Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What is calculus?

  1. Mar 20, 2003 #1
    Everyone here loves to go on about it but what is it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 20, 2003 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Calculus is the study of rate of change of things.

    - Warren
  4. Mar 20, 2003 #3
    [?] Can you explain please
  5. Mar 20, 2003 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Let's say you had a line plotted on a graph. You could measure the slope of that line, and you'd say it's constant everywhere.

    Now plot a parabola, like y=x^2. You could measure the slope of that curve, but the slope would be different at every point along the line. You could make a large table of values, like this one:

    at x=1 the slope is 2
    at x=2 the slope is 4
    at x=3 the slope is 6

    But what if you didn't want to have to pull out the ruler to measure the slope every time? What if you could represent the slope by an equation? Then if you wanted to know the slope at x=4, you wouldn't have to measure it -- you could just solve the equation.

    Calculus allows you to find this equation. For the parabola y=x^2, it happens that the slope is given by the equation m=2x. Thus at the point x=4, the slope is m = 2(4) = 8.

    It's beyond the scope of this board to explain exactly why the slope of the parabola y=x^2 is m=2x, so I will refer you to any good calculus textbook.

    In general, calculus deals with equations in which variables are changing -- in this case, the slope.

    To provide another more concrete example, let's say you wanted to calculate how much food a person eats over his/her lifetime. You can't just say "a person eats 1.2 pounds of food every day for 80 years" because the amount of food the person eats per day changes throughout their lifetime. You could use calculus to find the answer.

    - Warren
  6. Mar 20, 2003 #5


    User Avatar

    Calculus goes into two categories:
    (a)Differential calculus deals with calculating equations giving the rate of change of functions with respect to some variable. An example would be establishing the exact gradient of the equation at a certain point. Expressions hence found are called the derivative of an equation. For example, the derivative of velocity with respect to time is acceleration.
    (b)Integral calculus does the reverse, going from the derivative to a full function, or from a full function to find things like the area under the curve. Such products of integration are called integrals. For example, the integral of velocity is displacement.
  7. Mar 20, 2003 #6


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    The first useful thing you generally do with calculus is apply it to the equations of motion in Newtonian physics. The derivative (slope equation) of the position equation is the velocity equation and the derivative of the velocity equation is the acceleration equation.
  8. Mar 20, 2003 #7
    Just to expand a little bit about integral calculus:

    Suppose we have a curve but because of the irregularity of the shape, it is rather difficult to compute the area underneath the curve. However, if we divide the area into small rectangles of equal width, we could add the areas of the triangles to get an approximation of the area. The more rectangles we have, the more accurate our approximation.

    What definite integrals do is they take the number of rectangles to approach infinity, thus having a very accurate approximation for the area.
  9. Mar 22, 2003 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Greetings !
    Why ?
    (This is a thread that asks for an explanation
    of calculus. "Most textbooks" don't explain this

    Live long and prosper.
  10. Mar 24, 2003 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yep, one could say that calculus is the *algebraic* study of the rate of change of things. For instance, most historians of calculus refer to book II in the principia, where the rule of integration of monomials is suggested, and they neglect to refer to book I, where infinitesimal limits are used for dynamics.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook