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Tangents as Limits of Secant Lines

Tangent Lines
Linear Approximations of Functions
Velocity
Rates of Change

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The basic problem that leads to differentiation is to compute the slope of a
tangent line of the graph of a given function f at a given point V0. The key
observation, which allows one to compute slopes of tangent lines is that the
tangent is a certain limit of secant lines as illustrated in the picture below.

A secant line intersects the graph of a

function f at two or more points. The
figure on the left shows secant lines
intersecting the graph at the points
f corresponding to V=V0 and V=V0 + .
As approaches 0, the secant line in
question approaches the tangent line at
the point (V0,f(V0)).

V0 V0+h

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The slope of a secant line intersecting the graph of a function f at points
corresponding to V=V0 and V=V0 + can readily be computed using the
notations defined in the picture below.

Sl ft s c t li
f(V0+ )
f ÿV0 - f ÿV0
f 

f(V0) f(V0+ )- f(V0)

As approaches 0 (through
positive numbers), the secant in
the pictures approaches the
tangent to the graph of f at the
V0 V0+ point (V0,f(V0)).

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Definition The tangent line of the graph of the function f at the point
ÿV ,f ÿV
0 0 is the line passing through this point and having
the slope
f ÿV0  f ÿV0
lim
À0

Example Compute the slope of the

tangent line, at the point (r,r),
of the graph of the function V2. r

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Example Compute the slope of the
tangent line, at the point (r,r),
of the graph of the function V2.
r
Solution By the definition the slope is
2
f ÿV 0  f ÿV 0 ÿr  r2 r
lim  lim .
À0 À0

This can readily be computed by expanding Conclusion

the products
2
ÿr  r2 r2 2 2
 r2 Equation of the
lim  lim tangent line is
À0 À0

2 2 -r=2(V-r), i.e.,
 lim  limÿ 2  2.
À0 À0
=2V-r.

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The following pictures show, in different scales, the graph of the function
V2 and that of its tangent line at the point (r,r).

Conclusion Near the point of tangency, the tangent line approximates

well the graph of the function. The closer we are the point of
tangency, the better the approximation is.

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Let f(÷) denote the distance, in kilometers, a train has traveled in time ÷, ÷>0.

Problem Estimate the speed of the train at time ÷=÷0.

Solution Let >0. The distance the train has traveled in the time
interval from time ÷=÷0 to time ÷=÷0+ is f(÷0+ )-f(÷0).
Hence thee average speed during this time interval is
(f(÷0+ )-f(÷0))/ . Taking the limit as approaches 0 gives
the speed of the train at time ÷=÷0.

Conclusion T s ft tr i t ti ÷  ÷ 0 is
f ÿ÷ 0 - J f ÿ÷ 0
li .
J À0 J

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Õalileo made experiments that lead to the
discovery of gravity. In the experiments
he let various objects fall from the tower
of Pisa.

The top floor of the tower (above which

the bells are hanging and from which
objects can be dropped) is about 48
meters above the ground.

Problem Õiven that the equation of motion for a freely falling object is
d=f(÷)=4.9÷2, compute the speed at which a freely falling
object hits the ground when it is dropped from the top floor
of the tower of Pisa.

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Problem Õiven that the equation of motion for a freely falling
object is d=f(÷)=4.9÷2, compute the speed at which a
freely falling object hits the ground when it is
dropped from the top floor of the tower of Pisa.

Solution Let us first compute the speed of the object at

time ÷=÷0. By the previous considerations we
get:
2
f ÿ÷0  f ÿ÷0 4.9 ÿ÷0  4.9÷02
Speed at time ÷ 0  lim  lim
À0 À0

 li
4. ÿ÷
0 -  J÷0 - J   4. ÷0
 li
4. ÿ J÷ 0 - J
JÀ0 J JÀ0 J
 li 4. ÿ  ÷0 - J  . ÷0.
JÀ0

Conclusion T s of t f llin o ct t ti ÷  ÷0 is . ÷0 ÿ /d .

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Problem Õiven that the equation of motion for a freely falling
object is d=f(÷)=4.9÷2, compute the speed at which a
freely falling object hits the ground when it is
dropped from the top floor of the tower of Pisa.

Solution We now know that the speed of the falling

(cont¶d) object at time ÷  ÷0 is 9.8÷0 ÿ /d .

To find out how long it takes for the falling object

to reach the ground, solve ÷ from the equation
Height of the tower 48  4.9÷ 2 Distance fallen in time ÷

ü  ts ÷  3.13 sc s. t  ri sl

f f r l f r t  s   t:

Conclusion The object hits the ground with the speed 0.7 / d.

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I t  ri s ls  c t li its f t  rti
f ÿV 0 - J f ÿV 0
.
J
Writi V  V0 - J  ts
f ÿV0 - J f ÿV0 f ÿV f ÿV0  f ÿV0
  .
J V V0 V
r V  V V0 
ts t  c   i t  ri l V,  
 f ÿV0  f ÿV0 - J f ÿV0 is t  c   i t  ls
f t  f cti
.

Definition T e liit
 f ÿV0
li
V
V À 0

is t e instteneos rte of c n e of t e
fnction f t V  V0 .
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Depending on the situation, the rates of change of functions may
model, for example, one of the following:
r. The slope of the tangent line.
2. The speed of an object.
. The rate at which an investment in a bank account grows.
4. The speed at which a hot object cools down or the speed at which
a cold object warms up.
5. Population growth or decay.

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