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# Rubber Band Calculus

## Author(s): Fred Kuczmarski

Source: The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (March 2016), pp. 82-93
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.4169/college.math.j.47.2.82
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Fred Kuczmarski

## Fred Kuczmarski (fkuczmar@shoreline.edu) received his

Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1995 under the
guidance of Paul Goerss. He currently teaches at Shoreline
mathematics, he enjoys baking bread and hiking in

Open an introductory calculus text and you will be hard-pressed to find a figure illustrating the chain rule or u-substitution. Many other central ideas also lack geometric
interpretations. The vivid image we have of a function, namely its graph, is part of
the problem. The graph leads to the interpretation of the derivative as the slope of the
tangent line and makes images for these other ideas elusive.
Using rubber bands, we offer a way to visualize functions that suggests another
interpretation of the derivative. This leads to natural geometric interpretations of the
chain rule, u-substitution, and curvature. We hope the corresponding images compel
The following problem [4, p. 204] captures the spirit of rubber band functions. We
urge you to solve it before reading on. Better yet, share it with your students. We bet
many will find it both challenging and engaging. (One student shared his solution with
me two years after I had assigned this problem.)
The Rubber Band Problem. The ends of a relaxed rubber band are held above
the 1-inch and 10-inch marks on a 12-inch ruler. The band is then stretched so that its
ends line up with the ends of the ruler. Find all points of the band, if any, that end up
where they started.

## Functions, derivatives, and the chain rule

Think of the x-axis as an elastic band that can be stretched or compressed, and a
function f : R R as a deformation of this band. For example, the function f (x)
= 2x stretches the band about the origin by a factor of two. As illustrated in Figure
1, the stretching transforms a set of uniformly spaced marks to a set of marks spaced
twice as far apart. Reversing the arrows gives a representation of the inverse function.

## Figure 1. The function f (x) = 2x on 2 x 2.

http://dx.doi.org/10.4169/college.math.j.47.2.82
MSC: 26A06, 26B10

82

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10

11

12

13

14

15

16

x=3

8.4

8.6

8.8

9.0

## Figure 3. The function f (x) =

9.2

x2

9.4

9.6

on 2.9 x 3.1.

Figure 2 illustrates the action of the function f (x) = x 2 . Figure 3 shows a magnified view near x = 3, where the function looks almost linear. The figure suggests that
f  (3) = 6: A small interval of width x = 0.2 around x = 3 is mapped to a small
interval approximately six times as wide.
Differentiable functions behave locally like linear functions and the derivative measures what we call the local stretching factor; the function f maps a small interval
of width x about x = a to an interval of approximate width f  (a)x about f (a).
The band is stretched (in tension) at x = a if | f  (a)| > 1 and is in compression if
| f  (a)| < 1. At points where | f  (a)| = 1, the band is relaxed.

x
1.5

1.0

0.5

0.0

0.5

1.0

1.5

u = sin x
Figure 4. The function u = sin x on /2 x /2.

## The function g(x) = sin x, shown on /2 x /2 in Figure 4, compresses

the band almost everywhere. The band appears to be relaxed in a rather large interval
around x = 0, reflecting both that g  (0) = 1 and g  (0) = 0. The zeros of the derivative
appear as dark regions at the ends of the band, where it is tightly compressed.
The lack of arrows in Figure 5 makes it difficult to see the exact correspondence
between the inputs and the outputs of the function u = e x . This ambiguity suggests that
we think
 of the derivative
 as a function of the output. Note how the figure illustrates
that ddux u=1 = 1 and ddux u=4 = 4.
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x
2

u = ex
Figure 5. The function u = e x on 2 x 1.7.

## Reversing the rubber-band representation of a one-to-one function f illustrates the

local stretching action of g = f 1 . We can see at a glance that for f  (a) = 0,
g  ( f (a)) =

1
f

 (a)


For example, in Figure 5, ddux u=4 = 1/4.
If f (x) and g(x) are differentiable and h(x) = f (g(x)), then the chain rule h  (a)
= g  (a) f  (g(a)) says that the local stretching factor of the composition is simply the
product of the local stretching factors g  (a) and f  (g(a)). Figure 6 shows an example
where we push forward the domain coloring by giving the output of a function the
same color as its input. A glance at the figure suggests, for example, that h  (1) 1.
x
0.0

0.5

1.0

1.5

u = x2
v = sin(u)
Figure 6. Visualizing the chain rule for h(x) = sin x 2 .

## Integration, substitution, and the fundamental theorem

Rubber bands
give an elegant geometric interpretation of u-substitution. Think of the

integral 0 sin u du, for example, as a sum of areas of differential rectangles of heights
sin u and equal widths du; see Figure 7(a). The substitution u = x 2 shows that


sin u du =

2x sin x 2 d x.

(1)

## While it is natural to regard the second integral as a sum of areas of differential

rectangles with heights 2x sin x 2 and equal widths d x, this obscures the geometry
2
of the function u = x as mapping a differential partition
of the interval x [0, ] with subintervals of equal widths d x to a partition of the
interval
u [0, ] with subintervals of unequal widths du = 2x d x. Now interpret

2x sin x 2 d x as a sum of areas of differential rectangles of heights sin u = sin x 2
0
and widths du = 2x d x over the the interval u [0, ], shown in Figure 7(b). Since
these rectangles fill in the region between the graph of y = sin u and the u-axis on
0 u , we see at a glance why (1) holds.
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1 y

1 y

u = x2

u
x
(a)

(b)


0

sin u du and


0

2x sin x 2 d x.

## The same argument shows, heuristically at least, that



f (g(x))g  (x) d x =

g(b)

f (u) du

(2)

g(a)

when f is continuous and g is monotonic and differentiable on the interval [a, b]. For
the function u = g(x) maps a differential partition of the interval [a, b] with subintervals of widths d x to a differential partition of the interval [g(a), g(b)] with subintervals
b
of widths du = g  (x) d x. Just as in Figure 7(b), we can interpret a f (g(x))g  (x) d x
as the sum of areas of differential rectangles of heights f (u) and widths du. Since
these rectangles fill in the region between the graph of y = f (u) and the u-axis for
g(a) u g(b), we have (2). We leave it as an exercise to turn this argument into a
formal proof by working on the level of Riemann sums.
y

y
P(sin u, cos u)

Q(u, cos u)

## The fundamental theorem now follows as a corollary to u-substitution. To see how,

first consider the example illustrated in Figure 8. The correspondence between the
points P(sin u, cos u) and Q(u, cos u) suggests the transformation u = sin1 x that
maps the semicircle to the cosine curve. It also maps a partition of the interval [1, 1]
with equalwidths d x to a partition of the interval [/2, /2] with unequal widths
du = d x/ 1 x 2 . The area of a differential rectangle under the cosine curve is then
cos u d x
d A = y du =
=
1 x2

1 sin2 u d x
= d x.

1 x2

(3)

## That is, the substitution u = sin1 x transforms an equal-width partition of [1, 1]

into an equal-area partition of [/2, /2] for the function y = cos u; the differential
rectangles in this partition have equal areas d A = d x (see Figure 9). Hence,


/2

/2


cos u du =

d x = 2.

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u = sin1x
x

## Figure 9. An equal-area differential partition for the function y = cos u, /2 u /2.

Note that the equal-area partition suggested by Figure 9 breaks down at the endpoints of the interval [/2, /2], where cos u = 0 and (3) does not hold. But this
does not affect the evaluation of the definite integral above.
b
This example suggests that to evaluate the definite integral a f (u) du, we look
for a substitution u = g(x) that gives an equal-area partition of [a, b] for f (u). We
assume that f is continuous and positive and that g is differentiable and invertible. For
an equal-area partition, we require d A = f (u) du = d x, equivalently d x/du = f (u).
So our search for an equal-area partition leads directly to a search for an antiderivative
of f . Let F be such an antiderivative. Since f (u) > 0 for u [a, b], it follows that F
is invertible. Making the substitution u = F 1 (x) gives


F(b)

f (u) du =
a

d x = F(b) F(a).
F(a)

Curves
Think of a curve and you might imagine a circle or a parabola. But to a differential
geometer, a plane curve is a function : [a, b] R2 or what we might call a parameterization of the curve. The set of points { (t), t [a, b]} is called the trace of the
curve. Different parameterizations with the same trace are different curves.
This viewpoint fits nicely with our rubber band representation of functions. We represent a curve visually by coloring the domain and using the parameterization to push
forward the coloring. Figure 10 shows the curves 1 (t) = (cos t, sin t) on t [, ]
and 2 (t) = (cos 2t, sin 2t) on t [/2, /2]. Imagine wrapping the domain of
each curve around the trace. The parameterizations each stretch their domains uniformly with stretching factors one and two, respectively.
Since the parameterization (t) = (x(t), y(t)) maps an differential interval of
length dt of the domain to the differential arc length
(a)

(b)

Figure 10. The curves 1 (t) = (cos t, sin t) on t and 2 (t) = (cos 2t, sin 2t) on
/2 t /2.

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(a)

(b)

## Figure 11. The curve (t) = (t, t 2 ) on 1 t 1 and the parabola y = x 2 on 1 x 1,

parameterized by arc length.


ds = (d x)2 + (dy)2 =

dx
dt

2


+

dy
dt

2
dt

## along the trace, the local stretching factor is


 2  2
dy
dx
ds
=
+
.
(t) =
dt
dt
dt
2
Figure
11(a) shows the curve (t) = (t, t ) on 1 t 1 with stretching factor
2
(t) = 1 + 4t . Notice how the figure suggests that (0) = 1. Figure 11(b) shows
the same parabola parameterized by arc length. Here the domain is like an inelastic
string. A parameterization by arc length wraps the string around the trace without any
stretching or contracting.
The curvature measures the rate at which the (unit) tangent to a curve changes direction relative to its arc length s. For a plane curve, we prefer to think of the curvature as
the rate at which the unit normal N(s) changes direction. To better visualize how the
unit normals change direction, cluster these vectors by parallel translation so that their
tails come together at a point O. The tips of the clustered vectors trace out a curve
called the normal indicatrix. The indicatrix is an arc of the unit circle C centered at O;
see Figure 12 for an example.
Since C has unit radius, the angle between the normals N(s) and N(s + s) equals
the corresponding arc length of C between the tips of these vectors. Thus the curvature
is the derivative dsn /ds where sn is arc length along the normal indicatrix. Equivalently, the curvature is the local stretching factor of the map that wraps a curve around
its normal indicatrix. Figure 12 illustrates that the curvature of the parabola decreases
rapidly as we move away from the vertex, where the curvature is two.

Figure 12. The parabola y = x 2 on 1 x 1, parameterized by arc length, and its normal
indicatrix.

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## Figure 13 illustrates a geometric way to calculate the curvature of y = f (x) by

clustering the (nonunit) tangent vectors t = t(x) = 1, f  (x)
with their tails at the
origin. Figure 13(a) shows the general case when y  = f  (x) = 0. But for now, focus
on Figure 13(b) where y  = 0. Let = (x) be the angle that t(x) makes with 1, 0
.
The curvature is then
   
 d   dy    
 = y  .
=   = 
ds
dx 
We leave it as an exercise to show how Figure 13(a) illustrates more generally that
 
=  y   /(1 + (y  )2 )3/2 .
(Hint: The shaded differential triangle is similar to the large shaded triangle. Use this
to show that d = dy  /(1 + (y  )2 .)
(a)

(b)

dy
t + dt
t
d

y
t + dt
dy

d
O

## Figure 13. Visualizing the curvature (adapted from [5, p. ix]).

Also, we can give the curvature of y = f (x) a sign by requiring that the curvature be positive (negative) at points where the normal vectors rotate counterclockwise
(clockwise) as we move along the curve in the direction of increasing x. Since the
sense of rotation of the normal vectors captures the concavity of y = f (x), the sign of
the curvature agrees with that of y  . Describing how the vectors normal to the surface
z = f (x, y) topple in the neighborhood of a critical point leads to a vivid interpretation of the second derivative test for the function f (x, y). With this in mind, we now
turn to second year calculus and give a brief review of functions that map R2 to R2 .

## Transformations of the plane

Think of R2 as a rubber sheet and a map f : R2 R2 as a deformation of this sheet.
A differentiable function f behaves locally like a linear function. If

x
u(x, y)
u
f :

=
y
v(x, y)
v
is differentiable, then

u
du
u x d x + u y dy
= x
=
vx
dv
vx d x + v y dy
88

uy
vy

dx
.
dy

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u
D f (x, y) = x
vx

uy
vy

## describes the local behavior of f . It represents a linear transformation of R2 that maps

a differential change [d x d y]T in the input of f to the differential change [du dv]T in
the output.

P
O
O

u
P

## Figure 14. A transformation of the square (x, y) [1, 1] [1, 1].

Figure 14 shows the image of the square (x, y) [1, 1] [1, 1] under the map


 2
x
x /4 + x + y 2 /4
=
.
f
y
x y/2 y
Note how the figure suggests that f maps differential squares to differential parallelograms. The Jacobian

D f (x, y) =

x/2 + 1
y/2
y/2 x/2 1

D f (0, 0) =

1 0
,
0 1

## f acts like a reflection across the x-axis near O(0, 0).

Locally, f multiplies differential signed areas by the determinant of the Jacobian,
|(D f (x, y)|. A negative determinant indicates that f reverses orientation in a small
neighborhood of (x, y). For example, the transformation of Figure 14 reverses orientation near P(1/2, 1/2) and multiplies the differential signed area by the factor


 5/4
1/4 
|D f (1/2, 1/2)| = 
= 3/2.
1/4 5/4
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## The second derivative test

The behavior of the normal vectors to the surface z = f (x, y) near a critical point
determines whether the point is a local extremum or a saddle. To visualize how the
normal vectors change direction near a critical point, imagine walking around a simple,
closed curve C in the neighborhood of such a point on the surface z = f (x, y). As we
walk, the tips of the clustered unit normals trace out a curve on S 2 that we call the
normal image. Near a local extremum, the normal image has the same orientation
as C . That is, suppose we view both S 2 and the surface z = f (x, y) from the same
perspective, say looking from the positive z-axis toward the origin. Then as we walk
counterclockwise around C , the tips of the clustered normals rotate in the same sense,
also counterclockwise.
But as illustrated in Figure 15, the normals behave differently near a saddle point
P. Now C and the normal image C  have opposite orientations. As we walk counterclockwise around P, the tips of the clustered normals rotate clockwise. This difference
in the behavior of the normal vectors near a critical point distinguishes a saddle from
a local extremum.

b
b

c
a

Figure 15. The behavior of the normals near the saddle point of the surface z = x y (adapted
from [3, p. 196]).

We need not look in three dimensions to see this behavior: Project the normal vectors f x , f y , 1
to the surface z = f (x, y) orthogonally onto the x y-plane. This gives

## the gradient vector field f = f x , f y

. The gradient exhibits the same behavior near
a critical point as the surface normal. If we walk counterclockwise around a small
circle in the x y-plane near a critical point corresponding to a local extremum, then
the gradient vectors swing around counterclockwise. But if we walk counterclockwise around a critical point corresponding to a saddle, then the gradient vectors swing
around clockwise.
How do we measure the sense of rotation of the gradient? The key idea is to regard

## the gradient vector field f as a transformation f : R2 R2 that sends (x, y) to

the point ( f x , f y ). As we will see, the critical points of f where f reverses orientation correspond to saddle points and the critical points where f preserves orientation
correspond to local extrema.
Figure 16 illustrates why. Figure 16(a) shows the gradient of the function f (x, y)
= 0.1(x 2 + x y 2y 2 ) on a small circle C around the critical point (0, 0). Figure 16(b)
90

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(a)

(b)

0.10
0.05
b
a
0.10

0.05

0.05

0.10

0.05
0.10

Figure 16. Gradient vectors of f (x, y) = 0.1(x 2 + x y 2y 2 ) and those gradient vectors
clustered.

shows the clustered gradients. The tips of the clustered vectors rotate clockwise around
the origin as C is traversed counterclockwise, illustrating that the origin corresponds
to a saddle point. But the tips of these vectors correspond to the outputs of the function
f : (x, y) ( f x , f y ) and trace the image C  of C under f . Since C  is traversed
clockwise, f reverses orientation at the critical point.
This explains the second derivative test, for the Jacobian determinant

f
|D f | =  x x
f yx


f x y 
= f x x f yy ( f x y )2
f yy 

(4)

## tells us whether f preserves or reverses orientation. If |D f | < 0, then f reverses

orientation; the gradient vectors f , and hence the surface normals, rotate clockwise
around the critical point. The critical point is a saddle. Otherwise, if |D f | > 0, the
critical point is a local extremum.

## The curvature of a surface

The notion of how quickly the normal vectors to a surface change direction in the
neighborhood of a point, or how rapidly the surface bends away from its tangent plane,
is measured by the surfaces Gaussian curvature. The second derivative test (4) actually
computes the curvature of the surface z = f (x, y) at a critical point.
To better visualize how the normal vectors to the surface z = f (x, y) change direction, we cluster these vectors, as in Figure 15, so that their tails come together at
O(0, 0, 0). This gives the Gauss map from the surface to the unit sphere S 2 ,

G : (x, y, f (x, y)) N(x, y) =

f x , f y , 1
f x2 + f y2 + 1

(5)

Figure 17 illustrates the action of the Gauss map near the saddle point (0, 0, 0) of
the surface z = f (x, y) = x y. Notice how the map reverses orientation near (0, 0, 0)
when we look at both the surface z = x y and S 2 from the same perspective (from the
negative z-axis toward the origin in Figure 17). This is not surprising. The Gauss map
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reverses orientation for the reason illustrated in Figure 15: As we move counterclockwise on the surface around (0, 0, 0), the tips of the clustered normals move clockwise
around the south pole of S 2 .

Figure 17. The Gauss map near the saddle point (0, 0, 0) of the surface z = x y.

The curvature measures the degree to which the Gauss map distorts differential
signed areas. For example, since the Gauss map preserves orientation as it wraps a
sphere of radius R uniformly around S 2 , the curvature of the sphere is 1/R 2 .
For a heuristic argument to explain why (4) gives the curvature of the surface
z = f (x, y) at a critical point, consider the composition

g
F
f : (x, y) (x, y, 0) (x, y, f (x, y)) f x , f y , 1 ( f x , f y ).
There are two key points. First, at a critical point, where the tangent plane to the surface
is parallel to the x y-plane, F acts like a translation and preserves differential signed
areas. This is much like the wrapping in Figure 11(a) that preserves differential arc
lengths at a critical point. Second, since g maps the surface z = f (x, y) to the plane
z = 1 tangent to S 2 at (0, 0, 1), it acts like the Gauss map near a critical point. This
suggests that the gradient map f has the same effect on differential areas at a critical
point as the Gauss map. But f multiplies differential signed areas by the Jacobian
determinant (4).
One last point: The derivative

fx x fx y
D f =
f yx f yy
describes the local behavior of f near a critical point. But if we identify both the
tangent plane to the surface z = f (x, y) at a critical point and the plane z = 1 with
R2 , then it also describes the local behavior of the Gauss map near a critical point.
For example, for f (x, y) = x y,

0 1
D f (0, 0) =
.
1 0
The Gauss map acts like a reflection in the line y = x near the saddle point (Figure 17).
The surface curvature at the saddle is the determinant 1.
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Concluding thoughts
While this is a good place to end, we have really just arrived at a beginning. We hope
we have spurred your interest in Gaussian curvature and differential geometry. The
texts [1, 6, 7] provide excellent introductions to the subject.
Many of our ideas and images have their roots in complex analysis. Tristan Needhams geometric approach to functions of a complex variable [5] had a profound
impact on our thinking. The idea of domain coloring, popularized by Frank Farris
[2] and beautifully exploited by Wegert [8], inspired many of our figures.
While we wrote this paper to offer geometric insight into some central concepts
in calculus, we believe that rubber band functions might be introduced earlier in the
curriculum. Consider, for example, the problem of graphing the function y = sin 2x.
Almost all students make the same error at first, stretching the graph of y = sin x
horizontally by a factor of two. But underlying this error is a profound element of truth
that suggests an understanding of the rubber band action of the function f (x) = 2x.
Acknowledgment. I would like to thank my wife Mei chun Chang for her constant encouragement and support.
Summary. We describe a way to visualize functions using rubber bands. Interpreting the
derivative as a local stretching factor leads to vivid geometric images for the chain rule, substitution, and curvature, as well as an unusual approach to the fundamental theorem.

References
1. M. P. do Carmo, Differential Geometry of Curves and Surfaces. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1976.
2. F. A. Farris, Review of Visual Complex Analysis by Tristan Needham, Amer. Math. Monthly 105 (1998)
570576, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2589427.
3. D. Hilbert, S. Cohn-Vossen, Geometry and the Imagination. AMS Chelsea, Providence, RI, 1999.
4. K. Kendig, Sink or Float? Thought Problems in Math and Physics. Mathematical Association of America,
Washington, DC, 2008.
5. T. Needham, Visual Complex Analysis. Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1997.
6. B. ONeill, Elementary Differential Geometry. Revised second edition. Academic, Burlington, MA, 2006.
7. J. Oprea, Differential Geometry and Its Applications. Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC,
2007.
8. E. Wegert, Visual Complex Functions: An Introduction with Phase Portraits. Birkhauser/Springer, Basel, 2012.

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