|UBC Calculus Online Course Notes|
So what is the derivative, after all?
We have discussed the notions of the derivative in many forms and guises on these pages. Perhaps it is time for a summary of all these forms, and a simple statement of what, after all, the derivative "really is". First, let us review the many ways in which the idea of a derivative can be represented:
The last remark is quite important and interesting: it tells us that when we have finished determining the derivative of some particular function everywhere, we get another function! We could then talk about its derivative ! (Ofcourse, we do this very often without realizing it! Whenever we talk about acceleration we are talking about the derivative of a derivative, i.e. the rate of change of a velocity.) Second derivatives (and third derivatives, and so on) are also functions ! Each one tells us about the rate of change of the previous function in this pyramid scheme.
We have used a lot of words to try to describe what the derivative is. Mathematicians try to avoid lots of words, aiming at precision and succinctness. Let's take a look at what they might do instead.
Mathematicians have developed a kind of "secret code" that says all of the things we have enumerated above with a few strokes of the pen. It actually took centuries to develop this code to the point where it became part of the mathematical society's accepted language, but now it is used universally. There is nothing particularly mysterious, interesting, or important about the details of the code itself (which "they" call "mathematical notation") but because everyone uses it, we should at least tell you about it.
A mathematician would start like this:
Assume that is a differentiable function at the point . Then the derivative of the function at this point is:
Let's work at "cracking this code" piece by piece. It may help to look at the diagram below while we are doing this:
First, notice that there is some "fine print" attached: "Assume that is a differentiable function." We have hinted at the fact that not all functions have a derivative at every point. If the graph of the function has a sharp corner or kink at some point (for example, the absolute value function has a sharp graph at the point ), or if its graph has an "infinite slope" near some point, then we should not expect a derivative to be defined there.
Next, the expression on the left hand side with the vertical bar
just means "the derivative of the function at ". The expression means exactly the same thing.
Now let's look at the right hand side:
First, notice that, as expected, there is a ratio which looks like
The top represents a change in the value of the function between the two points whose x values are, and . The change in the value of the function is shown on our diagram with the green line.
The bottom of the ratio is the change in the x value itself ! . This change in x value is shown with a magenta colored line in the diagram.
This means that this ratio is in fact, a slope. It is the slope of the secant line connecting the two points on the graph: . So far, we are in agreement with the verbal descriptions of the derivative.
The final bit we need to decipher is: . This says, in words "the limit as approaches zero", which, even more simply worded is: the value that the ratio approaches as the two points get closer and closer to one another. This is precisely what we were saying when we talked about the way that the secant line approaches the tangent line on the graph of a function.
For your consideration: