Hypergeometric equation

I’ve asserted numerous times here that hypergeometric functions come up very often in applied math, but I haven’t said why. This post will give one reason why.

One way to classify functions is in terms of the differential equations they satisfy. Elementary functions satisfy simple differential equations. For example, the exponential function satisfies

y′ = y

and sine and cosine satisfy

y″ + y = 0.

Second order linear differential equations are common and important because Newton’s are second order linear differential equations. For the rest of the post, differential equations will be assumed to be second order and linear, with coefficients that are analytic except possibly at isolated singularities.

ODEs can be classified in terms of the sigularities of their coefficients. The equations above have no singularities and so their solutions are some of the most fundamental equations.

If an ODE has two or fewer regular singular points [1], it can be solved in terms of elementary functions. The next step in complexity is to consider differential equations whose coefficients have three regular singular points. Here’s the kicker:

Every ODE with three regular singular points can be transformed into the hypergeometric ODE.

So one way to think of the hypergeometric differential equation is that it is the standard ODE with three regular singular points. These singularities are at 0, 1, and ∞. If a differential equation has singularities elsewhere, a change of variables can move the singularities to these locations.

The hypergeometric differential equation is

x(x – 1) y″ + (c – (a + b + 1)x) y′ + ab y = 0.

The hypergeometric function F(a, b; c; x) satisfies this equation, and if c is not an integer, then a second independent solution to the equation is

x1-c F(1 + ac, 1 + bc; 2 – c; x).

To learn more about the topic of this post, see Second Order Differential Equations: Special Functions and Their Classification by Gerhard Kristensson.

Related posts

[1] This includes singular points at infinity. A differential equation is said to have a singularity at infinity if under the change of variables t = 1/x the equation in u has a singularity at 0. For example, Airy’s equation

y″ + x y = 0

has no singularities in the finite complex plane, and it has no solution in terms of elementary functions. This does not contradict the statement above because the equation has a singularity at infinity.

Quadruple factorials and Legendre functions

Last week I claimed that double, triple, and quadruple factorials came up in applications. The previous post showed how triple factorials come up in solutions to Airy’s equation. This post will show how quadruple factorials come up in solutions to Legendre’s equation.

Legendre’s differential equation is

(1-x^2) y'' - 2x y' + \nu(\nu+1)y = 0

The Legendre functions Pν and Qν are independent solutions to the equation for given values of ν.

When ν is of the form n + ½ for an integer n, the values of Pν and Qν at 0 involve quadruple factorials and also Gauss’s constant.

For example, if ν = 1/2, 5/2, 9/2, …, then Pν(0) is given by

(-1)^{(2\nu - 1)/4} \frac{\sqrt{2}(2\nu - 2)!!!!}{(2\nu)!!!!\pi g}

Source:  An Atlas of Functions

Triple factorials and Airy functions

Last week I wrote in a post on multifactorials in which I said that

Double factorials come up fairly often, and sometimes triple, quadruple, or higher multifactorials do too.

This post gives a couple examples of triple factorials in practice.

One example I wrote about last week. Triple factorial comes up when evaluating the gamma function at an integer plus 1/3. As shown here,

\Gamma\left(n + \frac{1}{3}\right) = \frac{(3n-2)!!!}{3^n} \Gamma\left(\frac{1}{3}\right)

Another example involves solutions to Airy’s differential equation

y'' - xy = 0

One pair of independent solutions consists of the Airy functions Ai(x) and Bi(x). Another pair consists of the functions

\begin{align*} f(x) &= 1 + \frac{1}{3!}x^3 + \frac{1\cdot 4}{6!}x^6 + \frac{1\cdot 4 \cdot 7}{9!}x^9 + \cdots \\ g(x) &= x + \frac{2}{4!}x^4 + \frac{2\cdot 5}{7!}x^7 + \frac{2\cdot 5 \cdot 8}{10!}x^{10} + \cdots \end{align*}

given in A&S 10.4.3. Because both pairs of functions solve the same linear ODE, each is a linear combination of the other.

Notice that the numerators are triple factorials, and so the series above can be rewritten as

\begin{align*} f(x) &= \sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{(3n+1)!!!}{(3n+1)!} x^{3n}\\ g(x) &= \sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{(3n+2)!!!}{(3n+2)!} x^{3n+1} \end{align*}

The next post gives an example of quadruple factorials in action.

Nonlinear ODEs with stable limit cycles

It’s not obvious when a nonlinear differential equation will have a periodic solution, or asymptotically approach a periodic solution. But there are theorems that give sufficient conditions. This post is about one such theorem.

Consider the equation

x” + f(x) x‘ + g(x) = 0

where f and g are analytic and define F(x) to be the integral of f(t) from 0 to x. The following six hypotheses are sufficient to guarantee that the equation above has a stable limit cycle [1].

  1. g is an odd function,
  2. g is positive for positive x,
  3. f is an even function,
  4. f(o) < 0,
  5. F(x) → ∞ as x → ∞,
  6. F has a unique positive zero.

These hypotheses are satisfied, for example, by Van der Pol’s equation.

Let’s make up coefficient functions f and g that satisfy the conditions above and look for the limit cycle.

We can let g(x) = x³ and f(x) = x² – 1. And here’s what we get:

The graph shows phase portraits for two different initial conditions, given in the legend of the plot. Note that limit cycle appears solid blue because the trajectories of both the dashed line and the dotted line run around the periodic attractor.

Related posts

[1] You can find this theorem in Topics in Ordinary Differential Equations by William Lakin and David Sanchez.

Nonlinear phase portrait

I was reading through Michael Trott’s Mathematica Guidebook for Programming and ran across the following plot.

I find the image aesthetically interesting. I also find it interesting that the image is the phase portrait of a differential equation whose solution doesn’t look that interesting. That is, the plot of (x(t), x ‘(t)) is much more visually interesting than the plot of x(t).

The differential equation whose phase portrait is plotted above is

x''(t) + \frac{1}{20}x'(t)^3 + \frac{1}{5} x(t) = \frac{1}{3}\cos(et)

with initial position 1 and initial velocity 0. It’s a familiar damped, driven harmonic oscillator, except the equation is nonlinear because the derivative term is cubed.

Here’s a plot of the solution as a function of time.

The solution basically looks like the solution of the linear case, except the solutions are more jagged near the local maxima and minima. In fact, the plot looks so jagged that I wondered whether this was an artifact of needing more plotting points. But adding more points didn’t make much difference. Interestingly, although this plot looks jagged, the phase portrait is smooth.

I produced the phase portrait by copying Trott’s code and making a couple small modifications.

    sol = NDSolve[{(*differential equation*)
        x''[t] + 1/20 x'[t]^3 + 1/5 x[t] == 
        1/3 Cos[E t],(*initial conditions*)x[0] == 1, x'[0] == 0}, 
        x, {t, 0, 360}, MaxSteps -> Infinity]

    ParametricPlot[Evaluate[{x[t], x'[t]} /. sol], {t, 0, 360}, 
        Frame -> True, Axes -> False, PlotPoints -> 3600]

Apparently the syntax of NDSolve has changed slightly since Trott’s book was published in 2004. The argument x in the code above was written x[t] in Trott’s original code and this did not work in the current version of Mathematica. I also simplified the call to ParametricPlot slightly, though the original code would work.

Predator-Prey period

The Lotka-Volterra equations are a system of nonlinear differential equations for modeling a predator-prey ecosystem. After a suitable change of units the equations can be written in the form

\begin{align*} \frac{dx}{dt} &= \phantom{-}ax(y-1) \\ \frac{dy}{dt} &= -by(x-1) \end{align}

where ab = 1. Here x(t) is the population of prey at time t and y(t) is the population of predators. For example, maybe x represents rabbits and y represents foxes, or x represents Eloi and y represents Morlocks.

It is well known that the Lotka-Volterra equations have periodic solutions. It is not as well known that you can compute the period of a solution without having to first solve the system of equations.

This post will show how to compute the period of the system. First we’ll find the period by solving the equations for a few different initial conditions, then we’ll show how to directly compute the period from the system parameters.

Phase plot

Here is a plot of (x(t), y(t)) showing that the solutions are periodic.

Predator-prey phase plots for varying initial conditions

And here’s the Python code that made the plot above.

    import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
    import numpy as np
    from scipy.integrate import solve_ivp
    # Lotka-Volterra equations
    def lv(t, z, a, b):
        x, y = z
        return [a*x*(y-1), -b*y*(x-1)]
    begin, end = 0, 20
    t = np.linspace(begin, end, 300)
    styles = ["-", ":", "--"]
    prey_init = [2, 4, 8]
    a = 1.5
    b = 1/a
    for style, p0 in zip(styles, prey_init):
        sol = solve_ivp(lv, [begin, end], [p0, 1], t_eval=t, args=(a, b))
        plt.plot(sol.y[0], sol.y[1], style)
    plt.legend([f"$p_0$ = {p0}" for p0 in prey_init])    

Note that the derivative of x is zero when y = 1. Since our initial condition sets y(0) = 1, we’re specifying the maximum value of x. (If our initial values of x were less than 1, we’d be specifying the minimum of x.)

Time plot

The components x and y have the same period, and that period depends on a and b, and on the initial conditions. The plot below shows how the period increases with x(0), which as we noted above is the maximum value of x.

Predator-prey solutions over time for varying initial conditions

And here’s the code that made the plot.

    fig, ax = plt.subplots(3, 1)
    for i in range(3):
        sol = solve_ivp(lv, [begin, end], [prey_init[i], 1], t_eval=t, args=(a, b))
        ax[i].plot(t, sol.y[0], "-")
        ax[i].plot(t, sol.y[1], "--")    
        ax[i].set_title(f"x(0) = {prey_init[i]}")

Finding the period

In [1] the author develops a way to compute the period of the system as a function of its parameters without solving the differential equations.

First, calculate an invariant h of the system:

h = b(x - \log(x) - 1) + a(y - \log(y) - 1)

Since this is an invariant we can evaluate it anywhere, so we evaluate it at the initial conditions.

Then the period only depends on a and h. (Recall we said we can scale the equations so that ab = 1, so a and b are not independent parameters.)

If h is not too large, we can compute the approximate period using an asymptotic series.

P(h) = 2\pi\left( 1 + \frac{\sigma}{6} h + \frac{\sigma^2}{144} h^2 + \left(\frac{\sigma}{360} - \frac{139\sigma^3}{38880}\right) h^3 + \cdots \right)

where σ = (a + b)/2 = (a² + 1)/2a.

We use this to find the periods for the example above.

    def find_h(a, x0, y0):
        b = 1/a
        return b*(x0 - np.log(x0) - 1) + a*(y0 - np.log(y0) - 1)

    def P(h, a):
        sigma = 0.5*(a + 1/a)
        s = 1 + sigma*h/6 + sigma**2*h**2/144
        return 2*np.pi*s

    print([P(find_h(1.5, p0, 1), 1.5) for p0 in [2, 4, 8]])

This predicts periods of roughly 6.5, 7.5, and 10.5, which is what we see in the plot above.

When h is larger, the period can be calculated by numerically evaluating an integral given in [1].

Related posts

[1] Jörg Waldvogel. The Period in the Volterra-Lotka Predator-Prey Model. SIAM Journal on Numerical Analysis, Dec., 1983, Vol. 20, No. 6, pp. 1264-1272

Oscillatory differential equations

The solution to a differential equation is called oscillatory if its set of zeros is unbounded. This does not necessarily mean that the solution is periodic, but that it crosses the horizontal axis infinitely often.

Fowler [1] studied the following differential equation demonstrates both oscillatory and nonoscillatory behavior.

x” + tσ |x|γ sgn x = 0

He proved that

  1. If σ + 2 ≥ 0 then all solutions oscillate.
  2. If σ + (γ + 3)/2 < 0 then no solutions oscillate.
  3. If neither (1) nor (2) holds then some solutions oscillate and some do not.

The edge case is σ = -2 and γ = 1. This satisfies condition (1) above. A slight decrease in σ will push the equation into condition (2). And a simultaneous decrease in σ and increase in γ can put it in condition (3).

It turns out that the edge case can be solved in closed form. The equation is linear because γ = 1 and solutions are given by

ct sin(φ + √3 log(t) / 2).

The solutions oscillate because the argument to sine is an unbounded function of t, and so it runs across multiples of π infinitely often. The distance between zero crossings increases exponentially with time because the logarithms of the crossings are evenly spaced.

This post took a different turn after I started writing it. My original intention was to solve the differential equation numerically and say “See: when you change the parameters slightly you get what the theorem says.” But that didn’t work out.

First I tried numerically computing the solution above with σ = -2 and γ = 1, but I didn’t see oscillations. I tried making σ a little larger, but still didn’t see oscillations. When I increased σ more I could see the oscillations.

I was able to go back and see the oscillations with σ = -2 and γ = 1 by tweaking the parameters in my ODE solver. It’s best practice to tweak your parameters even if everything looks right, just to make sure your solution is robust to algorithm changes. Maybe I would have done that, but since I already knew the analytic solution, I knew to tweak the parameters until I saw the right behavior.

Without some theory as a guide, it would be difficult to determine from numerical solutions alone whether a solution oscillates. If you see oscillations, then they’re probably real (unless your numerical method is unstable), but if you don’t see oscillations, how do you know you won’t see them if you look further out? How much further out should you look? In a practical application, the context of your problem will tell you how far out to look.

My intention was to recommend the equation above as an illustration for an introductory DE class because it demonstrates the important fact that small changes to an equation can qualitatively change the behavior of the solutions. This is especially true for nonlinear DEs, which the above equation is when γ ≠ 1. It could still be used for that purpose, but it would make a better demonstration than homework exercise. The instructor could tune the DE solver to make sure the solutions are qualitatively correct.

I recommend the equation as an illustration, but for a course covering numerical solutions to DEs. It illustrates a different point than I first intended, namely the potentially finicky behavior of software for solving differential equations.

There are a couple morals to this story. One is that numerical methods have not eliminated the need for theory. The ideal is to combine analytic and numerical methods. Analytic methods point out qualitative behavior that might be hard to discover numerically. And analytic methods are not likely to produce closed-form solutions for nonlinear DEs.

Another moral is that it’s best to twiddle the parameters to your numerical method to make sure the solution doesn’t qualitatively change. If you’ve adequately computed a solution, computing it again with smaller integration steps shouldn’t make much difference. But if you do see a substantial difference, your first solution probably wasn’t as good as you thought.

Related posts

[1] R. H. Fowler. Further studies of Emden’s and similar differential equations. Quarterly Journal of Mathematics. 2 (1931), pp. 259–288.

Laplacian in various coordinate systems

The recent post on the wave equation on a disk showed that the Laplace operator has a different form in polar coordinates than it does in Cartesian coordinates. In general, the Laplacian is not simply the sum of the second derivatives with respect to each variable.

Mathematica has a function, unsurprisingly called Laplacian, that will compute the Laplacian of a given function in a given coordinate system. If you give it a specific function, it will compute the Laplacian of that function. But you can also give it a general function to find a general formula.

For example,

    Simplify[Laplacian[f[r, θ], {r, θ}, "Polar"]]


\frac{f^{(0,2)}(r,\theta )}{r^2}+\frac{f^{(1,0)}(r,\theta )}{r}+f^{(2,0)}(r,\theta )

This is not immediately recognizable as the Laplacian from this post

\Delta u = \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial r^2} + \frac{1}{r} \frac{\partial u}{\partial r} + \frac{1}{r^2} \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial \theta^2}

because Mathematica is using multi-index notation, which is a little cumbersome for simple cases, but much easier to use than classical notation when things get more complicated. The superscript (0,2), for example, means do not differentiate with respect to the first variable and differentiate twice with respect to the second variable. In other words, take the second derivative with respect to θ.

Here’s a more complicated example with oblate spheroidal coordinates. Such coordinates come in handy when you need to account for the fact that our planet is not exactly spherical but is more like an oblate spheroid.

When we ask Mathematica

    Simplify[Laplacian[f[ξ, η, φ], {ξ, η, φ}, "OblateSpheroidal"]]

the result isn’t pretty.

(Csc[\[Eta]]^2*Sech[\[Xi]]^2*Derivative[0, 0, 2][f][\[Xi], \[Eta], \[Phi]] + (2*(Cot[\[Eta]]*Derivative[0, 1, 0][f][\[Xi], \[Eta], \[Phi]] + Derivative[0, 2, 0][f][\[Xi], \[Eta], \[Phi]] + Tanh[\[Xi]]*Derivative[1, 0, 0][f][\[Xi], \[Eta], \[Phi]] + Derivative[2, 0, 0][f][\[Xi], \[Eta], \[Phi]]))/ (Cos[2*\[Eta]] + Cosh[2*\[Xi]]))/\[FormalA]^2

I tried using TeXForm and editing it into something readable, but after spending too much time on this I gave up and took a screenshot. But as ugly as the output is, it would be uglier (and error prone) to do by hand.

Mathematica supports the following 12 coordinate systems in addition to Cartesian coordinates:

  • Cylindrical
  • Bipolar cylindrical
  • Elliptic cylindrical
  • Parabolic cylindrical
  • Circular parabolic
  • Confocal paraboloidal
  • Spherical
  • Bispherical
  • Oblate spheroidal
  • Prolate spheroidal
  • Conical
  • Toroidal

These are all orthogonal, meaning that surfaces where one variable is held constant meet at right angles. Most curvilinear coordinate systems used in practice are orthogonal because this simplifies a lot of things.

Laplace’s equation is separable in Stäckel coordinate systems. These are all these coordinate systems except for toroidal coordinates. And in fact Stäckel coordinates are the only coordinate systems in which Laplace’s equation is separable.

It’s often the case that Laplace’s equation is separable in orthogonal coordinate systems, but not always. I don’t have a good explanation for why toroidal coordinates are an exception.

If you’d like a reference for this sort of thing, Wolfram Neutsch’s tome Coordinates is encyclopedic. However, it’s expensive new and hard to find used.

Vibrating circular membranes

'Snare drum' by YannickWhee is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This post will tie together many things I’ve blogged about before. The previous post justified separation of variables. This post will illustrate separation of variables.

Also, this post will show why you might care about Bessel functions and their zeros. I’ve written about Bessel functions before, and said that Bessel functions are to polar coordinates what sines and cosines are to rectangular coordinates. This post will make this analogy more concrete.

Separation of variables

The separation of variables technique is typically presented in three contexts in introductory courses on differential equations:

  1. One-dimensional heat equation
  2. One-dimensional wave equation
  3. Two-dimensional (rectangular) Laplace equation

My initial motivation for writing this post was to illustrate separation of variables outside the most common examples. Separation of variables requires PDEs to have a special form, but not as special as the examples above might imply. A secondary motivation was to show Bessel functions in action.

Radially symmetric wave equation

Suppose you have a thin membrane, like a drum head, and you want to model its vibrations. By “thin” I mean that the membrane is sufficiently thin that we can adequately model it as a two-dimensional surface bobbing up and down in three dimensions. It’s not so thick that we need to model the material in more detail.

Let u(x, y, t) be the height of the membrane at location (x, y) and time t. The wave equation is a PDE modeling the motion of the membrane by

\frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial t^2} = c^2 \Delta u. width=

where Δ is the Laplacian operator. In rectangular coordinates the Laplacian is given by

\Delta u = \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial x^2} + \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial y^2}
We’re interested in a circular membrane, and so things will be much easier if we work in polar coordinates. In polar coordinates the Laplacian is given by

\Delta u = \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial r^2} + \frac{1}{r} \frac{\partial u}{\partial r} + \frac{1}{r^2} \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial \theta^2}

We will assume that our boundary conditions and initial conditions are radially symmetric, and so our solution will be radially symmetric, i.e. derivatives with respect to θ are zero. And in our case the wave equation simplifies to

\frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial t^2} = c^2 \left( \frac{\partial^2 u}{\partial r^2} + \frac{1}{r} \frac{\partial u}{\partial r} \right)

Boundary and initial conditions

Let a be the radius of our membrane. We will assume our membrane is clamped down on its boundary, like a drum head, which means we have the boundary condition

u(a, t) = 0

for all t ≥ 0. We assume the initial displacement and initial velocity of the membrane are given by

\begin{align*} u(r, 0) &= f(r) \\ \frac{\partial u}{\partial r}(r, 0) &= g(r) \end{align*}

for all r between 0 and a.

Separating variables

Now we get down to separation of variables. Because we’re assuming radial symmetry, we’re down to a function of two variables: r for the distance from the center and t for time. We assume

u(r, t) = R(r) T(t)

and stick it into the wave equation. A little calculation shows that

\frac{T''}{c^2 T} = \frac{1}{R} \left(R'' + \frac{1}{r} R'\right)

The left side is a function of t alone, and the right side is a function of r alone. The only way this can be true for all t and all r is for both sides to be constant. Call this constant -λ². Why? Because looking ahead a little we find that this will make things easier shortly.

Separation of variables allowed us to reduce our PDE to the following pair of ODEs.

r R'' + R' +\lambda^2 r R &= 0 \\ T'' + c^2 \lambda^2 T &= 0

The solutions to the equation for R are linear combinations of the Bessel functions J0r) and Y0r) [1].

And the solutions to the equation for T are linear combinations of the trig functions cos(cλt) and sin(cλt).

The boundary condition u(a, t) = 0 implies the boundary condition R(a) = 0. This implies that λa must be a zero of our Bessel function, and that all the Y0 terms drop out. This means that our solution is

u(r,t) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty J_0(\lambda_n r) \left( A_n \cos(c \lambda_n t) + B_n \sin(c \lambda_n t)\right)


\lambda_n = \frac{\alpha_n}{a}.

Here αn are the zeros of of the Bessel function J0.

The coefficients An and Bn are determined by the initial conditions. Specifically, you can show that

\begin{align*} A_n &= \frac{2}{\phantom{ca}a^2 J_1^2(\alpha_n)} \int_0^a f(r)\, J_0(\lambda_n r) \, r\, dr \\ B_n &= \frac{2}{ca \alpha_n J_1^2(\alpha_n)} \int_0^a g(r)\, J_0(\lambda_n r) \, r\, dr \\ \end{align*}

The function J1 in the expression for the coefficients is another Bessel function.

The functions J0 and J1 are so important in applications that even the otherwise minimalist Unix calculator bc includes these functions. (As much as I appreciate Bessel functions, this still seems strange to me.) And you can find functions for zeros of Bessel functions in many libraries, such as scipy.special.jn_zeros in Python.

Related posts

[1] This is why introductory courses are unlikely to include an example in polar coordinates. Separation of variables itself is no harder in polar coordinates than in rectangular coordinates, and it shows the versatility of the method to apply it in a different setting.

But the resulting ODEs have Bessel functions for solutions, and it’s understandable that an introductory course might not want to go down this rabbit trail, especially since PDEs are usually introduced at the end of a differential equation class when professors are rushed and students are tired.

[2] Snare drum image above “Snare drum” by YannickWhee is licensed under CC BY 2.0