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Subsections

# Contour lines, directional derivatives, and the gradient

## Getting Started

To assist you, there is a worksheet associated with this lab that contains examples. You can copy that worksheet to your home directory with the following command, which must be run in a terminal window, not in Maple.

cp /math/calclab/MA1024/Pardiff_grad_start.mws ~


## Background

### Contour lines

For functions of two variables in Cartesian coordinates, the graph is a set of points in three-dimensional space. For this reason, visualizing functions of two variables is usually more difficult. The simplest way of describing a surface in Cartesian coordinates is as the graph of a function over a domain, e.g. a set of points in the plane. The domain can have any shape, but a rectangular one is the easiest to deal with. Another way of representing a surface is through the use of level curves. The idea is that a plane intersects the surface in a curve. The projection of this curve on the plane is called a level curve. A collection of such curves for different values of is a representation of the surface called a contour plot.

### Directional derivatives

The partial derivatives and of can be thought of as the rate of change of in the direction parallel to the and axes, respectively. The directional derivative , where is a unit vector, is the rate of change of in the direction . There are several different ways that the directional derivative can be computed. The method most often used for hand calculation relies on the gradient, which will be described below. It is also possible to simply use the definition to compute the directional derivative. However, the following computation, based on the definition, is often simpler to use. One way to think about this that can be helpful in understanding directional derivatives is to realize that is a straight line in the plane. The plane perpendicular to the plane that contains this straight line intersects the surface in a curve whose coordinate is . The derivative of at is the rate of change of at the point moving in the direction .

### The Gradient

The gradient of , written , is most easily computed as As described in the text, the gradient has several important properties, including the following.
• The gradient can be used to compute the directional derivative as follows. • The gradient points in the direction of maximum increase of the value of at .
• The gradient is perpendicular to the level curve of that passes through the point .
• The gradient can be easily generalized to apply to functions of three or more variables.

## Exercises

1. Consider the following function. A)
First, plot the graph of this function over the domain and using the plot3d command. Then use the contourplot command to generate a contour plot of over the same domain having 20 contour lines.
B)
What does the contour plot look like in the regions where the surface plot has a steep incline? What does it look like where the surface plot is almost flat?
C)
What can you say about the surface plot in a region whe re the contour plot looks like a series of nested circles?

2. Consider again the function from the first exercise. Using either method from the Getting Started worksheet, compute the directional derivative of at the point , in the three directions below.
A) B) C) 3. Using the method from the Getting Started worksheet, plot the gradient field and the contours of on the same plot. Use the domain of and . Use 20 contours and a 20 by 20 gradient field. Can you use this plot to explain the values for the directional derivatives you obtained in the previous exercises? By explaining the values, I only mean can you explain what kind of surface it is and why the values were positive, negative, or zero in terms of the contours and the gradient field?   Next: About this document ... Up: lab_template Previous: lab_template
Jane E Bouchard
2010-02-05