Difference Quotients II

The Symmetric Difference Quotient

In the last post we defined the Forward Difference Quotient (FDQ) and the Backward Difference Quotient (BDQ). The average of the FDQ and the BDQ is called the Symmetric Difference Quotient (SDQ):

\displaystyle \frac{f\left( x+h \right)-f\left( x-h \right)}{2h}

You may be forgiven if you think this might be a better expression to use to find the derivative. It has its advantages. In fact, this is the expression used in many calculators to compute the numerical value of the derivative at a point; in calculators it is called nDeriv. Usually, it works pretty well. But if you try to find the derivative of the absolute value of x at x = 0 it will tell you the derivative is 0, which is wrong. The absolute value function is not locally linear at the origin and has no derivative there.

What went wrong?  Read the expression above. The numerator is the difference of the function values at the same distance, h, on both sides of x. Since, for the absolute value function with x = 0, these values are the same, their difference is 0. The SDQ never looks at x = 0 and doesn’t realize there is no derivative there. Thus, the limit of the SDQ is not the derivative.

This problem does not occur with the definition of derivative, since for that limit to exist the limits as h approaches zero from both sides must be equal. For the absolute value function the limit from the left is –1 and the limit from the right is +1 and therefore there is no limit and no derivative there.

Since most functions we will consider are differentiable, most of the time the SDQ and nDeriv are okay to use.

Seeing Difference Quotients Converge

This is an activity to see difference quotients graphically. Use a graphing calculator or a graphing program on a computer. One with a slider feature is better although I’ll also tell you how to use a calculator without this feature.

  1. Enter the function you want to consider as Y1 in your calculator or give it a name if you are using a computer. This is so later you can change the function without having to re-enter the next three equations.
  2. Enter the FDQ as Y2 using Y1 as the function. See Figure 1 below.
  3. Enter the BDQ as Y3 again using Y1 as the function.
  4. Enter the SDQ as Y3 again using Y1 as the function.
  5. Either set up a slider for h or go to the home screen and store a value for h. In the latter case you will have to return to the home screen and change the values.

Now graph all four functions. As you change the values of h with the slider or from the home screen, you should see three similar graphs (the difference quotients) along with the first function you entered. As h approaches zero, the three similar graphs should come together (converge) on the graph of the derivative. See Figures 2 and 3 below.

Change the first function. Some good functions to try are y = x– 4x, y = x3/3, y = sin(x) and don’t forget y = |x|. Try guessing the equation of the derivative.

Figure 2 Shows y = x3/3 in Black with the three difference quotients, h is about 2.

Figure 3 shows the same graph with h almost 0; the three difference quotients, now almost on top of each other, are closing in on the derivative.

Here is a link to a Desmos demonstration of the three difference quotients


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