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The Brachistochrone

Imagine that a wire joins a point A to a lower point B, and that a bead is allowed to slide without friction down the wire from A to B. Imagine now that the wire is straight and the bead rolls down. Imagine once again that the bead rolls down but that this time the wire is bent so that the bead rolls as if following the path of a bob at the end of a pendulum. In which scenario will the bead reach B quicker? Though we might at first guess the straight descent, for after all a straight line is the shortest path between two points, after a moment we might wish to reconsider. Perhaps the initial quick descent with the curved path will make up for the longer path. And yet there are other possible curved paths. Along what curved path is the time of descent the shortest possible? John Bernoulli posed this problem in 1696. The curve of quickest descent is aptly called the brachistochrone from brachistos - shortest, chronos time.

A bit of optics

We begin with an apparently unrelated problem from optics.

A ray of light travels from point A to point P with velocity v1 and then, entering a denser medium, travels from P to B with a smaller velocity v 2 . The total time T required for the journey is given by
T= b2 + ( c x) a2 + x2 + . v1 v2

If we assume that this ray of light is able to select its path from A to B by way of P in such a way as to minimize T, then dT dx = 0 and by some elementary calculus we find that
x v1 a 2 + x 2 = cx v2 b 2 + ( c x )


sin 1 sin 2 = v1 v2

This is Snells law of refraction. The assumption that light travels from one point to another along the path requiring the shortest time is called Fermats principle of least time. This principle not only provides a rational basis for Snells law, but can also be applied to find the path of a ray of light through a medium of variable density, where in general light will travel along curves instead of straight lines.

In the individual layers the velocity of light is constant, but the velocity decreases from each layer to the one below it. As the descending ray of light passes from layer to layer, it is refracted more and more toward the vertical, and when Snells law is applied to the boundaries between the layers, we obtain
sin 1 sin 2 sin 3 sin 4 = = = . v1 v2 v3 v4

If we next allow these layers to grow thinner and more numerous, then in the limit the velocity of light decreases continuously as the ray descends, and we conclude that
sin = a constant. v

A return to Bernoullis problem

Imagine the following coordinate system and that the bead (like the ray of light) is capable of selecting the path down which it will slide from A to B in the shortest possible time.

The argument given above yields

sin = a constant. v


If the bead has mass m, so that mg is the downward force that gravity exerts on it, then the principle of conservation of energy, the fact that the work done by gravity in pulling the bead down the wire equals the increase in kinetic energy of the bead tells us that
v = 2g y

m g y= 12 m v2 .

This gives (2)

From the geometry of the situation we also have

sin = cos = 1 1 1 = = 2 . sec 1 + tan 2 1 + ( y )


On combining equations (1), (2), and (3) obtained from optics, mechanics, and calculus we get

y 1 + ( y ) = c


as the differential equation of the brachistochrone. Solving the brachistochrone

dy When y is replaced by dx and the variables are separated, (4) becomes

y dx = c y dy .
2 1


At this point we introduce a new variable by putting

y 2 c y = tan ,


so that y = c sin 2 , dy = 2c sin cos d , and

dx = tan dy

= 2c sin 2 d

= c(1 cos 2) d .

Integration now yields

x= c ( 2 sin 2 ) + c1 . 2

Our curve is to pass through the origin, so by (6) we have x = y = 0 when = 0 , and consequently c1 = 0 . Thus
x= c ( 2 sin 2 ) 2 c (1 cos 2 ) . 2

(7) (8)

y = c sin 2 =

if we now put a = c 2 and = 2 , then (7) and (8) become

(9) The Cycloid

x = a ( sin ) and y = a (1cos ) .

The cycloid is the curve traced out by a point as a circle rolls along a line (the x-axis).

We will use parametric equations to get the equation for the cycloid.

Since the distance the circle rolls is equal the amount of the circumference that has been traced out, to get the x-value of our parametric equation we need only to subtract the horizontal distance P is from C (i.e. PQ) from the size of the segment of the circumference that has been traced out. Since QP = a sin , we get (10) For the y-value we simply subtract CQ from the radius, giving us
y = a a cos = a (1 cos ) . x = a a sin = a ( sin ) .


But (10) and (11) are the equations for the brachistochrone!