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Calculus of Variations

The idea: Our goal in calculus of variations is to find the path, curve, surface, etc. which allows our given function to achieve a stationary value (we want to maximize or minimize the function).

The problem: Today we are going to be looking at one of the most basic of the variation problems. We are going to find/prove that the shortest distance between any two points (in Euclidean space) is in fact a straight line.

Here s how:

First we will create a path from point A to point B and call it y(x). Then we will create a different path and call it v(x). Let v(x) be completely arbitrary except for two things: 1) v(x) is defined to be 0 at both A x and B x and 2) v (x) is continuous.

We will now define a new path Y(x)=y(x)+ v(x) where is a perimeter that when set equal to zero allows Y(x)=y(x) which is our desired extreme.

 Now we want to use the idea that L=
1 +
the distance between our points A and B.
o We want to find
= 0 when =0
=
, to find

= Arc length, where

Because we are trying to find the shortest distance between our points we should try minimizing L. To do this we will rely on the same tools we learned in calc 1/3.

2
, when differentiating under the integral sign.
o
Differentiating Y yields
()=
()+ v (x)
o
Then
=v ()
()
o So
=0 = ( )v
o
v(x) ()
=0
=0 =
( )
o We are left with
=0
Because v(x) is arbitrary, we want this equality to hold true for all values of v(x).
This means we need to force
= 0 so no matter the function
v(x) our integral is still always zero.
= 0 implies that
=
=
. This is because the
only way the derivative can always be zero is if the original function was a constant.
=
o
or that
=
(1 + )
o
or =
=
.
o
=
=
+

=

Now recall setting =0 means replacing Y(x) with y(x)

Now using integration by parts which we learned in calc 2 and setting our result equal to zero we get:

The first term becomes 0 because we defined v(x)=0 at A and B.

Solving

Finally we can see that that

Thus the shortest distance between two points is in fact a straight line!

Other applications

Finding the shortest time to travel between two points on the earth.

Finding the fastest/optimal path for a light ray to travel.

Finding the shape of a hanging rope when gravity is acting uniformly

Many more