Ordinary Differential Equations

How The World Works

What is a DE?

"An equation between specified derivatives of an unknown function, its values, and known quantities and functions". For instance,

F(x,y,y') = 0
G(x,y,y',y'') = 0
a(x)y'+b(x)y + c(x) = 0
my'' + ky' +sy = g(x)

Our job is to find the function(s) y(x) so that our given equation holds.

Sometimes solution is possible through more or less difficult analytic techniques, sometimes we must resort to approximations, (numerical methods, numerical solutions), with which we're most concerned here.

A Vital Issue! Using physical laws to model physical systems as equations. Like algebra word problem. Setting up the equations is often 9/10 of the battle and we barely touch on it here.

Derivatives and Integrals

Informally, the derivative y'(x) gives the slope of function y(x). Likewise the integral (say from 0 to t) of y(x) measures the area under the curve y(x).

The picture says it all:

The integral is the limit of a sum; it's a continuous sum of infinitesimal, same as a derivative is an infinitesimal difference.

In computing, we don't have infinitesimals nor continuous numbers: every "integral" is really a summation (unless it's a symbolic integral).

DE Solutions: Integration

If we know y'(x) = g(x), then if we integrate both sides, we get an equation y(x) = G(x), where G is the integral of g.

Hence "Solving a DE" = "Integrating a DE" and "Numerical Integration" is approximate computer solution.

Examples: d(axn)/dt = naxn-1, so
y' = naxn-1 means y = axn +C.

Here, C is a constant of integration. Generally DE solutions are families of equations.

sin(x)' = cos(x), cos(x)' = -sin(x)
d eax/dt = aeax, so y' = ay means y(t) = Ceat.

Families of Solutions

As written a DE has a family of related solutions. For example,

If y'(x) = 20x3 + 14 x, then
y(x) = 5x4 + 7 x2 + C, where C is a "constant of integration".

Can specify one of a family of solutions by specifying Boundary Conditions (values of variables and their derivatives) it must also satisfy. We'll only have Initial Conditions (hence "Initial Value Problems"). Another case we won't explore is the one where we need to specify what happens at "both ends" of the solution for instance ("Boundary Value Problems"). E.g. What's the distrbution of temperature in a metal plate whose periphery is kept cooled to a constant temp (the boundary condition) but which is being heated in the middle?


Ordinary and Partial DEs: ordinary d/dt and partial ∂ / ∂ t derivatives.

Order of DE: order of highest derivative appearing in it. An nth order DE can be expressed as a system of n 1st-order DEs, as we'll see.

Linear and Nonlinear DEs: Linear DE in y is a sum of weighted y-derivatives of different orders set equal to 0:
a(x)y'' +b(x)y' + c(x) y + d(x) = 0

Nonlinear has more complex relations between the derivatives, like
a(x)y''y +b(x)(y'2) + c(x) √ y + d(x) = 0

Linear constant coefficient equations have solutions in exponentials (decays, explosions, and sines)
ay'' +by' + cy + d = 0

Homogeneous and Nonhomogeneous: Hom looks like
a(x)y'' +b(x)y' + c(x) y = 0
a(x)y'' +b(x)y' + c(x) y = -d(x)

Homogeneous can be a steady state solution (no 'driving force' from outside). Any solution to a DE can have the homogeneous soln added to it and stay a soln.

Higher Order ODEs, Systems of 1st Order ODEs

Invent new variables (say u1, u2, u3, etc.) so that the first one is y' the derivative of y, the second is the derivative of the first (y''), etc. So if
y''' + g(x)y'' +r(x)y' + s(x)y = t(x),
then we must have
u1(x) = y'
u2(x) = u1' = y''
u3(x)= u2' = y''' = t(x) -s(x)y -r(x)u1 - g(x)u2.

There is a rather nicer (to my mind) matrix form of this, also given in the pdf reading: Informal DE Intro.

In Matrix Form

y''' + g(x)y'' + r(x) y' + s(x)y = t(x)

   |y  | | 0     1     0   ||y  | |0   |
d  |   | |                 ||   | |    |
-- |y' |=| 0     0     1   ||y' |+|0   |
dx |   | |                 ||   | |    |
   |y''| |-s(x) -r(x) -g(x)||y''| |t(x)|

Higher Order ODEs, Systems of 1st Order ODEs

Another example of a nonlinear system of three first order DEs (The Lorenz Attractor):
x' = 10(x-y)
y' = -xz +28x -y
z' = xy -8z/3

Which has a "chaotic" regime, solutions as below: red and blue solns from almost identical initial conditions.

Final word. All the equations we feed Matlab to get our ODE solving done will look like
y' = f(y,x).

Numerical Integration: The Idea

For Initial Boundary Value Problem. Assume know y(0), the given initial condition. But y'(x) tells you how much to change y for a small step in x. So step a bit dx along x and use y' to get a new value for y: in fact, just iteratively set y(x+dx) = y(x) + (dx)y'.

That's ALL THERE IS!! Everything else is just bells and whistles.

Add Rectangles, Trapezoids, or small areas from higher-order approximations: Trapezoidal Rule, Simpson's Rule, Runga-Kutta, Predictor-Corrector... All doing the same idea with varying degrees of accuracy, speed, flexibility, efficiency.

Stiffness: solutions at hugely different timescales means intelligent and varying choice of step size is needed (e.g. Matlab's ode45 and ode45s).

ODEs in Matlab: Example I

Insult Warning! This stuff is simple!

Here's an example (PLENTY more out there in Matlab documentation , etc.

Lorenz Attractor:
x' = 10(x-w)
w' = -xz +28x -w
z' = xw -8z/3

First Matlab needs a function that computes a column vector of derivatives
y' = f(t,y)
with one row for each of the unknowns y(i) in our equation. This function takes two arguments, a scalar 'time' t and a vector of of unknown variables. Here we have
y(1) = x, y(2) = w, and y(3) = z. We write a function that looks like this:

function dy = lorenz(t, y)
%Lorenz Attractor. t a scalar,
% y a vector of y's.
%dy returned as a column vector of dy's
% y(1), y(2) ... are the x,y,z...
dy = zeros(3,1);
dy(1) = 10*(y(2) - y(1));
dy(2) = - y(1)*y(3) + 28*y(1) - y(2);
dy(3) = y(1)*y(2)-(8/3)*y(3);

The equations are implicitly parameterized by time, which steps along according to a timespan parameter vector (next slide).

Running Matlab ODE Solver

Now we've got our derivatives function, which computes the current derivative value from the values of lower-order derivatives and the time.

We want to pass this function to another function as argument. As usual with imperative languages, we'll pass a pointer, or a handle for this function, given by Matlab's @ operator: E.g., either the bare
Or we can give it a name:
lorenzhandle = @lorenz

We need to specify the time interval to be covered by the integration. The documentation says it can be a 2-vector
[start, finish]
or an N-vector like
timespan = linspace(start, finish,1000)
With the 2-vector, Matlab makes up the spacing: the N-vector provides explicit times (not necessarily evenly spaced).

We also need a (row or column) vector of initial conditions for the system. E.g. for Lorenz, let's start at some point in space (x(0), y(0), z(0)) = [10, -10, 20] . Let's run for 20 time-units divided up into 1500 steps. We also must be able to spell ode23, the simplest and cheapest of Matlab's many ODE solvers.

We expect the output to be a column vector of times (the same as our timespan input, or made up by Matlab to lie between our start and end time), and values of the function (and any lower-order derivatives it computes while integrating). OK, we're off!...
%Script to Run Lorenz
lorenzhandle = @lorenz;
y0 = [10, -10, 20]; % initial conditions
%next specify 1500 instants
timespan = linspace(0, 20, 1500);
% ** boom **
[T,Y] = ode23 (lorenzhandle,timespan, y0);
% ** it's over! **
plot(Y(:,1),Y(:,3), 'r');
hold on
% new initial conditions close to previous
y0 = [10, -10, 20.1]; [T,Y] = ode23 (lorenzhandle,timespan, y0);
%BUT big difference in the two solns
plot(Y(:,1),Y(:,3), 'b');

The Plot: Y(1) versus Y(3) (X vs Z)

Matlab ODE Solver: Example II

In a vacuum, a falling body accelerates due the force of gravity. On earth, the acceleration due to gravity is called
g = 9.8m/sec2.

Let's plot the velocity and position of a ball (in a vacuum) acted on by gravity. We can start the ball at what ever height and velocity we want... throwing it up sounds interesting (and is like the ballistics assignment).

The equation governing y as a function of time is, assuming y measures height, y'' = -g

We put that into our favorite matrix form this way.

d  |y  |   | 0  1| |y  |   |0    |
-- |   | = |     | |   | + |     |
dx |y' |   | 0  0| |y' |   |-9.8 |

dy/dx = y'
d2 y / d y2 = y'' = -9.8

So our derivatives function in Matlab is this:

function dy = ball(t,y)
dy = zeros(2,1);
dy(1) = y(2); %dy/dx = y'
dy(2) = -9.8; %d2 y / d y2 = y'' = -9.8

We now get to choose a start and finish time and initial conditions. May as well start at zero time and altitude. Let's start the ball off with an upward velocity of 100m/sec.

% script
ballhandle = @ball;
tspan = [0 20]; % [start finish] (seconds)
y0 = [0 100]; % [ y y'] initial
[T Y] = ode23(ballhandle, tspan, y0); %boom
>> [T Y]
>> plot(T,Y(:,1))
>> plot(T,Y(:,2))

The Output Matrices and Plots

Notice Matlab starts out with small dt time steps, but grows confident and starts moving along by 2 each step, which actually leave us with a rather un-smooth graph...

      T         Y       VEL
         0         0  100.0000
    0.0000    0.0001  100.0000
    0.0000    0.0005  100.0000
    0.0000    0.0025   99.9998
    0.0001    0.0125   99.9988
    0.0006    0.0625   99.9939
    0.0031    0.3124   99.9694
    0.0156    1.5613   99.8469
    0.0781    7.7826   99.2344
    0.3906   38.3148   96.1719
    1.9531  176.6205   80.8594
    3.9531  318.7392   61.2594
    5.9531  421.6580   41.6594
    7.9531  485.3767   22.0594
    9.9531  509.8955    2.4594
   11.9531  495.2142  -17.1406
   13.9531  441.3330  -36.7406
   15.9531  348.2517  -56.3406
   17.9531  215.9705  -75.9406
   20.0000   40.0000  -96.0000

Velocity Below

Height Below

Simulations and Fun

Simulations are great fun, since we get to play around with the rules. Suppose the force of gravity were a nice even 10, and that its direction is reversed 10 seconds into the ball's flight?

function dy = gball(t,y)
if t<10
g = -10;
g = 10;
dy = zeros(2,1);
dy(1) = y(2);
dy(2) = g;


Height Below

Last Words

Our goals were:

  1. to demystify DEs
  2. to encourage you as always to READ (texts, papers, documentation, websites, tutorials) FOR YOURSELVES
  3. to show easy examples of solving initial-value problems with higher-order ODEs and systems of ODEs in Matlab.

Trajectory of human head launched at 40 degrees of elevation into enemy redoubt. Flight took about 15 seconds. Distance unit is the meter (about 3 feet for you Angles and Saxons).


Last update: 04/22/2011: RN