law: the mass times the acceleration equals the force: ma = F.

You’ll remember we preferred to write this as d2x/dt2 = –(k/m)x = –ω02x with ω0= k/m. You’ll also remember that ωis an angular frequency, which we referred to as the natural frequency of the oscillator (because it determines the natural motion of the spring indeed). We also gave the general solution to the differential equation: x(t) = x0cos(ω0t + Δ). That solution basically states that, if we just let go of that spring, it will oscillate with frequency ω0 and some (maximum) amplitude x0, the value of which depends on the initial conditions. As for the Δ term, that’s just a phase shift depending on where x is when we start counting time: if x would happen to pass through the equilibrium point at time t = 0, then Δ would be π/2. So Δ allows us to shift the beginning of time, so to speak.

In my previous posts, I just presented that general equation as a fait accompli, noting that a cosine (or sine) function does indeed have that ‘nice’ property of come back to itself with a minus sign in front after taking the derivative two times: d2[cos(ω0t)]/dt2 = –ω02cos(ω0t). We could also write x(t) as a sine function because the sine and cosine function are basically the same except for a phase shift: x0cos(ω0t + Δ) = x0sin(ω0t + Δ + π/2).

Now, the point to note is that the sine or cosine function actually has two properties that are ‘nice’ (read ‘essential’ in the context of this discussion):

  1. Sinusoidal functions are periodic functions and so that’s why they represent an oscillation–because that’s something periodic too!
  2. Sinusoidal functions come back to themselves when we derive them two times and so that’s why it effectively solves our second-order differential equation.

However, in my previous post, I also mentioned in passing that sinusoidal functions share that second property with exponential functions: d2et/dt= d[det/dt]/dt = det/dt = et. So, if it we would not have had that minus sign in our differential equation, our solution would have been some exponential function, instead of a sine or a cosine function. So what’s going on here?

Solving differential equations using exponentials

Let’s scrap that minus sign and assume our problem would indeed be to solve the d2x/dt2 = ω02x equation. So we know we should use some exponential function, but we have that coefficient ω02. Well… That’s actually easy to deal with: we know that, when deriving an exponential function, we should bring the exponent down as a coefficient: d[eω0t]/dt = ω0eω0t. If we do it two times, we get d2[eω0t]/dt2 = ω02eω0t, so we can immediately see that eω0is a solution indeed.

But it’s not the only one: e–ω0t is a solution too: d2[e–ω0t]/dt2 = (–ω0)(–ω0)e–ω0t = ω02e–ω0t. So e–ω0solves the equation too. It is easy to see why: ω02 has two square roots–one positive, and one negative.

But we have more: in fact, every linear combination c1eω0+ c2e–ω0is also a solution to that second-order differential equation. Just check it by writing it all out: you’ll find that d2[c1eω0+ c2e–ω0t]/dt2 = ω02[c1eω0+c2e–ω0t] and so, yes, we have a whole family of functions here, that are all solutions to our differential equation.

Now, you may or may not remember that we had the same thing with first-order differential equations: we would find a whole family of functions, but only one would be the actual solution or the ‘real‘ solution I should say. So what’s the real solution here?

Well… That depends on the initial conditions: we need to know the value of x at time t= 0 (or some other point t = t1). And that’s not enough: we have two coefficients (cand c2), and, therefore, we need one more initial condition (it takes two equations to solve for two variables). That could be another value for x at some other point in time (e.g. t2) but, when solving problems like this, you’ll usually get the other ‘initial condition’ expressed in terms of the first derivative, so that’s in terms of dx/dt = v. For example, it is not illogical to assume that the initial velocity v0 would be zero. Indeed, we can imagine we pull or push the spring and then let it go. In fact, that’s what we’ve been assuming here all along in our example! Assuming that v0 = 0 is equivalent to writing that

d[c1eω0+ c2e–ω0t]/dt = 0 for t = 0

⇒ ω0c1 – ω0c2 = 0 (e= 1) ⇔  c1 = c2

Now we need the other initial condition. Let’s assume the initial value of x is equal to x0 = 2 (it’s just an example: we could take any value, including negative values). Then we get:

c1eω0+ c2e–ω0t = 2 for t = 0 ⇔ c1 + c= 2 (again, note that e= 1)

Combining the two gives us the grand result that c1 = c= 1 and, hence, the ‘real’ or actual solution is x = eω0e–ω0t. The graph below plots that function for ω= 1 and ω= 0.5 respectively. We could take other values for ω0 but, whatever the value, we’ll always get an exponential function like the ones below. It basically graphs what we expect to happen: the mass just accelerates away from its equilibrium point. Indeed, the differential equation is just a description of an accelerating object. Indeed, the e–ω0t term quickly goes to zero, and then it’s the eω0term that rockets that object sky-high – literally. [Note that the acceleration is actually not constant: the force is equal to kx and, hence, the force (and, therefore, the acceleration) actually increases as the mass goes further and further away from its equilibrium point. Also note that if the initial position would have been minus 2, i.e. x= –2, then the object would accelerate away in the other direction, i.e. downwards. Just check it to make sure you understand the equations.]

graph 2 graph

The point to note is our general solution. More formally, and more generally, we get it as follows:

  • If we have a linear second-order differential equation ax” + bx’ + cx = 0 (because of the zero on the right-hand side, we call such equation homogeneous, so it’s quite a mouthful: a linear and homogeneous DE of the second order), then we can find an exponential function ert that will be a solution for it.
  • If such function is a solution, then plugging in it yields ar2ert + brert + cert = 0 or (ar2 + br + c)ert = 0.
  • Now, we can read that as a condition, and the condition amounts to ar2 + br + c = 0. So that’s a quadratic equation we need to solve for r to find two specific solutions r1 and r2, which, in turn, will then yield our general solution:

 x(t) = c1er1+ c2er2t

Note that the general solution is based on the principle of superposition: any linear combination of two specific solutions will be a solution as well. I am mentioning this here because we’ll use that principle more than once.

Complex roots

The steps as described above implicitly assume that the quadratic equation above (i.e. ar2ert + brert + cert = 0), which is better known as the characteristic equation, does yield two real and distinct roots r1 and r2. In fact, it amounts to assuming that that exponential ert is a real-valued exponential function. We know how to find these real roots from our high school math classes: r = (–b ± [b– 4ac]1/2)/2a. However, what happens if the discrimant b– 4ac is negative?

If the disciminant is negative, we will still have two roots, but they will be complex roots. In fact, we can write these two complex roots as r = α ± βi, with i the imaginary unit. Hence, the two complex roots are each other’s complex conjugate and our er1and er2t can be written as:

er1= e(α+βi)t and er2e(α–βi)t

Also, the general solution based on these two particular solutions will be c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t.

[You may wonder why complex roots have to be complex conjugates from each other. Indeed, that’s not so obvious from the raw r = (–b ± [b– 4ac]1/2)/2a formula. But you can re-write it as r = –b/2a ± [b– 4ac]1/2)/2a and, if b– 4ac is negative, as r = –b/2a ± [(−b2+4ac)1/2/2a]. So that gives you the α and β and shows that the two roots are, in effect, each other’s complex conjugate.]

We should briefly pause here to think about what we are doing here really: if we allow r to be complex, then what we’re doing really is allow a complex-valued function (to be precise: we’re talking the complex exponential functions e(λ±μi)t, or any linear combination of the two) of a real variable (the time variable t) to be part of our ‘solution set’ as well.

Now, we’ve analyzed complex exponential functions before–long time ago: you can check out some of my posts last year (November 2013). In fact, we analyzed even more complex – in fact, I should say more complicated rather than more complex here: complex numbers don’t need to be complicated! 🙂 – because we were talking complex-valued functions of complex variables there! That’s not the case here: the argument t (i.e. the input into our function) is real, not complex, but the output – or the function itself – is complex-valued. Now, any complex exponential e(α+βi)t can be written as eαteiβt, and so that’s easy enough to understand:

1. The first factor (i.e. eαt) is just a real-valued exponential function and so we should be familiar with that. Depending on the value of α (negative or positive: see the graph below), it’s a factor that will create an envelope for our function. Indeed, when α is negative, the damping will cause the oscillation to stop after a while. When α is positive, we’ll have a solution resembling the second graph below: we have an amplitude that’s getting bigger and bigger, despite the friction factor (that’s obviously possible only because we keep reinforcing the movement, so we’re not switching off the force in that case). When α is equal to zero, then eαt is equal to unity and so the amplitude will not change as the spring goes up and down over time: we have no friction in that case.

graph 4


2. The second factor (i.e. eiβt) is our periodic function. Indeed, eiβt is the same as eiθ and so just remember Euler’s formula to see what it is really:

eiθ = cos(θ) + isin(θ)

The two graphs below represent the idea: as the phase θ = ωt + Δ (the angular frequency or velocity times the time is equal to the phase, plus or minus some phase shift) goes round and round and round (i.e. increases with time), the two components of eiθ, i.e. the real and imaginary part eiθ, oscillate between –1 and 1 because they are both sinusoidal functions (cosine and sine respectively). Now, we could amplify the amplitude by putting another (real) factor in front (a magnitude different than 1) and write reiθ = r·cos(θ) + r·sin(θ) but that wouldn’t change the nature of this thing.

euler13 slkL9

But so how does all of this relate to that other ‘general’ solution which we’ve found for our oscillator, i.e. the one we got without considering these complex-valued exponential functions as solutions. Indeed, what’s the relation between that x = x0cos(ω0t + Δ) equation and that rather frightening c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t equation? Perhaps we should look at x = x0cos(ω0t + Δ) as the real part of that monster? Yes and no. More no than yes actually. Actually… No. We are not going to have some complex exponential and then forget about the imaginary part. What we will do, though, is to find that general solution – i.e. a family of complex-valued functions – but then we’ll only consider those functions for which the imaginary part is zero, so that’s the subset of real-valued functions only.

I guess this must sound like Chinese. Let’s go step by step.

Using complex roots to find real-valued functions

If we re-write d2x/dt2 = –ω02x in the more general ax” + bx’ + cx = 0 form, then we get x” + ω02x = 0 and so the discriminant b– 4ac is equal to –4ω02, and so that’s a negative number. So we need to go for these complex roots. However, before solving this, let’s first restate what we’re actually doing. We have a differential equation that, ultimately, depends on a real variable (the time variable t), but so now we allow complex-valued functions er1e(α+βi)t and er2e(α–βi)t as solutions. To be precise: these are complex-valued functions x of the real variable t.

That being said, it’s fine to note that real numbers are a subset of the complex numbers and so we can just shrug our shoulders and say all that we’re doing is switch to complex-valued functions because we got stuck with that negative determinant and so we had to allow for complex roots. However, in the end, we do want a real-valued solution x(t). So our x(t) = c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t has to be a real-valued function, not a complex-valued function.

That means that we have to take a subset of the family of functions that we’ve found. In other words, the imaginary part of  c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t has to be zero. How can it be zero? Well… It basically means that c1e(α+βi)t and c2e(α–βi)t have to be complex conjugates.

OK… But how do we do that? We need to find a way to write that c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t sum in a more manageable ζ + η form. We can do that by using Euler’s formula once again to re-write those two complex exponentials as follows:

  • e(α+βi)t = eαteiβt = eαt[cos(βt) + isin(βt)]
  • e(α–βi)t = eαte–iβt = eαt[cos(–βt) + isin(–βt)] = eαt[cos(βt) – isin(βt)]

Note that, for the e(α–βi)t expression, we’ve used the fact that cos(–θ) = cos(θ) and that sin(–θ) = –sin(θ). Also note that α and β are real numbers, so they do not have an imaginary part–unlike cand c2, which may or may not have an imaginary part (i.e. they could be pure real numbers, but they could be complex as well).

We can then re-write that c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t sum as:

c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t = c1eαt[cos(βt) + isin(βt)] + c2eαt[cos(βt) – isin(βt)]

= (c1 + c2)eαtcos(βt) + (c1 – c2)ieαtsin(βt)

So what? Well, we want that imaginary part in our solution to disappear and so it’s easy to see that the imaginary part will indeed disappear if c1 – c2 = 0, i.e. if c1 = c= c. So we have a fairly general real-valued solution x(t) = 2c·eαtcos(βt) here, with c some real number. [Note that c has to be some real number because, if we would assume that cand c(and, therefore, c) would be equal complex numbers, then the c1 – c2 factor would also disappear, but then we would have a complex c1 + c2 sum in front of the eαtcos(βt) factor, so that would defeat the purpose of finding real-valued function as a solution because (c1 + c2)eαtcos(βt) would still be complex! […] Are you still with me? :-)]

So, OK, we’ve got the solution and so that should be it, isn’t it? Well… No. Wait. Not yet. Because these coefficients  c1 and c2 may be complex, there’s another solution as well. Look at that formula above. Let us suppose that c1 would be equal to some (real) number c divided by i (so c= c/i), and that cwould be its opposite, so c= –c(i.e. minus c1). Then we would have two complex numbers consisting of an imaginary part only: c= c/i and c= –c= –c/i, and they would be each other’s complex conjugate. Indeed, note that 1/i = i–1= –i and so we can write c= –c·and c= c·i. Then we’d get the following for that c1e(α+βi)t + c2e(α–βi)t sum:

 (c1 + c2)eαtcos(βt) + (c1 – c2)ieαtsin(βt)

= (c/i – c/i)eαtcos(βt) + (c/i + c/i)ieαtsin(βt) = 2c·eαtsin(βt)

So, while cand c2 are complex, our grand result is a real-valued function once again or – to be precise – another family of real-valued functions (that’s because c can take on any value).

Are we done? Yes. There are no other possibilities. So now we just need to remember to apply the principle of superposition: any (real) linear combination of 2c·eαtcos(μt) and 2c·eαtsin(μt) will also be a (real-valued) solution, so the general (real-valued) solution for our problem is:

x(t) = a·2c·eαtcos(βt) + b·2c·eαtsin(βt) = Aeαtcos(βt) + Beαtsin(βt)

eαt[Acos(βt) + Bsin(βt)]

So what do we have here? Well, the first factor is, once again, an ‘envelope’ function: depending on the value of α, (i) negative, (ii) positive or (iii) zero, we have an oscillation that (i) damps out, (ii) goes out of control, or (iii) keeps oscillating in the same steady way forever.

The second part is equivalent to our ‘general’ x(t) = x0cos(ω0t + Δ) solution. Indeed, that x(t) = x0cos(ω0t + Δ) solution is somewhat less ‘general’ than the one above because it does not have the eαt factor. However, x(t) = x0cos(ω0t + Δ) solution is equivalent to the Acos(βt) + Bsin(βt) factor. How’s that? We can show how they are related by using the trigonometric formula for adding angles: cos(α + β) = cos(α)cos(β) – sin(α)sin(β). Indeed, we can write:

x0cos(ω0t + Δ) = x0cos(Δ)cos(ω0t) – x0sin(Δ)sin(ω0t) = Acos(βt) + Bsin(βt)

with A = x0cos(Δ), B = – x0sin(Δ) and, finally, μ = ω0

Are you convinced now? If not… Well… Nothing much I can do, I feel. In that case, I can only encourage you to do a full ‘work-out’ by reading the excellent overview of all possible situations in Paul’s Online MathNotes (tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Classes/DE/Vibrations.aspx).

Feynman’s treatment of second-order differential equations

Feynman takes a somewhat different approach in his Lectures. He solves them in a much more general way. At first, I thought his treatment was too confusing and, hence, I would not have mentioned it. However, I like the logic behind, even if his approach is somewhat more messy in terms of notations and all that. Let’s first look at the differential equation once again. Let’s take a system with a friction factor that’s proportional to the speed: Ff = –c·dx/dt. [See my previous post for some comments on that assumption: the assumption is, generally speaking, too much of a simplification but it makes for a ‘nice’ linear equation and so that’s why physicists present it that way.] To ease the math, c is usually written as c = mγ. Hence, γ = c/m is the friction per unit of mass. That makes sense, I’d think. In addition, we need to remember that ω02 = k/m, so k = mω02. Our differential equation then becomes m·d2x/dt2 = –γm·dx/dt – kx (mass times acceleration is the sum of the forces) or m·d2x/dt2 + γm·dx/dt + mω02·x = 0. Dividing the mass factor away gives us an even simpler form:

d2x/dt2 + γdx/dt + ω02x = 0

You’ll remember this differential equation from the previous post: we used it to calculate the (stored) energy and the Q of a mechanical oscillator. However, we didn’t show you how. You now understand why: the stuff above is not easy–the length of the arguments involved is why I am devoting an entire post to it!

Now, instead of assuming some exponential ert as a solution, real- or complex-valued, Feynman assumes a much more general complex-valued function as solution: he substitutes x for x = Aeiαt, with A a complex number as well so we can write A as A = A0eiΔ. That more general assumption allows for the inclusion of a phase shift straight from the start. Indeed, we can write x as x = A0eiΔeiαt = = A0ei(αt+Δ). Does that look complicated? It probably does, because we also have to remember that α is a complex number! So we’ve got a very general complex-valued exponential function indeed here!

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and follow Feynman. So he plugs in that complex-valued x = Aeiαt and we get:

(–α+ iγα + ω02)Aeiαt = 0

So far, so good. The logic now is more or less the same as the logic we developed above. We’ve got two factors here: (1) a quadratic equation –αiγα + ω02 (with one complex coefficient iγ) and (2) a complex exponential function Aeiαt. The second factor (Aeiαt) cannot be zero, because that’s x and we assume our oscillator is not standing still. So it’s the first factor (i.e. the quadratic equation in α with a complex coefficient iγ) which has to be zero. So we solve for the roots α and find

α = –iγ/(–2) ± [(–(iγ)2–4ω02)1/2/(-2)] = iγ/2 ± [(γ2–4ω02)1/2/(-2)]

= iγ/2 ± (ω0– γ2/4)1/2 iγ/2 ± ωγ

[We get this by bringing i and –2 inside of the square root expression. It’s not very straightforward but you should be able to figure it out.]

So that’s an interesting expression: the imaginary part of α is iγ/2 and its real part is (ω0– γ2/4)1/2, which we denoted as ωγ in the expression above. [Note that we assume there’s no problem with the square root expression: γ2/4 should be smaller than ω02 so ωγ is supposed to be some real positive number.] And so we’ve got the two solutions xand x2:

x= Aei(iγ/2 + ωγ)t =  Ae–γt/2+iωγ= Ae–γt/2eiωγ

x= Bei(iγ/2 – ωγ)t =  Be–γt/2–iωγ= Be–γt/2e–iωγt

Note, once again, that A and B can be any (complex) number and that, because of the principle of superposition, any linear combination of these two solutions will also be a solution. So the general solution is

x = Ae–γt/2eiωγ+ Be–γt/2e–iωγ= e–γt/2(Aeiωγ+ Be–iωγt) 

Now, we recognize the shape of this: a (real-valued) envelope function e–γt/2 and then a linear combination of two exponentials. But so we want something real-valued in the end so, once again, we need to impose the condition that Aeiωγand Be–iωγare complex conjugates of each other. Now, we can see that eiωγand e–iωγare complex conjugates but what does this say about A and B? Well… The complex conjugate of a product is the product of the complex conjugates of the factors involved: (z1z2)* = (z1*)(z1*). That implies that B has to be the complex conjugate of A: B = A*. So the final (real-valued) solution becomes:

x = e–γt/2(Aeiωγ+ A*e–iωγt) 

Now, I’ll leave it to you to prove that the second factor in the product above (Aeiωγ+ A*e–iωγt) is a real-valued function of the real variable t. It should be the same as x0cos(Δ)cos(ω0t) – x0sin(Δ)sin(ω0t), and that gives you a graph like the one below. However, I can readily imagine that, by now, you’re just thinking: Oh well… Whatever! 🙂


So the difference between Feynman’s approach and the one I presented above (which is the one you’ll find in most textbooks) is the assumption in terms of the specific solution: instead of substituting x for ert, with allowing r to take on complex values, Feynman substitutes x for Aeiαt, and allows both A and α  to take on complex values. It makes the calculations more complicated but, when everything is said and done, I think Feynman’s approach is more consistent because more encompassing. However, that’s subject to taste, and I gather, from comments on the Web, that many people think that this chapter in Feynman’s Lectures is not his best. So… Well… I’ll leave it to you to make the final judgment.

Note: The one critique that is relevant, in regard to Feynman’s treatment of the matter, is that he devotes quite a bit of time and space to explain how these oscillatory or periodic displacements can be viewed as being the real part of a complex exponential. Indeed, cos(ωt) is the real part of eiωt. But so that’s something different than (1) expanding the realm of possible solutions to a second-order differential equation from real-valued functions to complex-valued functions in order to (2) then, once we’ve found the general solution, consider only real-valued functions once again as ‘allowable’ solutions to that equation. I think that’s the gist of the matter really. It took me a while to fully ‘get’ this. I hope this post helps you to understand it somewhat quicker than I did. 🙂


I guess the only thing that I should do now is to work some examples. However, I’ll refer you Paul’s Online Math Notes for that once again (see the reference above). Indeed, it is about time I end my rather lengthy exposé (three posts on the same topic!) on oscillators and resonance. I hope you enjoyed it, although I can readily imagine that it’s hard to appreciate the math involved.

It is not easy indeed: I actually struggled with it, despite the fact that I think I understand complex analysis somewhat. However, the good thing is that, once we’re through it, we can really solve a lot of problems. As Feynman notes: “Linear (differential) equations are so important that perhaps fifty percent of the time we are solving linear equations in physics and engineering.” So, bearing in that mind, we should move on to the next.

An easy piece: Ordinary Differential Equations (I)

Although Richard Feynman’s iconic Lectures on Physics are best read together, as an integrated textbook that is, smart publishers bundled some of the lectures in two separate publications: Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. Well… Reading Penrose has been quite exhausting so far and, hence, I feel like doing an easy piece here – just for a change. 🙂

In addition, I am half-way through this graduate-level course on Complex variables and Applications (from McGraw-Hill’s Brown—Churchill Series) but I feel that I will gain much more from the remaining chapters (which are focused on applications) if I’d just branch off for a while and first go through another classic graduate-level course dealing with math, but perhaps with some more emphasis on physics. A quick check reveals that Mathematical Methods of Physics, written by Jon Mathews and R.L. Walker will probably fit the bill. This textbook is used it as a graduate course at the University of Chicago and, in addition, Mathews and Walker were colleagues of Feynman and, hence, their course should dovetail nicely with Feynman’s Lectures: that’s why I bought it when I saw this 2004 reprint for the Indian subcontinent in a bookshop in Delhi. [As for Feynman’s Lectures, I wouldn’t recommend these Lectures if you want to know more about quantum mechanics, but for classical mechanics and electromagnetism/electrodynamics they’re still great.]

So here we go: Chapter 1, on Differential Equations.

Of course, I mean ordinary differential equations, so things with one dependent and one independent variable only, as opposed to partial differential equations, which have partial derivatives (i.e. terms with δ symbols in them, as opposed to the used in dy and dy) because there’s more than one independent variable. We’ll need to get into partial differential equations soon enough, if only because wave equations are partial differential equations, but let’s start with the start.

While I thought I knew a thing or two about differential equations from my graduate-level courses in economics, I’ve discovered many new things already. One of them is the concept of a slope field, or a direction field. Below the examples I took from Paul’s Online Notes in Mathematics (http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Classes/DE/DirectionFields.aspx), who’s a source I warmly recommend (his full name is Paul Dawkins, and he developed these notes for Lamar University, Texas):

Direction field 1  Direction field 3Direction field 2

These things are great: they helped me to understand what a differential equation actually is. So what is it then? Well, let’s take the example of the first graph. That example models the following situation: we have a falling object with mass m (so the force of gravity acts on it) but its fall gets slowed down because of air resistance. So we have two forces FG and Facting on the object, as depicted below:

Forces on m

Now, the force of gravity is proportional to the mass m of the falling object, with the factor of proportionality equal to the gravitational constant of course. So we have FG = mg with g = 9.8 m/s2. [Note that forces are measured in newtons and 1 N = 1 (kg)(m)/(s2).] 

The force due to air resistance has a negative sign because it acts like a brake and, hence, it has the opposite direction of the gravity force. The example assumes that it is proportional to the velocity v of the object, which seems reasonable enough: if it goes faster and faster, the air will slow it down more and more so we have FA = —γv, with v = v(t) the velocity of the object and γ some (positive) constant representing the factor of proportionality for this force. [In fact, the force due to air resistance is usually referred to as the drag, and it is proportional to the square of the velocity, but so let’s keep it simple here.]

Now, when things are being modeled like this, I find the thing that is most difficult is to keep track of what depends on what exactly. For example, it is obvious that, in this example, the total force on the object will also depend on the velocity and so we have a force here which we should write as a function of both time and velocity. Newton’s Law of Motion (the Second Law to be precise, i.e. ma = m(dv/dt) =F) thus becomes

m(dv/dt) = F(t, v) = mg – γv(t).

Note the peculiarity of this F(t, v) function: in the end, we will want to write v(t) as an explicit function of t, but so here we write F as a function with two separate arguments t and v. So what depends on what here? What does this equation represent really?

Well… The equation does surely not represent one or the other implicit function: an implicit function, such as x2 + y2 = 1 for example (i.e. the unit circle), is still a function: it associates one of the variables (usually referred to as the value) to the other variables (the arguments). But, surely, we have that too here? No. If anything, a differential equation represents a family of functions, just like an indefinite integral.

Indeed, you’ll remember that an indefinite integral ∫f(x)dx represents all functions F(x) for which F'(x) = dF(x)/dx = f(x). These functions are, for a very obvious reason, referred to as the anti-derivatives of f(x) and it turns out that all these antiderivatives differ from each other by a constant only, so we can write ∫f(x)dx = F(x) + c, and so the graphs of all the antiderivatives of a given function are, quite simply, vertical translations of each other, i.e. their vertical location depends on the value of c. I don’t want to anticipate too much, but so we’ll have something similar here, except that our ‘constant’ will usually appear in a somewhat more complicated format such as, in this example, as v(t) = 50 + ce—0.196t. So we also have a family of primitive functions v(t) here, which differ from each other by the constant c (and, hence, are ‘indefinite’ so to say), but so when we would graph this particular family of functions, their vertical distance will not only depend on c but also on t. But let us not run before we can walk.  

The thing to note – and to always remember when you’re looking at a differential equation – is that the equation itself represents a world of possibilities, or parallel universes if you want :-), but, also, that’s it in only one of them that things are actually happening. That’s why differential equations usually have an infinite number of general (or possible) solutions but only one of these will be the actual solution, and which one that is will depend on the initial conditions, i.e. where we actually start from: is the object at rest when we start looking, is it in equilibrium, or is it somewhere in-between?

What we know for sure is that, at any one point of time t, this object can only have one velocity, and, because it’s also pretty obvious that, in the real world, t is the independent variable and v the dependent one (the velocity of our object does not change time), we can thus write v = v(t) = du/dt indeed. [The variable u = u(t) is the vertical position of the object and its velocity is, obviously, the rate of change of this vertical position, i.e. the derivative with regard to time.]

So that’s the first thing you should note about these direction fields: we’re trying to understand what is going on with these graphs and so we identify the dependent variable with the y axis and the independent variable with the x axis, in line with the general convention that such graphs will usually depict a y = y(x) relationship. In this case, we’re interested in the velocity of the object (not its position), and so v = v(t) is the variable on the y axis of that first graph.

Now, there’s a world of possibilities out there indeed, but let’s suppose we start watching when the object is at rest, i.e. we have v(t) = v(0) = 0 and so that’s depicted by the origin point. Let’s also make it all more real by assigning the values m = 2 kg and γ = 0.392 to m an γ in Newton’s formula. [In case you wonder where this value for γ comes from, note that its value is 1/25 of the gravitational constant and so it’s just a number to make sure the solution for v(t) is a ‘nice’ number, i.e. an integer instead of some decimal. In any case, I am taking this example from Paul’s Online Notes and I won’t try to change it.]

So we start at point zero with zero velocity but so now we’ve got the force F with us. 🙂 Hence, the object’s velocity v(t) will not stay zero. As the clock ticks, its movement will respect Newton’s Law, i.e. m(dv/dt) = F(t, v), which is m(dv/dt) = mg – γv(t) in this case. Now, if we plug in the above-mentioned values for m and γ (as well as the 9.8 approximation for g), we get dv(t)/dt = 9.8 – 0.196v(t) (we brought m over to the other side, and so then it becomes 1/m on the right-hand side).

Now, let’s insert some values into these equation. Let’s first take the value v(0) = 0, i.e. our point of departure. We obviously get d(v(0)/dt = 9.8 – 0.196.0 = 9.8 (so that’s close to 10 but not quite).

Let’s take another value for v(0). If v(0) would be equal to 30 m/s (this means that the object is already moving at a speed of 30 m/s when we start watching), then we’d get a value for dv/dt of 3.92, which is much less – but so that reflects the fact that, at such speed, air resistance is counteracting gravity.

Let’s take yet another value for v(0). Let’s take 100 now for example: we get dv/dt = – 9.8.

Ooops! What’s that? Minus 9.8? A negative value for dv/dt? Yes. It indicates that, at such high speed, air resistance is actually slowing down the object. [Of course, if that’s the case, then you may wonder how it got to go so fast in the first place but so that’s none of our own business: maybe it’s an object that got launched up into the air instead of something that was dropped out of an airplane. Note that a speed of 100 m/s is 360 km/h so we’re not talking any supersonic launch speeds here.]

OK. Enough of that kids’ stuff now. What’s the point?

Well, it’s these values for dv/dt (so these values of 9.8, 3.92, -9.8 etcetera) that we use for that direction field, or slope field as it’s often referred to. Note that we’re currently considering the world of possibilities, not the actual world so to say, and so we are contemplating any possible combination of v and t really.

Also note that, in this particular example that is, it’s only the value of v that determines the value of dv/dt, not the value of t. So, if, at some other point in time (e.g. t = 3), we’d be imagining the same velocities for our object, i.e. 0 m/s, 30 m/s or 100 m/s, we’d get the same values 9.8, 3.92 and -9.8 for dv/dt. So the little red arrows which represent the direction field all have the same magnitude and the same direction for equal values of v(t). [That’s also the case in the second graph above, but not for the third graph, which presents a far more general case: think of a changing electromagnetic field for instance. A second footnote to be made here concerns the length – or magnitude – of these arrows: they obviously depend on the scale we’re using but so they do reflect the values for dv/dt we calculated.]

So that slope field, or direction field, i.e. all of these little red arrows, represents the fact that the world of possibilities, or all parallel universes which may exist out there, have one thing in common: they all need to respect Newton or, at the very least, his m(dv/dt) = mg – γv(t) equation which, in this case, is dv(t)/dt = 9.8 – 0.196v(t). So, wherever we are in this (v, t) space, we look at the nearest arrow and it will tell us how our speed v will change as a function of t.

As you can see from the graph, the slope of these little arrows (i.e. dv/dt) is negative above the v(t) = 50 m/s line, and positive underneath it, and so we should not be surprised that, when we try to calculate at what speed dv/dt would be equal to zero (we do this by writing 9.8 – 0.196v(t) = 0), we find that this is the case if and only if v(t) = 9.8/0.196 = 50 indeed. So that looks like the stable situation: indeed, you’ll remember that derivatives reflect the rate of change, and so when dv/dt = 0, it means the object won’t change speed.

Now, the dynamics behind the graph are obviously clear: above the v(t) = 50 m/s line, the object will be slowing down, and underneath it, it will be speeding up. At the v(t) line itself, the gravity and air resistance forces will balance each other and the object’s speed will be constant – that is until it hits the earth of course :-).

So now we can have a look at these blue lines on the graph. If you understood something of the lengthy story about the red arrows above, then you’ll also understand, intuitively at least, that the blue lines on this graph represent the various solutions to the differential equation. Huh? Well. Yes.

The blue lines show how the velocity of the object will gradually converge to 50 m/s, and that the actual path being followed will depend on our actual starting point, which may be zero, less than 50 m/s, or equal or more than 50 m/s. So these blue lines still represent the world of possibilities, or all of the possible parallel universes, but so one of them – and one of them only – will represent the actual situation. Whatever that actual situation is (i.e. whatever point we start at when t = 0), the dynamics at work will make sure the speed converges to 50 m/s, so that’s the longer-term equilibrium for this situation. [Note that all is relative of course: if the object is being dropped out of a plane at an altitude of two or three km only, then ‘longer-term’ means like a minute or so, after which time the object will hit the ground and so then the equilibrium speed is obviously zero. :-)]

OK. I must assume you’re fine with the intuitive interpretation of these blue curves now. But so what are they really, beyond this ‘intuitive’ interpretation? Well, they are the solutions to the differential equation really and, because these solutions are found through an integration process indeed, they are referred to as the integral curves. I have to refer my imaginary reader here to Paul’s Notes (or any other math course) for as to how exactly that integration process works (it’s not as easy as you might think) but the equation for these blue curves is

v(t) = 50 + ce—0.196t 

In this equation, we have Euler’s number e (so that’s the irrational number e = 2.718281… etcetera) and also a constant c which depends on the initial conditions indeed. The graph below shows some of these curves for various values of c. You can calculate some more yourself of course. For example, if we start at the origin indeed, so if we have zero speed at t = 0, then we have v(0) = 50 + ce-0.196.0 = 50 + ce0 = 50 + c and, hence, c = -50 will represent that initial condition. [And, yes, please do note the similarity with the graphs of the antiderivatives (i.e. the indefinite integral) of a given function, because the c in that v(t) function is, effectively, the result of an integration process.]   

Solution for falling object

So that’s it really: the secret behind differential equations has been unlocked. There’s nothing more to it.

Well… OK. Of course we still need to learn how to actually solve these differential equations, and we’ll also have to learn how to solve partial differential equations, including equations with complex numbers as well obviously, and so on and son on. Even those other two ‘simple’ situations depicted above (see the two other graphs) are obviously more intimidating already (the second graph involves three equilibrium solutions – one stable, one unstable and one semi-stable – while the third graph shows not all situations have equilibrium solutions). However, I am sure I’ll get through it: it has been great fun so far, and what I read so far (i.e. this morning) is surely much easier to digest than all the things I wrote about in my other posts. 🙂

In addition, the example did involve two forces, and so it resembles classical electrodynamics, in which we also have two forces, the electric and magnetic force, which generate force fields that influence each other. However, despite of all the complexities, it is fair to say that, when push comes to shove, understanding Maxwell’s equations is a matter of understanding a particular set of partial differential equations. However, I won’t dwell on that now. My next post might consist of a brief refresher on all of that but I will probably first want to move on a bit with that course of Mathews and Walker. I’ll keep you posted on progress. 🙂

Post scriptum:

My imaginary reader will obviously note that this direction field looks very much like a vector field. In fact, it obviously is a vector field. Remember that a vector field assigns a vector to each point, and so a vector field in the plane is visualized as a collection of arrows indeed, with a given magnitude and direction attached to a point in the plane. As Wikipedia puts it: ‘vector fields are often used to model the strength and direction of some force, such as the electrostatic, magnetic or gravitational force. And so, yes, in the example above, we’re indeed modeling a force obeying Newton’s law: the change in the velocity of the object (i.e. the factor a = dv/dt in the F = ma equation) is proportional to the force (which is a force combining gravity and drag in this example), and the factor of proportionality is the inverse of the object’s mass (a = F/m and, hence, the greater its mass, the less a body accelerates under given force). [Note that the latter remark just underscores the fact that Newton’s formula shows that mass is nothing but a measure of the object’s inertia, i.e. its resistance to being accelerated or change its direction of motion.]

A second post scriptum point to be made, perhaps, is my remark that solving that dv(t)/dt = 9.8 – 0.196v(t) equation is not as easy as it may look. Let me qualify that remark: it actually is an easy differential equation, but don’t make the mistake of just putting an integral sign in front and writing something like ∫(0.196v + v’) dv = ∫9.8 dv, to then solve it as 0.098 v2 + v = 9.8v + c, which is equivalent to 0.098 v2 – 8.8 v + c = 0. That’s nonsensical because it does not give you v as an implicit or explicit function of t and so it’s a useless approach: it just yields a quadratic function in v which may or may not have any physical interpretation.

So should we, perhaps, use t as the variable of integration on one side and, hence, write something like ∫(0.196v + v’) dv = ∫9.8 dt? We then find 0.098 v+ v = 9.8t + c, and so that looks good, doesn’t it?  No. It doesn’t. That’s worse than that other quadratic expression in v (I mean the one which didn’t have t in it), and a lot worse, because it’s not only meaningless but wrongvery wrong. Why? Well, you’re using a different variable of integration (v versus t) on both sides of the equation and you can’t do that: you have to apply the same operation to both sides of the equation, whether that’s multiplying it with some factor or bringing one of the terms over to the other side (which actually mounts to subtracting the same term from both sides) or integrating both sides: we have to integrate both sides over the same variable indeed.

But – hey! – you may remember that’s what we do when differential equations are separable, isn’t? And so that’s the case here, isn’t it?We’ve got all the y’s on one side and all the x’s on the other side of the equation here, don’t we? And so then we surely can integrate one side over y and the other over x, isn’t it? Well… No. And yes. For a differential equation to be separable, all the x‘s and all the y’s must be nicely separated on both sides of the equation indeed but all the y’s in the differential equation (so not just one of them) must be part of the product with the derivative. Remember, a separable equation is an equation in the form of B(y)(dy/dx) = A(x), with B(y) some function of y indeed, and A(x) some function of x, but so the whole B(y) function is multiplied with dy/dx, not just one part of it. If, and only if, the equation can be written in this form, we can (a) integrate both sides over x but (b) also use the fact that ∫[B(y)dy/dx]dx = ∫B(y)dy. So, it looks like we’re effectively integrating one part (or one side) of the equation over the dependent variable y here, and the other over x, but the condition for being allowed to do so is that the whole B(y) function can be written as a factor in a product involving the dy/dx  derivative. Is that clear? I guess not. 😦 But then I need to move on.

The lesson here is that we always have to make sure that we write the differential equation in its ‘proper form’ before we do the integration, and we should note that the ‘proper form’ usually depends on the method we’re going to select to solve the equation: if we can’t write the equation in its proper form, then we can’t apply the method. […] Oh… […] But so how do we solve that equation then? Well… It’s done using a so-called integrating factor but, just as I did in the text above already, I’ll refer you to a standard course on that, such as Paul’s Notes indeed, because otherwise my posts would become even longer than they already are, and I would have even less imaginary readers. 🙂