Course Homepage Preface On Learning
Build Your Intuition
1. 1-Minute Summary 2. X-Ray Vision 3. 3d Intuition
Learn The Lingo
4. Integrals, Derivatives 5. Computer Notation
Basic Understanding
6. Improved Algebra 7. Linear Changes 8. Squared Changes
Deeper Understanding
9. Infinity 10. Derivatives 11. Fundamental Theorem
Figure Out The Rules
12. Add, Multiply, Invert 13. Patterns In The Rules 14. Take Powers, Divide
Put It To Use
15. Archimedes' Formulas Summary
Welcome to an intuition-first calculus course.
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7 min read

9. Working With Infinity

Last time, we manually worked on the derivative of $$$x^2$$$ as $$$2x + 1$$$. But the official derivative, according to the calculator, was $$$2x$$$. What gives?

The answer relies on the concept of infinite accuracy. Infinity is a fascinating and scary concept -- there are entire classes (Analysis) that study it. We'll avoid learning the nuances of every theory: our goal is a practical understanding how infinity can help us work out the rules of calculus.

Insight: Sometimes Infinity Can Be Measured

Here's a quick brainteaser for you. Two friends are 10 miles apart, moving towards each other at 5mph each. A mosquito files quickly between them, touching one person, then the other, on and on, until the friends high-five and the mosquito is squished.

Let's say the mosquito travels a zippy 20mph as it goes. Can you figure out how far it flew before its demise?

Wolfram Alpha

Yikes. This one is tricky: once the mosquito leaves the first person, touches the second, and turns around... the first person has moved closer! We have an infinite number of ever-diminishing distances to add up. The question seems painfully difficult to solve, right?

Well, how about this reasoning: from the perspective of the people walking, they're going to walk for an hour total. After all, they start 10 miles apart, and the gap shrinks at 10 miles per hour (5mph + 5mph). Therefore, the mosquito must be flying for an hour, and go 20 miles.

Whoa! Did we just find the outcome of a process with an infinite number of steps? I think so!

Splitting A Whole Into Infinite Parts

It's time to turn our step-by-step thinking into overdrive. Can we think about a finite shape being split into infinite parts?

When we have two viewpoints (the mosquito, and the walkers), we can pick the one that's easier to work with. In this case, the walker's holistic viewpoint is simpler. With the circle, it's easier to think about the rings themselves. It's nice to have both options available.

Here's another example: can you divide a cake into 3 equal portions, by only cutting into quarters?


It's a weird question… but possible! Cut a entire cake into quarters. Share 3 pieces and leave 1. Cut the remaining piece into quarters. Share 3 pieces, leave 1. Keep repeating this process: at every step, everyone has received an equal share, and the remaining cake will be split evenly as well. Wouldn't this plan maintain an even split among 3 people?

We're seeing the intuition behind infinite X-Ray and Time-lapse vision: zooming in to turn a whole into an infinite sequence. At first, we might think dividing something into infinite parts requires each part to be nothing. But, that's not right: the number line can be subdivided infinitely, yet there's a finite gap between 1.0 and 2.0.

Two Fingers Pointing At The Same Moon

Why can we understand variations of the letter A, even when pixelated?

Wolfram Alpha

Even though the rendering is different, we see the idea being pointed to. All three versions, from perfectly smooth to jagged, create the same letter A in our heads (or, are you unable to read words when written out with rectangular pixels?). An infinite sequence can point to the same result we'd find if we took it all at once.

In calculus, there are detailed rules about how to find what result an infinite set of steps points to. And, there are certain sequences that cannot be worked out. But, for this primer, we'll deal with functions that behave nicely.

We're used to jumping between finite representations of the same idea (5 = V = |||||). Now we're seeing we can convert between a finite and infinite representation of an idea, similar to $$$\frac{1}{3} = .333\ldots = .3 \ + \ .03 \ + \ .003 \ + \ \ldots$$$.

When we turned a circle into a ring-triangle, we said "The infinitely-many rings in our circle can be turned into the infinitely-many boards that make up a triangle. And the resulting triangle is easy to measure."

boards to triangle

Today's goal isn't to become experts with infinity. It's to intuitively appreciate a practical conclusion: a sequence of infinitely many parts can still be measured, and reach the same conclusions as analyzing the whole. They're just two different descriptions of the same idea.

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Class Discussion

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