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Source: Educational Studies in Mathematics, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Apr., 1972), pp. 358-367

Published by: Springer

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3482173 .

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HUGH THURSTON

I. INTRODUCTION

But thereis one topic that falls short of the ideal, namelythe definitionand

basic propertiesof dy/dx. Mathematicsis also a concise and efficientlanguage in which well-chosensymbols ease difficultcomputations;a mathematicalsymbolmay be packedfull of meaningand dependon a numberof

formulae,but at least it refers to a sharply-distinpreviously-introduced

guished,well-definedconcept.Again, there is an exceptionto this: dy/dx.

My aim in this essay is to pin-pointthese logical deficiencies,to show that

they are consequencesof a faulty definition,and to suggesta remedy.Fortunatelya very simplesatisfactorydefinitionis possible.

The readerhimselfmay havefelt uneasyaboutdy/dx, possiblyfor reasons

like the following.

(1) Most definitionsof dy/dx do not enableus to answersuch questions

as:

In dy/dx, does the y denote a numberor a function?

Does the x denote a numberor a function?

Does dy/dx itself denote a numberor a function?

(In the technicallanguageof mathematicallogic, the firstquestionwouldbe

"... is the symboly a numericalvariableor afunction-variable?".

In the language ot the New Mathematicsit would be "...is the y a placeholderfor a

numeralor for the name of a function?")

Forf', such questionspresentno problemat all. Given the definition

f' ()=

lim f ({

f R)

we can sayfirmlythatf andf' denotefunctionsand that {,f (f) andf'(4) denote numbers.Indeed,a well-writtendefinitionof f'({) will start "Givena

functionf and a numberc...".

(2) Everyoneknows that the relationy = f (x) yields dy/dx=f '(x). And

if f is differentiableat, say, 0, thenf'(0) makes sense. But dy/dOdoes not.

This is probablythe commonestway in which the ambiguitiesin (1) plague

student.

the slightly-more-thoughtful-than-average

EducationalStudies in Mathematics4 (1972) 358-367. All Rights Reserved

CopyrightC 1972 by D. ReidelPublishingCompany,Dordrecht-Holland

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

359

along a straightline. If the particleat any time reversesdirectionthen v is

not a functionof s, becausethe value of s does not then uniquelydetermine

the correspondingvalue of v. In particular,if the particleoscillatesin simple

harmonicnotion (for more than half a cycle),then v is not a functionof s.

In this contextdv/dsis a valid and usefulconcept,as any physicistwill confirm. If we refer to any definition,however,we see that dv/ds is not even

definedunlessv is a functionof s.

(4) Evenwithinpuremathematicsitself,we needa definitionof dy/dx that

can be appliedwhen y is not a function of x. 'Implicitdifferentiation',for

instance, needs such a definition.I take an examplefrom a recent book

(RobertBonic et al., Freshmancalculus,page 89, problemla) to emphasize

that the difficultyis still with us; many similarexamplesare to be found in

older books. This particularproblemgoes as follows.

Given

(i) y4= X2+5

show that dy/dx=x/2y3.

Given only (i), we cannot say that y is a functionof x: the value of x does

not uniquelydeterminethe correspondingvalueof y. Thusdy/dx is not even

defined.

(5) The situationis very similarwhenx andy are relatedparametrically.

If x and y are both functionsof u, then a standardresultfrom elementary

calculusis

dy

dy/du

dx

dx/du

For instance,if x= u2 and y = 2au (the familiarparametricequationsof a

parabola)then y is not a function of x. Neverthelessthe standardresult

dy/dx= a/u does serveto give the slope of the tangentcorrectly- or would

do if dy/dx werein fact defined.

(6) I have kept until last the strongestobjectionto the traditionaldefinition of dy/dx: it is ambiguous.The definitioncomesin severalvariants,but

they are all equivalentto the following

If y = f (x),

equalboth to f'(x) and to g'(x). What,then,iff'(x) #g'(x)? This can easily

happen:if f, g, andx satisfythe conditionf(x) = g(x), it does not necessarily

follow thatf '(x)=g'(x). Becausethe definitionis ambiguouswe shouldnot

perhaps be too surprisedthat it leads to trouble.

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

HUGH THURSTON

360

We can avoid someof the difficultiesif we foregothe use of dy/dx and use

only the 'prime'notation. Indeed, in the MathematicalGazette(No. 385)

M. Bruckheimerand R.E. Scratonstateflatly "thereis no suchthing as differentiationwith respectto x." In a courseof pureanalysiswe mightwell do

withoutdy/dx and,indeed,few writers,if any, statethe mean-valuetheorem

in Leibniz'snotation.But for calculusin the wide sense the sacrificewould

be too great.We needds/dt, dv/dtand v dv/dsin kinematics;we needdP/dV

of gases; we needdcx/dsand ds/dx in the

and dV/d Tin the thermodynamics

differentialgeometryof curves;and we need dy/dx whenx andy arerelated

If u, v, w, x, y and z are six coordinatesof parts

implicitlyor parametrically.

of a machine(angularcoordinatesof wheels,linearcoordinatesof rods, and

so on) each of which is a function of any other, then we can differentiate

any one of these coordinateswith respectto any otherin Leibniz'snotation

withoutfurtherado; whereasthe 'prime'notationwould requirethirtysymbols for functionslike thef for whichu=f(v). Problemswith a largenumber

of relatedvariablesare not uncommonin the exact sciences.

Finally, even if the teacherdoes not feel that

dw dz dy

dw

dz dy dx

dx

is immenselysuperiorto

(f o g o h)' (cx)= (f'o g o h) (c) (g' o h) (c) h' (cx)

Anyone who prefersthe notationDf to f ' for the derivativeoff will find

that everythingthat I haveto say aboutf ' will applyto Df, andhe can mentally substituteit throughoutthe essay if he likes. Similarly,everythingthat

I have to say about dy/dx will apply to Cauchy'snotation Dxy. (Whether

or not it is a pedagogicalmistaketo use a symbolthat 'looks like a quotient

but is not one' is a separatequestionthat I am not concernedwith here.)

By tinkeringwiththe definitionof dy/dx we can overcomethe variousdifficulties. For (1) we have to decide whetherx, y and dy/dx are to denote

numbersor functions.A littlethoughtshowsthattheymustdenotefunctions.

This clearsup point (2); if x denotesa functionthereis no temptationto replace it by a numeral.We must, of course, be clearwhat we mean byf (x)

wheref and x are both functions:it is the compositefunction

{ _*f(x (0)

that it applieswheny is only locallya functionof x. This clearsup (4) and

(5) at the sametime. For (6) we can restrictthe definitionto the casewherex

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

WHAT EXACTLY IS

dy/dx?

361

(locally).We end up with somethinglike the following:

If x and y are real-valuedfunctionsof a real variable(or "If x and y are

functionsin R into R") then dy/dx is the functiondefinedas follows. For

each real number4 in the domainof x whichhas a neighbourhoodN such

thatthe restrictionx1 of x to Nis one-to-one,and suchthatfis differentiable

at x(X), wheref=y(xj'), the value of dy/dx at { isf'(x(4)).

Fortunately,this complicationis unnecessary.If, insteadof tinkeringwith

the traditionaltreatment,we startfrom scratch,we can devisea verysimple

and naturaldefinition.It will agreewith the common-senseidea of what the

derivativeof y with respectto x ought to be, becauseit will arise naturally

from the idea of rate-of-change;and dy/dx will be defineddirectlyin terms

of x and y withoutany extraneous!. Moreover,the well-knownformula

dz dy

dz

dy dx

dx

will follow as a directresultof the 'limitof a product'rule.It will be a theoremthat (undercertainreasonableconditions)if y=f(x) thendy/dx=f '(x).

Further,if y=f (x) locally, then dy/dx=f '(x) locally.

II. THE DEFINITION

OF DERIVATIVE

startby consideringa typicalrate of change.

Example

Let v denote the velocityof a particlemovingalong a line: that is to say, let

v(T) be the velocityat time T, for each relevantT. Let s denote the displacementof the particle.BetweentimesT and T+ 3 the velocitywill changefrom

v (T) to v (T+ 6); thus it will increaseby v(T+ 3)-v (T). Betweenthe same

times,the displacementwill increaseby s(T +6)-s(-(). Thereforethe average

rateof increaseof velocitywith respectto displacement,whichis, of course,

the averageincreasein velocityper unit increasein displacement,will be

V (T + 6) -V

(T)

S (T + ) -S (T)

providedthats(T+3)-s(T)# O.

The(instantaneous)rate of increaseof velocitywith respectto displacement

at time T is the limit as 6 approacheszero of this averageincrease.

This suggeststhe followingdefinition.

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362

HUGH THURSTON

Definition

If x and y are functions,then dy/dx is the functiondefinedby

dy

dx

Y(T+)-Y(T)

T =

() =

rnOx

)-X

(T)

Theorem1. If dy/dx(T) and dz/dy(T) exist, then

dz T)dz

dx

dy

T)dy ()

dx

Corollary.If dy/dx(T) and dz/dy(T) exist for every T in the domainsof

x, y and z, then

dz

dx

dz dy

dy dx

dy (T)

y'(T)

dx

x_(T)

Corollary.If x' () and y' (T)exist for everyx in the domainsof x and y,

and if x' (T) is neverzero, then

dy

dx

y'

x'

Theorem3. If y=f (x) and x is differentiable

x'(T)0j; then

dy (T) =f

'(x (T)).

Proof: y' (T)=f ' (x(T)).x' (T) by the theoremon the derivativeof a composite function.Theorem2 then yields our result.

Corollary.If x is differentiableand iff is differentiableat x (x) for every-r

in the domain of x, it follows that:

if y = f(x),

y (4) = f(x (4)) for every 4 in U

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

WHAT EXACTLY

IS

dy/dx?

363

dy (r) =f

dx

(x))

(X

Note: we could phrasethe first two lines of the statementof the theorem

as "If y=f (x) locally at T..."

We could replacethe conditions"x is differentiableat T and x' (T')#0" by

"x is continuousat T and x is not constanton any neighbourhoodof T", but

the proof would then be ratherdifferent.

Example(implicitdifferentiation)

If x and y two differentiablefunctionsfor which

X2 + y2

(thatis to say, the functionX2 + y2 is constantand has value 1), then, on the

set of points at which the value of x' is non-zero

2x + 2y

dy

dx

= 0.

of two functions,of a compositefunction,and of a constant,

2x (T)*x' (T)+ 2y (T)*y' (T)= 0.

Then theorem2 yields

dy

2x (r) + 2y (T)-d (T)

dx

as required.

Example(parametricdifferentiation).

Let t be the identity-functionand

x = t2 and y =2at

then

dy

dx

a

t

III. CONCLUSIONS

mentionedin the introduction.The firsttwo are resolvedbecausethe defini-

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a function of s. If s'('r)A0 then, by theorem2, the value of dv/ds at T is

v' (T)/s'(X).Thereforedv/dsis definedfor all timesexceptthose at whichthe

particleis (momentarily)stationary;whichis preciselywhata physicistwould

expecton common-sensegrounds.

In (4), the problemcited is not properlystated: it does not make clear

what (if anything)x and y are. If statedproperlyit would not, of course,be

Given numbersx and y such that

(i) y4=X2+5

because this, on any definitionof dy/dx, is nonsense; (j3)4 =2 2+ 5, but

no-one in his senseswould maintainthat d13/d2= 1/127. If the problemis

Givenfunctionsx and y such that

(i) y4=X2+5

then (assumingthatx andy arereasonablywell-behaved)we havea situation

like the one in (3); and so difficultynumber4 is resolvedin the sameway as

number3. Similarremarksapplyto (5).

Finallythe reallyimportantdifficulty,(6), is overcomebecauseour definition of dy/dx is directlyin termsof x and y.

One useful by-productof our definitionis that it removesall temptation

to use what I call the pseudo-Leibnizian

notation,df/dx.

This notation is largelyconfinedto text-booksand examination-papers,

and is not muchused in actualproblem-solving.It was definitelyneverused

by Leibnizhimself.Indeed,it seemsquitemodern;it is not usedin the classic

texts by Goursat,de la Vall6ePoussin,Hardyor Courant.

It occursin two slightvariants.If y =f (x) then sometimesdf /dx is used

to mean dy/dx (that is, f' (x)) and sometimesto meanf '; and frequently

the definitionis so unclearthat we cannot tell which of the two is meant.

It matterslittle becauseneitheris satisfactory.Neither,for example,yields

the formula

dz dy

dz

dy dx

dx

IV. EXTENSION

TO ONE-DIMENSIONAL

MANIFOLDS

So far we have taken it for grantedthat, in dy/dx, the y and the x denote

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

WHAT EXACTLY IS

dy/dx?

365

the standardchain-rulefor suchfunctions.For certainapplications,however,

we need to considermore generalfunctions.

It is well-knownthat the state of a specimenof gas is determinedwhen

its pressure,volume and temperatureare given. Let us considerchangesin

a given specimenof gas at a fixed temperature(isothermalchanges),a type

of changeof some importancein physics.Thenthe state of the gas is determinedwhentwo numbers,namelythevaluesof thepressureandof thevolume,

aregiven.However,in practice,theseare not independent;thereis a relation

betweenthem, and for an 'ideal'gas the relationis Boyle'slaw: the volume

is inverselyproportionalto the pressure.More generally,if the gas is not

'ideal',we assumethat some such law exists:thereis a functionF such that

our isothermalspecimencan have pressure4 at the sametime as volumetj if

andonlyif

F ({, 'i) = 0.

Because({, il) determinesthe state of the gas, and becausethe concept of

'state'is not yet preciselydefined,let us agreeto call each pair (4, ?t) satisfying (1) a state of the specimen.A 'functionof state' is then any function

whose domainis the set of all states- which,in the isothermalcase we are

considering,is a subsetof R2. For example,the entropyis a functionof state,

and so is the internalenergy(or rather,to be precise,the differencebetween

the internalenergy and the internalenergyin some fixed standardstate).

For any reasonablefunctionF (and for the functiongivenby Boyle'slaw in

particular)the set of all stateswill be a reasonablywell-behavedcurvein R2.

We can say preciselywhat 'reasonablywell-behaved'means in any given

context(roughlyit means"wellenoughbehavedfor us to be able to use the

techniquesof calculus")and we have a technicalnamefor the set of points

so described:it is a 'one-dimensionalmanifold'.

Definition

A subsetM of R2 is a one-dimensionalmanifoldif, for each pointp of M,

thereis a neighbourhoodU of p in R2 such that M n U is either

{(c

f(t)):

edom f}

{(ff(t), U):6edomf}

for some functionf.

In otherwordsif we selecta pointp of M and directa magnifying-glass

at

p (whosefieldof viewis U) then the partof M thatwe see (whichis M n U)

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366

HUGH THURSTON

y = f(x)

x =f(y).

y =f(x) or locally of the form x =f (y).

and so on. It turns out that M is well-enoughbehavedfor our purposesif

everyf is continuouslydifferentiable.

Let us returnto our specimenof gas. Let U be a functionof state.We shall

naturallywant to definedU/dP and dU/dV, whereP and V denotepressure

and volume. The functions U, P and V are definedas follows.

U(4, ,l) is the value of U when the gas is in state ({, ,).

P ({, i) is the pressurewhen the gas is in state (4, ).

V({, tl) is the volumewhen the gas is in state ((, ).

ThusP ({, t) = 4 and V({, i) -.= That is to say,P and V are the two coordinate-functions.

In general,let M be a one-dimensionalmanifoldin R2 and x andy be the

coordinate-functionswith domain M, and u any real-valuedfunctionwith

domainM. Our definitionof du/dx will naturallybe

(ii)

du

(x)

= lim u (O + 6)-u

(a)

for each point a of M for whichthe limit exists, and the definitionof du/dy

will be similar.

We must,of course,be quiteclearwhat we meanby 'limit'in this context.

Two definitionsof limit are to be found in the literature,a strong (older)

form and a weak (newer)form; we must use the newerform.

Let us look at the older form. Iff is a functionin R2 unto R, and a is a

point of R2, then the numberAis a limit off at a if for eachneighbourhood

N of A there is a neighbourhoodU of a such thatf () 'eN whenever4 e U

but { # oc.Under this definitionf cannot have a limit at a unlessthereis at

least one neighbourhoodof a all of which(exceptpossiblyfor a itself)is containedin the domainoff.

Underthe newerdefinition,A is a limit off at a if ocis a limit-pointof domf

and for each neighbourhoodN of A there is a neighbourhoodU of a such

thatf (c) e N whenever4 E U n domf

In our case, domfis M, and so we can describethe limitin (ii) as 'thelimit

as oc+c approachesa in M'. The reasonwhy the olderdefinitionwill not do

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

367

thin to containa disc. (Peano'sspace-fillingcurveis not a one-dimensional

manifold.)

We can make a similardefinitionof manifoldin R3 or spaces of higher

dimension.To go into any furtherdetail requirespartialdifferentiation(or

Fr6chetderivatives).

Universityof BritishColumbia,

Vancouver

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