Calculus of Variations
The biggest step from derivatives with one variable to derivatives with many variables is from
one to two. After that, going from two to three was just more algebra and more complicated pictures.
Now the step will be from a finite number of variables to an infinite number. That will require a new
set of tools, yet in many ways the techniques are not very different from those you know.
If you’ve never read chapter 19 of volume II of the Feynman Lectures in Physics, now would be a
good time. It’s a classic introduction to the area. For a deeper look at the subject, pick up MacCluer’s
book refered to in the Bibliography at the beginning of this book.
16.1 Examples
What line provides the shortest distance between two points?
A straight line of course, no surprise
there. But not so fast, with a few twists on the question the result won’t be nearly as obvious. How
do I measure the length of a curved (or even straight) line?
Typically with a ruler.
For the curved
line I have to do successive approximations, breaking the curve into small pieces and adding the finite
number of lengths, eventually taking a limit to express the answer as an integral. Even with a straight
line I will do the same thing if my ruler isn’t long enough.
Put this in terms of how you do the measurement: Go to a local store and purchase a ruler.
It’s made out of some real material, say brass. The curve you’re measuring has been laid out on the
ground, and you move along it, counting the number of times that you use the ruler to go from one
point on the curve to another. If the ruler measures in decimeters and you lay it down 100 times along
the curve, you have your first estimate for the length, 10.0 meters. Do it again, but use a centimeter
length and you need 1008 such lengths: 10.08 meters.
That’s tedious, but simple.
Now do it again for another curve and compare their lengths.
Here comes the twist:
The ground is not at a uniform temperature.
Perhaps you’re making these
measurements over a notfullycooled lava flow in Hawaii. Brass will expand when you heat it, so if the
curve whose length you’re measuring passes over a hot spot, then the ruler will expand when you place
it down, and you will need to place it down fewer times to get to the end of the curve. You will measure
the curve as shorter. Now it is not so clear which curve will have the shortest (measured) length. If
you take the straight line and push it over so that it passes through a hotter region, then you may get
a smaller result.
Let the coefficient of expansion of the ruler be
α
, assumed constant. For modest temperature
changes, the length of the ruler is
‘
0
= (1 +
α
Δ
T
)
‘
. The length of a curve as measured with this ruler
is
Z
d‘
1 +
αT
(16
.
1)
Here I’m taking
T
= 0
as the base temperature for the ruler and
d‘
is the length you would use if
everything stayed at this temperature. With this measure for length, it becomes an interesting problem
to discover which path has the shortest “length.” The formal term for the path of shortest length is
This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.
View Full Document
This is the end of the preview.
Sign up
to
access the rest of the document.
 Summer '11
 Arubi
 Derivative, dx, ∂f, δy δy

Click to edit the document details