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In geometry, the tangent line (or simply tangent) to a plane curve at a given point is the straight line that "just touches" the curve at that point. Leibniz defined it as the line through a pair of infinitely close points on the curve.[1] More precisely, a straight line is said to be a tangent of a curve y = f(x) at a point x = c if the line passes through the point (c, f(c)) on the curve and has slope f'(c), where f' is the derivative of f. A similar definition applies to space curves and curves in n-dimensional Euclidean space.

As it passes through the point where the tangent line and the curve meet, called the point of tangency, the tangent line is "going in the same direction" as the curve, and is thus the best straight-line approximation to the curve at that point.

Similarly, the tangent plane to a surface at a given point is the plane that "just touches" the surface at that point. The concept of a tangent is one of the most fundamental notions in differential geometry and has been extensively generalized; see Tangent space.

The word "tangent" comes from the Latin tangere, "to touch".

History

Euclid makes several references to the tangent (ἐφαπτομένη ephaptoménē) to a circle in book III of the Elements (c. 300 BC).[2] In Apollonius work Conics (c. 225 BC) he defines a tangent as being a line such that no other straight line could fall between it and the curve.[3]

Archimedes (c.  287 – c.  212 BC) found the tangent to an Archimedean spiral by considering the path of a point moving along the curve.[3]

In the 1630s Fermat developed the technique of adequality to calculate tangents and other problems in analysis and used this to calculate tangents to the parabola. The technique of adequality is similar to taking the difference between and and dividing by a power of . Independently Descartes used his method of normals based on the observation that the radius of a circle is always normal to the circle itself.[4]

These methods led to the development of differential calculus in the

Similarly, the tangent plane to a surface at a given point is the plane that "just touches" the surface at that point. The concept of a tangent is one of the most fundamental notions in differential geometry and has been extensively generalized; see Tangent space.

The word "tangent" comes from the Latin tangere, "to touch".

Euclid makes several references to the tangent (ἐφαπτομένη ephaptoménē) to a circle in book III of the Elements (c. 300 BC).[2] In Apollonius work Conics (c. 225 BC) he defines a tangent as being a line such that no other straight line could fall between it and the curve.[3]

Archimedes (c.  287 – c.  212 BC) found the tangent to an Archimedean spiral by considering the path of a point moving along the curve.[3]

In the 1630s Fermat developed the technique of adequality to calculate tangents and other problems in analysis and used this to calculate tangents to the parabola. The technique of adequality is similar to taking the difference between and and dividing by a power of . Independently Descartes used his method of normals

Archimedes (c.  287 – c.  212 BC) found the tangent to an Archimedean spiral by considering the path of a point moving along the curve.[3]

In the 1630s Fermat developed the technique of adequality to calculate tangents and other problems in analysis and used this to calculate tangents to the parabola. The technique of adequality is similar to taking the difference between and and dividing by a power of . Independently Descartes used his method of normals based on the observation that the radius of a circle is always normal to the circle itself.[4]

These methods led to the development of differential calculus in the 17th century. Many people contributed. Roberval discovered a general method of drawing tangents, by considering a curve as described by a moving point whose motion is the resultant of several simpler motions.[5] René-François de Sluse and Johannes Hudde found algebraic algorithms for finding tangents.[6] Further developments included those of John Wallis and Isaac Barrow, leading to the theory of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.

An 1828 definition of a tangent was "a right line which touches a curve, but which when produced, does not cut it".[7] This old definition prevents inflection points from having any tangent. It has been dismissed and the modern definitions are equivalent to those of Leibniz who defined the tangent line as the line through a pair of infinitely close points on the curve.

The intuitive notion that a tangent line "touches" a curve can be made more explicit by considering the sequence of straight lines (secant lines) passing through two points, A and B, those that lie on the function curve. The tangent at A is the limit when point B approximates or tends to A. The existence and uniqueness of the tangent line depends on a certain type of mathematical smoothness, known as "differentiability." For example, if two circular arcs meet at a sharp point (a vertex) then there is no uniquely defined tangent at the vertex because the limit of the progression of secant lines depends on the direction in which "point B" approaches the vertex.

At most points, the tangent touches the curve without crossing it (though it may, when continued, cross the curve at other places away from the point of tangent). A point where the tangent (at this point) crosses the curve is called an inflection point. Circles, parabolas, hyperbolas and ellipses do not have any inflection point, but more complicated curves do have, like the graph of a cubic function, which has exactly one inflection point, or a sinusoid, which has two inflection points per each period of the sine.

Conversely, it may happen that the curve lies entirely on one side of a straight line passing through a point on it, and yet this straight line is not a tangent line. This is the case, for example, for a line passing through the vertex of a At most points, the tangent touches the curve without crossing it (though it may, when continued, cross the curve at other places away from the point of tangent). A point where the tangent (at this point) crosses the curve is called an inflection point. Circles, parabolas, hyperbolas and ellipses do not have any inflection point, but more complicated curves do have, like the graph of a cubic function, which has exactly one inflection point, or a sinusoid, which has two inflection points per each period of the sine.

Conversely, it may happen that the curve lies entirely on one side of a straight line passing through a point on it, and yet this straight line is not a tangent line. This is the case, for example, for a line passing through the vertex of a triangle and not intersecting it otherwise—where the tangent line does not exist for the reasons explained above. In convex geometry, such lines are called supporting lines.

The geometrical idea of the tangent line as the limit of secant lines serves as the motivation for analytical methods that are used to find tangent lines explicitly. The question of finding the tangent line to a graph, or the tangent line problem, was one of the central questions leading to the development of calculus in the 17th century. In the second book of his Geometry, René Descartes[8] said of the problem of constructing the tangent to a curve, "And I dare say that this is not only the most useful and most general problem in geometry that I know, but even that I have ever desired to know".[9]

Intuitive description

Suppose that a curve is given as the graph of a function, y = f(x). To find the tangent line at the point p = (a, f(a)), consider another nearby point q = (a + h, f(a + h)) on the curve. The slope of the secant line passing through p and q is equal to the difference quotient