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Representations of functions II

Introduction to this post

I am writing a new abstractmath chapter called Representations of Functions. It will replace some of the material in the chapter Functions: Images, Metaphors and Representations.

This post includes a draft of the introduction to the entire new chapter (immediately below) and of the sections on graphs of continuous functions of one variable with values in the plane and in 3-space. Later posts will concern multivariable continuous functions and finite discrete functions.

Introduction to the new Chapter

Functions can be represented visually in many different ways. There is a sharp difference between representing continuous functions and representing discrete functions.

For a continuous function $f$, $f(x)$ and $f(x’)$ tend to be close together when $x$ and $x’$ are close together. That means you can represent the values at an infinite number of points by exhibiting them for a bunch of close-together points. Your brain will automatically interpret the points nearby that are not represented.

Nothing like this works for discrete functions. Many different arrangements of the inputs and outputs can be made. Different arrangements may be useful for representing different properties of the function.


The illustrations were created using these Mathematica Notebooks:

These notebooks contain many more examples of the ways functions can be represented than are given in this article. The notebooks also contain some manipulable diagrams which may help you understand the diagrams. In addition, all the 3D diagrams can be rotated using the cursor to get different viewpoints. You can access these tools if you have Mathematica, which is available for free for faculty and students at many universities, or with Mathematica CDF Player, which runs on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Like everything in abstractmath.org, the notebooks are covered by a Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Segments posted so far

Functions from a subset of $\mathbb{R}$ to $\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}$

Suppose $F:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}$. That means you put in one number and get out a pair of numbers.

The unit circle

An example is the unit circle, which is the graph of the function $t\mapsto(\cos t,\sin t)$. That has this parametric plot:

Unit circle

Because $\cos^2 t+\sin^2 t=1$, every real number $t$ produces a point on the unit circle. Four point are shown. For example,\[(\cos\pi,\,\sin\pi)=(-1,0)\] and

$t$ as time

In graphing functions $f:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$, the plot is in two dimensions and consists of the points $(x,f(x))$: the input and the output. The parametric plot shown above for $t\mapsto(\cos^2 t+\sin^2)$ shows only the output points $(\cos t,\sin t)$; $t$ is not plotted on the graph at all. So the graph is in the plane instead of in three-dimensional space.

An alternative is to use time as the third dimension: If you start at some number $t$ on the real line and continually increase it, the value $f(t)$ moves around the circle counterclockwise, repeating every $2\pi$ times. If you decrease $t$, the value moves clockwise. The animated gif circlemovie.gif shows how the location of a point on the circle moves around the circle as $t$ changes from $0$ to $2\pi$. Every point is traversed an infinite number of times as $t$ runs through all the real numbers.

The unit circle with $t$ made explicit

Since we have access to three dimensions, we can show the input $t$ explicitly by using a three-dimensional graph, shown below. The blue circle is the function $t\mapsto(\cos t,\sin t,0)$ and the gold helix is the function $t\mapsto(\cos t,\sin t,.2t)$.

Unit circle

The introduction of $t$ as the value in the vertical direction changes the circle into a helix. The animated .gif covermovie.gif shows both the travel of a point on the circle and the corresponding point on the helix.

As $t$ changes, the circle is drawn over and over with a period of $2\pi$. Every point on the circle is traversed an infinite number of times as $t$ runs through all the real numbers. But each point on the helix is traversed exactly once. For a given value of $t$, the point on the helix is always directly above or below the point on the circle.

The helix is called the universal covering space of the circle, and the set of points on the helix over (and under) a particular point $p$ on the circle is called the fiber over $p$. The universal cover of a space is a big deal in topology.

Figure-8 graph

This is the parametric graph of the function $t\mapsto(\cos t,\sin 2t)$.

Figure 8

Notice that it crosses itself at the origin, when $t$ is any odd multiple of $\frac{\pi}{2}$.

Below is the universal cover of the Figure-8 graph. As you can see, the different instances of crossing at $(0,0)$ are separated. The animated.gif Fig8movie shows the paths taken as $t$ changes on the figure 8 graph and on its universal cover

Unit circle

Functions from a subset of $\mathbb{R}$ to $\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}$

The graph of a function from a subset of $\mathbb{R}$ to $\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}$ can also be drawn as a parametric graph in three-dimensional space, giving a three-dimensional curve. The trick that I used in the previous section of showing the input parameter so that you can see the universal cover won’t work in this case because it would require four dimensions.

Universal covers

The gold curves in the figures for the universal covers of the circle and the figure 8 are examples of functions from $\mathbb{R}$ to $\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}\times\mathbb{R}$.

The seven-pointed crown

Here are views from three different angles of the graph of the function $t\mapsto(\cos t, \sin t, \sin 7t)$:

The animated gif crownmovie.gif represents the parameter $t$ in time.

Another curve in space

Below are two views of the curve defined by $t\mapsto({-4t^2+53t)/18,t,.4(-t^2+1-10t)}$.

The following plots the $x$-curve $-4t^2+53t)/18$ gold in the $yz$ plane and the $z$ curve $.4(-t^2+1-10t)$ in the $xy$ plane. The first and third views are arranged so that you see the curve just behind one of those two planes.

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