Tag Archives: calculus

Demos for graph and cograph of calculus functions

The interactive examples in this post require installing Wolfram CDF player, which is free and works on most desktop computers using Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. The source code is the Mathematica Notebook GraphCograph.nb, which is available for free use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The notebook can be read by CDF Player if you cannot make the embedded versions in this post work properly.

This post provides interactive examples of the endograph and cograph of real functions. Those two concepts were defined and discussed in the previous post Endograph and cograph of real functions.

Such representations of functions, put side by side with the conventional graph, may help students understand how to interpret the usual graph representation. For example: What does it mean when the arrows slant to the left? spread apart? squeeze together? flip over? Going back and forth between the conventional graph and the cograph or engraph for a particular function should make you much more in tune to the possibilities when you see only the conventional graph of another function.

This is not a major advance for calculus teachers, but it may be a useful tool.

Line segment

$y=a x+b$


$y=a x^3-b x$


$y=\sin a x$.

Sine and its derivative

$y=\sin a x$ (blue) and $y=a\cos a x$ (red)

Quintic with three parameters

$y=a x^5-b
x^4-0.21 x^3+0.2 x^2+0.5 x-c$

Thanks to Martin Flashman for corrections.

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The power of being naive

The interactive examples in this post require installing Wolfram CDF player, which is free and works on most desktop computers using Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. The source code is the Mathematica Notebook MM Def Deriv.nb, which is available for free use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. See How to manipulate the diagrams for more information on what you can do with them. The notebook can be read by CDF Player if you cannot make the embedded versions in this post work.

Learning about the derivative as a concept

The derivative $f'(x)$ of $f(x)$ is the function whose value at $a$ is the slope of the line tangent to the graph $y=f(x)$ at the point $(a,f(a))$.

To gain understanding of the concept of derivative the student need to see and play with the pictures that illustrate the definition. This can be done in stages:

  • Give an intuitive, pictorial explanation of the tangent line.
  • Show in pictures what the slope of a line is.
  • Show in pictures how you can approximate the tangent line with secant lines.

Of course, many teachers and textbooks do this. I propose that:

The student will benefit in the long run by spending a whole class session on the intuitive ideas I just described and doing a set homework based only on intuition. Then you can start doing the algebraic stuff.

This post provides some ideas about manipulable diagrams that students can play with to gain intuition about derivatives. Others are possible. There are many on the Mathematica Demonstrations website. There are others written in Java and other languages, but I don't know of a site that tries to collect them in one place.

My claim that the student will benefit in the long run is not something I can verify, since I no longer teach.

Present the tangent line conceptually

The tangent line to a curve

  • is a straight line that touches the curve at a point on the curve,
  • and it goes in the same direction that the curve is going, like the red line in the picture below. (See How to manipulate the diagrams.)


My recommendation is that you let the students bring up some of the fine points.

  • The graph of $y=x^3-x$ has places where the tangent line cuts the curve at another point without being parallel to the curve there. Move the slider to find these places.
  • The graph of $y=\cos(\pi x)$ has places where the same line is tangent at more than one point on the curve. (This may requre stepping the slider using the incrementers.)
  • Instigate a conversation about the tangent line to a given straight line.
  • My post Tangents has other demos intended to bother the students.
  • Show the unit circle with some tangent lines and make them stare at it until they notice something peculiar.
  • "This graph shows the tangent line but how do you calculate it?" You can point out that if you draw the curve carefully and then slide a ruler around it so that it is tangent at the point you are interested in, then you can draw the tangent carefully and measure the rise and run with the ruler. This is a perfectly legitimate way to estimate the value of the slope there.

Slope of the tangent line conceptually

This diagram shows the slope of the tangent line as height over width.

  • Slide the $x$ slider back and forth. The width does not change. The height is measured from the tangent line to the corner, so the height does change; in particular, it changes sign appropriately.
  • This shows that the standard formula for the derivative of the curve gives the same value as the calculated slope of the tangent. (If you are careful you can find a place where the last decimal places differ.) You may want to omit the "derivative value" info line, but most students in college calculus already know how to calculate the formulas for the derivative of a polynomial– or you can just tell them what it is in this case and promise to show how to calculate the formula later.
  • Changing the width while leaving $x$ fixed does not change the slope of the tangent line (up to roundoff error).
  • In fact I could add another parameter that allows you to calculate height over width at other places on the tangent line. But that is probably excessive. (You could do that in a separate demo that shows that basic property that the slope of a straight line does not change depending on where you measure it — that is what a curve being a straight line means.)
  • This graph provides a way to estimate the slope, but does not suggest a way to come up with a formula for the slope, in other words, a formula for the derivative.

Conceptual calculation of the slope

This diagram shows how to calculate the value of the slope at a point using secant lines to approximate the tangent line. If you have a formula for the function, you can calculate the limit of the slope of the secant line and get a formula for the derivative.


  • The function $f(x)=x^3-x$.
  • The secant points are $(x-h,f(x-h))$ and $(x+h, f(x+h))$. $h$ is called "width" in the diagram.
  • Moving $x$ with the slider shows how the tangent line and secant line have similar slopes.
  • Moving the width to the left, to $0$ (almost), makes the secant line coincide with the tangent line. So intuitively the limit of the slope of the secant line is the slope of the tangent line.
  • The distance between the secant points is the Euclidean distance. (It may be that including this information does not help, so maybe it should be left out.)
  • The slope of the secant line is $\frac{f(x+h)-f(x-h)}{(x+h)-(x-h)}$ when $h\neq0$. This simplifies to $3x^2+h^2-1$, so the limit when $h\to0$ is $3x^2-1$, which is therefore a formula for the derivative function.


Testing intuitive concepts

Most of the work students do when studying derivatives is to solve some word problems (rate of change, maximization) in which the student is expected to come up with an appropriate function $f(x)$ and then know or find out the formula for $f'(x)$ in the process of solving the problem. In other words there is a heavy emphasis on computation and much less on concept.

The student in the past has had to do very few homework problems that test for understanding the concept. Lately some texts do have problems that test the concept, for example:

This is the graph of a function and its derivative. Which one is the function and which is its derivative?

Concept Prob

Note that the problem does not give you the formula for the function, nor does it have to.

Many variations are possible, all involving calculating parameters directly from the graph:

  • "These are the first and second derivatives of a function. Where (within the bounds of the graph) is the function concave up?"
  • "These are the first and second derivatives of a function. Where (within the bounds of the graph) are its maxima and minima?"
  • "This straight line is the derivative of a function. Show that the function is a quadratic function and measure the slope of the line in order to estimate some of the coefficients of the quadratic."


How to manipulate the diagrams


  • You can move the sliders back and forth to to move to different points on the curve.
  • In the first diagram, you can click on one of the four buttons to see how it works for various curves.
  • The arrow at the upper right makes it run automatically in a not very useful sort of way.
  • The little plus sign below the arrow opens up some other controls and a box showing the value of $a$, including step by step operation (plus and minus signs).
  • If you are using Mathematica, you can enter values into the box, but if you are using CDF Player, you can only manipulate the number using the slider or the plus and minus incrementers.


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Conceptual blending

This post uses MathJax.  If you see formulas in unrendered TeX, try refreshing the screen.

A conceptual blend is a structure in your brain that connects two concepts by associating part of one with part of another.  Conceptual blending is a major tool used by our brain to understand the world.

The concept of conceptual blend includes special cases, such as representations, images and conceptual metaphors, that math educators have used for years to understand how mathematics is communicated and how it is learned.  The Wikipedia article is a good starting place for understanding conceptual blending. 

In this post I will illustrate some of the ways conceptual blending is used to understand a function of the sort you meet with in freshman calculus.  I omit the connections with programs, which I will discuss in a separate post.

A particular function

Consider the function $h(t)=4-(t-2)^2$. You may think of this function in many ways.


$h(t)$ is defined by the formula $4-(t-2)^2$.

  • The formula encapsulates a particular computation of the value of $h$ at a given value $t$.
  • The formula defines the function, which is a stronger statement than saying it represents the function.
  • The formula is in standard algebraic notation. (See Note 1)
  • To use the formula requires one of these:
    • Understand and use the rules of algebra
    • Use a calculator
    • Use an algebraic programming language. 
  • Other formulas could be used, for example $4t-t^2$.
    • That formula encapsulates a different computation of the value of $h$.


$h(t)$ is also defined by this tree (right).
  • The tree makes explicit the computation needed to evaluate the function.
  • The form of the tree is based on a convention, almost universal in computing science, that the last operation performed (the root) is placed at the top and that evaluation is done from bottom to top.
  • Both formula and tree require knowledge of conventions.
  • The blending of formula and tree matches some of the symbols in the formula with nodes in the tree, but the parentheses do not appear in the tree because they are not necessary by the bottom-up convention.
  • Other formulas correspond to other trees.  In other words, conceptually, each tree captures not only everything about the function, but everything about a particular computation of the function.
  • More about trees in these posts:


$h(t)$ is represented by its graph (right). (See note 2.)

  • This is the graph as visual image, not the graph as a set of ordered pairs.
  • The blending of graph and formula associates each point on the (blue) graph with the value of the formula at the number on the x-axis directly underneath the point.
  • In contrast to the formula, the graph does not define the function because it is a physical picture that is only approximate.
  • But the formula does represent the function.  (This is "represents" in the sense of cognitive psychology, but not in the mathematical sense.)
  • The blending requires familiarity with the conventions concerning graphs of functions. 
  • It sets into operation the vision machinery of your brain, which is remarkably elaborate and powerful.
    • Your visual machinery allows you to see instantly that the maximum of the curve occurs at about $t=2$. 
  • The blending leaves out many things.
    • For one, the graph does not show the whole function.  (That's another reason why the graph does not define the function.)
    • Nor does it make it obvious that the rest of the graph goes off to negative infinity in both directions, whereas that formula does make that obvious (if you understand algebraic notation).  


The graph of $h(t)$ is the parabola with vertex $(2,4)$, directrix $x=2$, and focus $(2,\frac{3}{4})$. 

  • The blending with the graph makes the parabola identical with the graph.
  • This tells you immediately (if you know enough about parabolas!) that the maximum is at $(2,4)$ (because the directrix is vertical).
  • Knowing where the focus and directrix are enables you to mechanically construct a drawing of the parabola using a pins, string, T-square and pencil.  (In the age of computers, do you care?)


$h(t)$ gives the height of a certain projectile going straight up and down over time.

  • The blending of height and graph lets you see instantly (using your visual machinery) how high the projectile goes. 
  • The blending of formula and height allows you to determing the projectile's velocity at any point by taking the derivative of the function.
  • A student may easily be confused into thinking that the path of the projectile is a parabola like the graph shown.  Such a student has misunderstood the blending.


You may understand $h(t)$ kinetically in various ways.

  • You can visualize moving along the graph from left to right, going, reaching the maximum, then starting down.
    • This calls on your experience of going over a hill. 
    • You are feeling this with the help of mirror neurons.
  • As you imagine traversing the graph, you feel it getting less and less steep until it is briefly level at the maximum, then it gets steeper and steeper going down.
    • This gives you a physical understanding of how the derivative represents the slope.
    • You may have seen teachers swooping with their hand up one side and down the other to illustrate this.
  • You can kinetically blend the movement of the projectile (see height above) with the graph of the function.
    • As it goes up (with $t$ increasing) the projectile starts fast but begins to slow down.
    • Then it is briefly stationery at $t=2$ and then starts to go down.
    • You can associate these feelings with riding in an elevator.
      • Yes, the elevator is not a projectile, so this blending is inaccurate in detail.
    • This gives you a kinetic understanding of how the derivative gives the velocity and the second derivative gives the acceleration.


The function $h(t)$ is a mathematical object.

  • Usually the mental picture of function-as-object consists of thinking of the function as a set of ordered pairs $\Gamma(h):=\{(t,4-(t-2)^2)|t\in\mathbb{R}\}$. 
  • Sometimes you have to specify domain and codomain, but not usually in calculus problems, where conventions tell you they are both the set of real numbers.
  • The blend object and graph identifies each point on the graph with an element of $\Gamma(h)$.
  • When you give a formal proof, you usually revert to a dry-bones mode and think of math objects as inert and timeless, so that the proof does not mention change or causation.
    • The mathematical object $h(t)$ is a particular set of ordered pairs. 
    • It just sits there.
    • When reasoning about something like this, implication statements work like they are supposed to in math: no causation, just picking apart a bunch of dead things. (See Note 3).
    • I did not say that math objects are inert and timeless, I said you think of them that way.  This post is not about Platonism or formalism. What math objects "really are" is irrelevant to understanding understanding math [sic].


definition of the concept of function provides a way of thinking about the function.

  • One definition is simply to specify a mathematical object corresponding to a function: A set of ordered pairs satisfying the property that no two distinct ordered pairs have the same second coordinate, along with a specification of the codomain if that is necessary.
  • A concept can have many different definitions.
    • A group is usually defined as a set with a binary operation, an inverse operation, and an identity with specific properties.  But it can be defined as a set with a ternary operation, as well.
    • A partition of a set is a set of subsets of a set with certain properties. An equivalence relation is a relation on a set with certain properties.  But a partition is an equivalence relation and an equivalence relation is a partition.  You have just picked different primitives to spell out the definition. 
    • If you are a beginner at doing proofs, you may focus on the particular primitive objects in the definition to the exclusion of other objects and properties that may be more important for your current purposes.
      • For example, the definition of $h(t)$ does not mention continuity, differentiability, parabola, and other such things.
      • The definition of group doesn't mention that it has linear representations.


A function can be given as a specification, such as this:

If $t$ is a real number, then $h(t)$ is a real number, whose value is obtained by subtracting $2$ from $t$, squaring the result, and then subtracting that result from $4$.

  • This tells you everything you need to know to use the function $h$.
  • It does not tell you what it is as a mathematical object: It is only a description of how to use the notation $h(t)$.


1. Formulas can be give in other notations, in particular Polish and Reverse Polish notation. Some forms of these notations don't need parentheses.

2. There are various ways to give a pictorial image of the function.  The usual way to do this is presenting the graph as shown above.  But you can also show its cograph and its endograph, which are other ways of representing a function pictorially.  They  are particularly useful for finite and discrete functions. You can find lots of detail in these posts and Mathematica notebooks:

3. See How to understand conditionals in the abstractmath article on conditionals.


  1. Conceptual blending (Wikipedia)
  2. Conceptual metaphors (Wikipedia)
  3. Definitions (abstractmath)
  4. Embodied cognition (Wikipedia)
  5. Handbook of mathematical discourse (see articles on conceptual blendmental representationrepresentation, and metaphor)
  6. Images and Metaphors (article in abstractmath)
  7. Links to G&G posts on representations
  8. Metaphors in Computing Science (previous post)
  9. Mirror neurons (Wikipedia)
  10. Representations and models (article in abstractmath)
  11. Representations II: dry bones (article in abstractmath)
  12. The transition to formal thinking in mathematics, David Tall, 2010
  13. What is the object of the encapsulation of a process? Tall et al., 2000.


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Mathematical usage

Comments about mathematical usage, extending those in my post on abuse of notation.

Geoffrey Pullum, in his post Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They, makes some good points about usage that I want to write about in connection with mathematical usage.  There are two different attitudes toward language usage abroad in the English-speaking world. (See Note [1])

  • What matters is what people actually write and say.   Usage in this sense may often be reported with reference to particular dialects or registers, but in any case it is based on evidence, for example citations of quotations or a linguistic corpus.  (Note [2].)  This approach is scientific.
  • What matters is what a particular writer (of usage or style books) believes about  standards for speaking or writing English.  Pullum calls this "faith-based grammar".  (People who think in this way often use the word "grammar" for usage.)  This approach is unscientific.

People who write about mathematical usage fluctuate between these two camps.

My writings in the Handbook of Mathematical Discourse and abstractmath.org are mostly evidence based, with some comments here and there deprecating certain usages because they are confusing to students.  I think that is about the right approach.  Students need to know what is actual mathematical usage, even usage that many mathematicians deprecate.

Most math usage that is deprecated (by me and others) is deprecated for a reason.  This reason should be explained, and that is enough to stop it being faith-based.  To make it really scientific you ought to cite evidence that students have been confused by the usage.  Math education people have done some work of this sort.  Most of it is at the K-12 level, but some have worked with college students observing the way the solve problems or how they understand some concepts, and this work often cites examples.

Examples of usage to be deprecated


Powers of functions

f^n(x) can mean either iterated composition or multiplication of the values.  For example, f^2(x) can mean f(x)f(x) or f(f(x)).  This is exacerbated by the fact that in undergrad calculus texts,  \sin^{-1}x refers to the arcsine, and \sin^2 x refers to \sin x\sin x.  This causes innumerable students trouble.  It is a Big Deal.


Set "in" another set.  This is discussed in the Handbook.  My impression is that for students the problem is that they confuse "element of" with "subset of", and the fact that "in" is used for both meanings is not the primary culprit.  That's because most sets in practice don't have both sets and non-sets as elements.  So the problem is a Big Deal when students first meet with the concept of set, but the notational confusion with "in" is only a Small Deal.


This is not a Big Deal.  But I have personally witnessed students (in upper level undergrad courses) that were confused by this.


The many uses of parentheses, discussed in abstractmath.  (The Handbook article on parentheses gives citations, including one in which the notation "(a,b)" means open interval once and GCD once in the same sentence!)  I think the only part that is a Big Deal, or maybe Medium Deal, is the fact that the value of a function f at an input x can be written either  "f\,x" or as "f(x)".  In fact, we do without the parentheses when the name of the function is a convention, as in \sin x or \log x, and with the parentheses when it is a variable symbol, as in "f(x)".  (But a substantial minority of mathematicians use f\,x in the latter case.  Not to mention xf.)  This causes some beginning calculus students to think "\sin x" means "sin" times x.


The examples given above are only a sampling of troubles caused by mathematical notation.   Many others are mentioned in the Handbook and in Abstractmath, but they are scattered.  I welcome suggestions for other examples, particularly at the college and graduate level. Abstractmath will probably have a separate article listing the examples someday…


[1] The situation Pullum describes for English is probably different in languages such as Spanish, German and French, which have Academies that dictate usage for the language.  On the other hand, from what I know about them most speakers of those languages ignore their dictates.

[2] Actually, they may use more than one corpus, but I didn't want to write "corpuses" or "corpora" because in either way I would get sharp comments from faith-based usage people.

References on mathematical usage

Bagchi, A. and C. Wells (1997), Communicating Logical Reasoning.

Bagchi, A. and C. Wells (1998)  Varieties of Mathematical Prose.

Bullock, J. O. (1994), ‘Literacy in the language of mathematics’. American Mathematical Monthly, volume 101, pages 735743.

de Bruijn, N. G. (1994), ‘The mathematical vernacular, a language for mathematics with typed sets’. In Selected Papers on Automath, Nederpelt, R. P., J. H. Geuvers, and R. C. de Vrijer, editors, volume 133 of Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics, pages 865  935.  

Epp, S. S. (1999), ‘The language of quantification in mathematics instruction’. In Developing Mathematical Reasoning in Grades K-12. Stiff, L. V., editor (1999),  NCTM Publications.  Pages 188197.

Gillman, L. (1987), Writing Mathematics Well. Mathematical Association of America

Higham, N. J. (1993), Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Knuth, D. E., T. Larrabee, and P. M. Roberts (1989), Mathematical Writing, volume 14 of MAA Notes. Mathematical Association of America.

Krantz, S. G. (1997), A Primer of Mathematical Writing. American Mathematical Society.

O'Halloran, K. L.  (2005), Mathematical Discourse: Language, Symbolism And Visual Images.  Continuum International Publishing Group.

Pimm, D. (1987), Speaking Mathematically: Communications in Mathematics Classrooms.  Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Schweiger, F. (1994b), ‘Mathematics is a language’. In Selected Lectures from the 7th International Congress on Mathematical Education, Robitaille, D. F., D. H. Wheeler, and C. Kieran, editors. Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université Laval.

Steenrod, N. E., P. R. Halmos, M. M. Schiffer, and J. A. Dieudonné (1975), How to Write Mathematics. American Mathematical Society.

Wells, C. (1995), Communicating Mathematics: Useful Ideas from Computer Science.

Wells, C. (2003), Handbook of Mathematical Discourse

Wells, C. (ongoing), Abstractmath.org.

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The interactive examples in this post require installing Wolfram CDF player, which is free and works on most desktop computers using Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. The source code is the Mathematica Notebook Tangent Line.nb, which is available for free use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The notebook can be read by CDF Player if you cannot make the embedded versions in this post work.

This is an experiment in exposition of the mathematical concepts of tangent.  It follows the same pattern as my previous post on secant, although that post has explanations of my motivation for this kind of presentation that are not repeated here.

Tangent line

A line is tangent to a curve (in the plane) at a given point if all the following conditions hold (Wikipedia has more detail.):

  1. The line is a straight line through the point.
  2. The curve goes through that point.
  3. The curve is differentiable in a neighborhood of the point.
  4. The slope of the straight line is the same as the derivative of the curve at that point.

In this picture the curve is $ y=x^3-x$ and the tangent is shown in red. You can click on the + signs for additional controls and information.

Etymology and metaphor

The word “tangent” comes from the Latin word for “touching”. (See Note below.) The early scholars who talked about “tangent” all read Latin and knew that the word meant touching, so the metaphor was alive to them.

The mathematical meaning of “tangent” requires that the tangent line have slope equal to the derivative of the curve at the point of contact. All of the red lines in the picture below touch the curve at the point (0, 1.5). None of them are tangent to the curve there because the curve has no derivative at the point:

The curve in this picture is defined by

The mathematical meaning restricts the metaphor. The red lines you can generate in the graph all touch the curve at one point, in fact at exactly at one point (because I made the limits on the slider -1 and 1), but there are not tangent to the curve.

Tangents can hug!

On the other hand, “touching” in English usage includes maintaining contact on an interval (hugging!) as well as just one point, like this:

The blue curve in this graph is given by

The green curve is the derivative dy/dx. Notice that it has corners at the endpoints of the unit interval, so the blue curve has no second derivative there. (See my post Curvature).

Tangent lines in calculus usually touch at the point of tangency and not nearby (although it can cross the curve somewhere else). But the red line above is nevertheless tangent to the curve at every point on the curve defined on the unit interval, according to the definition of tangent. It hugs the curve at the straight part.

The calculus-book behavior of tangent line touching at only one point comes about because functions in calculus books are always analytic, and two analytic curves cannot agree on an open set without being the same curve.

The blue curve above is not analytic; it is not even smooth, because its second derivative is broken at $x=0$ and $x=1$. With bump functions you can get pictures like that with a smooth function, but I am too lazy to do it.

Tangent on the unit circle

In trigonometry, the value of the tangent function at an angle $ \theta$ erected on the x-axis is the length of the segment of the tangent at (1,0) to the unit circle (in the sense defined above) measured from the x-axis to the tangent’s intersection with the secant line given by the angle. The tangent line segment is the red line in this picture:

This defines the tangent function for $ -\frac{\pi}{2} < x < \frac{\pi}{2}$.

The tangent function in calculus

That is not the way the tangent function is usually defined in calculus. It is given by \tan\theta=\frac{\sin\theta}{\cos\theta}, which is easily seen by similar triangles to be the same on -\frac{\pi}{2} < x < \frac{\pi}{2}.

We can now see the relationship between the geometric and the $ \frac{\sin\theta}{\cos\theta}$ definition of the tangent function using this graph:

The red segment and the green segment are always the same length.
It might make sense to extend the geometric definition to $ \frac{\pi}{2} < x < \frac{3\pi}{2}$ by constructing the tangent line to the unit circle at (-1,0), but then the definition would not agree with the $ \frac{\sin\theta}{\cos\theta}$ definition.


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Some demos of families of functions

I have posted on abstractmath.org a CDF file of families of functions whose parameters you can control interactively. It is fascinating to play with them and see phenomena you (or at least I) did not anticipate.  Some of them have questions of the sorts you might ask students to discuss or work out.  Working out explanations for many of the phenomena demand some algebra skills, and sometimes more than that.

The Mathematica command that sets up one of the families looks like this:

Plot[{Sin[a x], a Cos[a x]}, {x, -2 Pi, 2 Pi},
PlotRange -> {{-4, 4}, {-4, 4}}, PlotStyle -> {Blue, Red},
AspectRatio -> 1], {{a, 1}, -4, 4, Appearance -> “Labeled”}]

It would be straightforward to make a command something like

PlotFamily[functionlist, domain, plotrange]

with various options for colors, aspect ratio and so on that would do these graphs.  But I found it much to easy to simply cut and paste and put in the new inputs and parameters as needed.

This sort of Mathematica programming is not hard if you have an example to copy, but you do need to get over the initial hump of learning the basic syntax.   I know of no other language where it would be as easy as the example above to produce an interactive plot of a family of functions.

But many people simply hate to learn a new language.  If this sort of interactive example turns out to be worthwhile, someone could design an interface that would allow you to fill in the blanks and have the command constructed for you.  (I could say the same about some of other cdf files I have posted on this blog recently.) But that someone won’t be me.  I have too much fun coming up with new ideas for math  exposition to have to spend time working out all the details.  And all my little experiments are available to use under the Creative Commons License.

I would appreciate comments and suggestions.


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Picturing derivatives

The CDF files in G&G posts no longer work. I have been unable to find out why.I expect to produce another document on abstractmath.org that will include this example and others. A link willl be posted here when it is done.

This is my first experiment at posting an active Mathematica CDF document on my blog. To manipulate the graph below, you must have Wolfram CDF Player installed on your computer. It is available free from their website.

This is a new presentation of old work. It is a graph of a certain fifth degree polynomial and its first four derivatives.

The buttons allow you to choose how many derivatives to show and the slider allows you to show the graphs from x=-4 up to a certain point.

How graphs like this could be used for teaching purposes

You could show this in class, but the best way to learn from it would be to make it part of a discussion in which each student had access to a private copy of the graph.  (But you may have other ideas about how to use a graph like this.  Share them!)

Some possible discussion questions:

  1. Click button 1. Now you see the function and the derivative. Move the slider all the way to the left and then slowly move it to the right.  When the function goes up the derivative is positive.  What other things do you notice when you do this?
  2. If you were told only that one of the functions is the derivative of the other, how would you rule out the wrong possibility?
  3. What can you tell about the zeroes of the function by looking at the derivative?
  4. Look at the interval between x=1.5 and x=1.75.  Does the function have one or two zeroes in that interval?  On my screen it looks as if the curve just barely  gets above the x axis in that interval.  What does that say about it having one or two zeroes?  How could you verify your answer?
  5. Click button 2.  Now you have the function and first and second derivatives.  What can you say about maxima, minima and concavity of the function?
  6. Find relationships between the first and second derivatives.
  7. Now click button 4.  Evidently the 4th derivative is a straight line with positive slope.  Assume that it is.  What does that tell you about the graph of the third derivative?
  8. What characteristics of the graph of the function can you tell from knowing that the fourth derivative is a straight line of positive slope?
  9. What can you say about the formula for the function knowing that the fourth derivative is a straight line of positive slope?
  10. Suppose you were given this graph and told that it was a graph of a function and its first four derivatives and nothing else.  Specifically, you do not know that the fourth derivative is a straight line.  Give a detailed explanation of how to tell which curve is the function and which curve is each specific derivative.

Making this manipulable graph

I posted this graph and a lot of others several years ago on abstractmath.org.  (It is the ninth graph down).  I fiddled with this polynomial until I got the function and all four derivatives to be separated from each other.  All the roots of the function and all its derivatives are real and all are shown.  Isn’t this gorgeous?

To get it to show up properly on the abmath site I had to thicken the graph line.  Otherwise it still showed up on the screen but when I printed it on my inkjet printer the curves disappeared. That seems to be unnecessary now.

Mathematica 8.0 has default colors for graphs, but I kept the old colors because they are easier to distinguish, for me anyway (and I am not color blind).

Inserting CDF documents into html

A Wolfram document explains how to do this.  I used the CDF plugin for WordPress.  WordPress requires that, to use the plugin, you operate your blog from your own server, not from WordPress.com.  That is the main reason for the recent change of site.

The Mathematica files are New5thDegreePolynomial.nb and New5thDegreePolynomial.cdf on my public folder of Mathematica files.  You may download the .cdf file directly and view it using CDF player if you have trouble with the embedded version. To see the code you need to download the .nb file and open all cells.

Here are some notes and questions on the process.  When I find learn more about any of these points I will post the information.

  1. At the moment I don’t know how to get rid of the extra space at the top of the graph.
  2. I was surprised that I could not click on the picture and shrink or expand it.
  3. It might be annoying for a student to read the questions above and have to go up and down the screen to see the graph.  I had envisioned that the teacher would ask the questions and have the students play with the graph and erupt with questions and opinions.  But you could open two copies of the .cdf file (or this blog) and keep one window showing the graph while the other window showed the questions.
  4. Which raises a question:  Could it be possible to program the graph with a button that when pushed would make the graph (only) appear in another window?

Other approaches

  1. I have experimented with Khan Academy type videos using CDF files.  I made a screen shot and at a certain point I pressed a button and the graph appropriately changed.   I expect to produce an example video which I can make appear on this blog (which supposedly can show videos, but I haven’t tried that yet.)
  2. It should be possible to have a CDF in which the student saw the graph with instructional text underneath it equipped with next and back buttons.  The next button would trigger changes in the picture and replace the text with another sentence or two.  This could be instead of spoken stuff or additional to it (which would be a lot of work).  Has anyone tried this?


My reaction to Khan Academy was mostly positive.  One thing that struck me that no one seems to have commented on is that the lectures are short. They cover one aspect (one definition or one example or what one theorem says) in what felt to me like ten or fifteen minutes.  This means that you can watch it and easily go back and forth using the controls on the video display.  If it were a 50-minute lecture it would be much harder to find your way around.

I think most students are grasshoppers:  When reading text, they jump back and forth, getting the gist of some idea, looking ahead to see where it goes, looking back to read something again, and so on.  Short videos allow you to do this with spoken lectures. That seems to me remarkably useful.

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Riemann clouds improved

In my post Playing with Riemann Sums I showed a couple of clouds of points, each representing a particular Riemann sum for a particular function.   I have extended the code in a couple of ways.

The new code is in the Mathematica notebook and CDF file called MoreRiemann in the Mathematica section of abstractmath.   The .nb form is a Mathematica Notebook, which requires Mathematica to run and allows you to manipulate the objects and change the code in the notebook as you wish.  In particular, you can rerun the commands generating the clouds to get a new random result.  The .cdf file contains the same material and can be viewed using Mathematica CDF Player, which is available free here.  Both files have several other examples besides the ones shown below.

As always, my code is one-time code to show the ideas, but it is available freely via the Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 License. I hope people will feel free to develop it further for use in teaching or for their own purposes.

Below is a cloud for \int_0^2 \sqrt{4-x^2} dx, the area of a quarter circle of radius 2, which is \pi.  The blue dots are arbitrary random Riemann sums with mesh shown on the horizontal axis and value on the vertical axis.  The partitions and the point in each subinterval are both random.  The red dots are arbitrary Riemann sums with random partitions but using the midpoint for value.

The next cloud shows random blue dots with the same meaning as above.  The red dots are Riemann sums with uniform subintervals evaluated at midpoints.  Possible discussion question for both of the clouds above:

  • Why do the red dots trend upward?

The following cloud is like the cloud above  with the addition of green dots representing uniform partitions evaluated at the left endpoint or right endpoint. (But the mesh scale is extended, giving different proportions to the picture.)

Of course the left endpoint gives the upper sums and the right endpoint gives the lower sums.

  • Explain the slight downward curvature of both green streaks.
  • Explain the big gap between the blue dots and the green dots.  (Requires some machinations with probability.)
  • Would there be blue dots a lot nearer the green dots if I ran the command asking for many more blue dots?

(These are idle questions I haven't thought about myself, but I'll bet they could be turned into good projects in analysis classes.)

Here is a cloud for \int_0^{\pi}\sin x dc with everything random for the blue dots and random partitions but midpoints for the red dots.

  • Why do these red dots trend upward?

The cloud below is for the same integral but uses uniform subintervals for the midpoint and adds green points for both the left endpoint and the right endpoint of uniform subinterval.

  • Why on earth do all the green dots trend downward???

This is a similar picture for \int_0^1 x^2 dx.  There are red dots but they are kind of drowned out.

And finally, here is \int_{\frac{1}{2}}^2 \frac{1}{x} dx:

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Playing with Riemann Sums

I had a satori [Note 2].  I felt like the guy in the ads who sits in front of his new ultrafast computer with the wind blowing his hair back and bracing himself by holding onto the desk.  (My hair was dark then but I certainly was not wearing a tie.)

That convergence theorem was talking about something BIG.

I visualized a Cloud of Riemann Sums floating around and swerving closer to the Right Answer as their meshes decreased.

A Riemann Sum has a lot of parameters:

  • Its mesh.  This can be any positive real number.
  • Its choice of subintervals. Any positive integer!  There can be billions of subintervals.
  • And, ye gods, the individual choice of each evaluation point for each subinterval in each Riemann Sum

Those are three independent parameters, except for the constraint imposed by the mesh on each choice of subintervals.  [Note 3].

I tell my students that we have to zoom in and zoom out [Reference 2] from a problem.  When we zoom out a complicated structure is thought of as a point in a certain relationship with other structures-as-points.  Then to understand something we zoom in (selectively) to see the details that make it work.  What I remember from my satori is that I didn’t visualize them as points but rather as little blurs, sort of like the blurs in Mumford’s red book [Reference 3], which I think was the first non-constipated math text I had ever seen.

Riemann Sums in Mathematica

In the nineties, I was on a grant to create Mathematica programs for students, and one of the notebooks I created allowed you to easily exhibit Riemann sums with various parameters.  I also included code that would show a cloud.

Below is a cloud.  It is a plot of the values of 300 Riemann sums for \int_0^{\pi} \sin x \,dx.  They have randomly chosen meshes from 0 to \pi/2 and the subintervals and individual evaluation points for each subinterval are also chosen randomly.

The cloud below is a plot of the values of 300 Riemann sums for the area of the upper right quarter circle of radius 2 with center at origin.  Its meshes range from 0 to 1, and other properties are similar to the one above.  The vertical spread of the points is considerably bigger,  presumably because of the vertical tangent line at the right hand end of the integral.

When you click on the code for either of these you get a different cloud with the same parameters.

You can access the notebook containing the code for this via Abmath Gate.    Be sure to read the ReadMe file.


[1] This was 1961.  Of course the book didn’t say things such as “with any choice of points-to-evaluate-at”.  It said what it had to say in stilted academic prose which required reading it two or three times before understanding it.  Academic prose is much better these days.  See Reference [1].

I was quite good at reading complicated prose. My ACT scores were a tad higher in English or Language or whatever it is called that they were in Math.  With the Internet, math exposition should do much more with pictures, interactive things, and lots of examples (which don’t waste paper now).  But that is another diatribe…

[2] This is a snooty word for lightbulb flashing over your head.  Every once in awhile I give in to the temptation to use some obscure word to impress people as to the variety of things I know about.  Teachers, don’t do this to your students.  Other professors are fair game.

[3] The same choice of subinterval can correspond to many different meshes, if your definition of mesh requires only that each subinterval be narrower than the mesh, rather than requiring that the mesh be the size of the biggest subinterval.  (I had never thought about that until I wrote this.)

[4] The Mathematica Demonstrations website has several other notebooks that exhibit Riemann Sums.


[1]  The Revolution in Technical Exposition II, post on this blog.

[2]  Zooming and Chunking in abmath.

[3] D. Mumford, The Red Book of Varieties and Schemes (second expanded ed.), Springer Lecture Notes in Math 1358, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1999.   (I have not seen this edition.  What I remember is the Red Book as it was in the 1967 Algebraic Geometry Summer School at Bowdoin.  I hope the smudges survive in the new version.  As I remember the smudges were bigger for points that were more generic or something like that.  Those smudges caused me a kind of sartori, too.)

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Endograph and cograph of real functions

This post is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 License, which means you may use, adapt and distribute the work provided you follow the requirements of the license.


In the article Functions: Images and Metaphors in abstractmath I list a bunch of different images or metaphors for thinking about functions. Some of these metaphors have realizations in pictures, such as a graph or a surface shown by level curves. Others have typographical representations, as formulas, algorithms or flowcharts (which are also pictorial). There are kinetic metaphors — the graph of {y=x^2} swoops up to the right.

Many of these same metaphors have realizations in actual mathematical representations.

Two images (mentioned only briefly in the abstractmath article) are the cograph and the endograph of a real function of one variable. Both of these are visualizations that correspond to mathematical representations. These representations have been used occasionally in texts, but are not used as much as the usual graph of a continuous function. I think they would be useful in teaching and perhaps even sometimes in research.

A rough and unfinished Mathematica notebook is available that contains code that generate graphs and cographs of real-valued functions. I used it to generate most of the examples in this post, and it contains many other examples. (Note [1].)

The endograph of a function

In principle, the endograph (Note [2]) of a function {f} has a dot for each element of the domain and of the codomain, and an arrow from {x} to {f(x)} for each {x} in the domain. For example, this is the endograph of the function {n\mapsto n^2+1 \pmod 11} from the set {\{0,1,\ldots,10\}} to itself:

“In principle” means that the entire endograph can be shown only for small finite functions. This is analogous to the way calculus books refer to a graph as “the graph of the squaring function” when in fact the infinite tails are cut off.

Real endographs

I expect to discuss finite endographs in another post. Here I will concentrate on endographs of continuous functions with domain and codomain that are connected subsets of the real numbers. I believe that they could be used to good effect in teaching math at the college level.

Here is the endograph of the function {y=x^2} on the reals:

I have displayed this endograph with the real line drawn in the usual way, with tick marks showing the location of the points on the part shown.

The distance function on the reals gives us a way of interpreting the spacing and location of the arrowheads. This means that information can be gleaned from the graph even though only a finite number of arrows are shown. For example you see immediately that the function has only nonnegative values and that its increase grows with {x}.(See note [3]).

I think it would be useful to show students endographs such as this and ask them specific questions about why the arrows do what they do.

For the one shown, you could ask these questions, probably for class discussion rather that on homework.

  • Explain why most of the arrows go to the right. (They go left only between 0 and 1 — and this graph has such a coarse point selection that it shows only two arrows doing that!)
  • Why do the arrows cross over each other? (Tricky question — they wouldn’t cross over if you drew the arrows with negative input below the line instead of above.)
  • What does it say about the function that every arrowhead except two has two curves going into it?

Real Cographs

The cograph (Note [4] of a real function has an arrow from input to output just as the endograph does, but the graph represents the domain and codomain as their disjoint union. In this post the domain is a horizontal representation of the real line and the codomain is another such representation below the domain. You may also represent them in other configurations (Note [5]).

Here is the cograph representation of the function {y=x^2}. Compare it with the endograph representation above.

Besides the question of most arrows going to the right, you could also ask what is the envelope curve on the left.

More examples

Absolute value function

Arctangent function


[1] This website contains other notebooks you might find useful. They are in Mathematica .nb, .nbp, or .cdf formats, and can be read, evaluated and modified if you have Mathematica 8.0. They can also be made to appear in your browser with Wolfram CDF Player, downloadable free from Wolfram site. The CDF player allows you to operate any interactive demos contained in the file, but you can’t evaluate or modify the file without Mathematica.

The notebooks are mostly raw code with few comments. They are covered by the Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 License, which means you may use, adapt and distribute the code following the requirements of the license. I am making the files available because I doubt that I will refine them into respectable CDF files any time soon.

[2] I call them “endographs” to avoid confusion with the usual graphs of functions — — drawings of (some of) the set of ordered pairs {x,f(x)} of the function.

[3] This is in contrast to a function defined on a discrete set, where the elements of the domain and codomain can be arranged in any old way. Then the significance of the resulting arrangement of the arrows lies entirely in which two dots they connect. Even then, some things can be seen immediately: Whether the function is a cycle, permutation, an involution, idempotent, and so on.

Of course, the placement of the arrows may tell you more if the finite sets are ordered in a natural way, as for example a function on the integers modulo some integer.

[4] The text [1] uses the cograph representation extensively. The word “cograph” is being used with its standard meaning in category theory. It is used by graph theorists with an entirely different meaning.

[5] It would also be possible to show the domain codomain in the usual {x-y} plane arrangement, with the domain the {x} axis and the codomain the {y} axis. I have not written the code for this yet.


[1] Sets for Mathematics, by F. William Lawvere and Robert Rosebrugh. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[2] Martin Flashman’s website contains many exampls of cographs of functions, which he calls mapping diagrams.

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