Experimental data for the length of curve experiment

In a previous post (click on the link on the left to learn fully about the experiment, and the assigned problems), I talked

about an experiment we conduct in class to compare spline and polynomial interpolation.  If you do not want to conduct the experiment itself but want the (x,y) data to see for yourself how polynomial and spline interpolation compare, the data is given below.

Length of graduated flexible curve = 12″

The points on the x-y graph are as follows

(-4.1,0), (-2.6,1), (-2.0,2,2), (-1.6, 3.0), (-1,3.6), (0,3.9), (1.6,2.8), (3.2,0.4), (4.1,0)


This post is brought to you by Holistic Numerical Methods: Numerical Methods for the STEM undergraduate at http://nm.mathforcollege.com.

An abridged (for low cost) book on Numerical Methods with Applications will be in print (includes problem sets, TOC, index) on December 10, 2008 and available at lulu storefront.

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Length of a curve experiment

In a previous post, I mentioned that I have incorporated experiments in my Numerical Methods course. Here I will discuss the second experiment.

Length of the curve experimentIn this experiment, we find the length of two curves generated from the same points – one curve is a polynomial interpolant and another one is a spline interpolant.

Motivation behind the experiment: In 1901, Runge conducted a numerical experiment to show that higher order interpolation is a bad idea. It was shown that as you use higher order interpolants to approximate f(x)=1/(1+25x2) in [-1,1], the differences between the original function and the interpolants becomes worse. This concept also becomes the basis why we use splines rather than polynomial interpolation to find smooth paths to travel through several discrete points.

What do students do in the lab: A flexible curve (see Figure) of length 12″ made of lead-core construction with graduations in both millimeters and inches is provided. The student needs to draw a curve similar in shape to the Runge’s curve on the provided graphing paper as shown. It just needs to be similar in shape – the student can make the x-domain shorter and the maximum y-value larger or vice-versa. The student just needs to make sure that there is a one-to-one correspondence of values.

Assigned Exercises: Use MATLAB to solve problems (3 thru 6). Use comments, display commands and fprintf statements, sensible variable names and units to explain your work. Staple all the work in the following sequence.

  1. Signed typed affidavit sheet.
  2. Attach the plot you drew in the class. Choose several points (at least nine – do not need to be symmetric) along the curve, including the end points. Write out the co-ordinates on the graphing paper curve as shown in the figure.
  3. Find the polynomial interpolant that curve fits the data. Output the coefficients of the polynomial.
  4. Find the cubic spline interpolant that curve fits the data. Just show the work in the mfile.
  5. Illustrate and show the individual points, polynomial and cubic spline interpolants on a single plot.
  6. Find the length of the two interpolants – the polynomial and the spline interpolant. Calculate the relative difference between the length of each interpolant and the actual length of the flexible curve.
  7. In 100-200 words, type out your conclusions using a word processor. Any formulas should be shown using an equation editor. Any sketches need to be drawn using a drawing software such as Word Drawing. Any plots can be imported from MATLAB.

Where to buy the items for the experiment:

  1. Flexible curves – I bought these via internet at Art City. The brand name is Alvin Tru-Flex Graduated Flexible Curves. Prices range from $5 to $12. Shipping and handling is extra – approximately $6 plus 6% of the price. You may want to buy several 12″ and 16″ flexible curves. I had to send a query to the vendor when I did not receive them within a couple of weeks. Alternatively, call your local Art Store and see if they have them.
  2. Engineering Graph Paper – Staples or Office Depot. Costs about $12 for a pack for 100-sheet pad.
  3. Pencil – Anywhere – My favorite store is the 24-hour Wal-Mart Superstore. $1 for a dozen.
  4. Scale – Anywhere – My favorite store is the 24-hour Wal-Mart Superstore. $1 per unit.

This post is brought to you by Holistic Numerical Methods: Numerical Methods for the STEM undergraduate at http://nm.mathforcollege.com

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Finding the length of curve using MATLAB

As per integral calculus, the length of a continuous and differentiable curve f(x) from x=a to x=b is given by

S=\int_a^b \sqrt{(1+(dy/dx)^2} dx

Now how do we find the length of a curve in MATLAB.

Let us do this via an example. Assume one asked you to find the length of $latex x^2*sin(x) $ from Π to 2Π. In the book, How People Learn, the authors mention that learning a concept in multiple contexts prolongs retention. Although it may not be the context that the authors of the book are talking about, let us find the length of the curve multiple ways within MATLAB. Try the program for functions and limits of your own choice to evaluate the difference.

METHOD 1: Use the formula S= \int_a^b \sqrt{(1+(dy/dx)^2} dx by using the diff and int function of MATLAB

METHOD 2: Generate several points between a and b, and join straight lines between consecutive data points. Add the length of these straight lines to find the length of the curve.

METHOD 3. Find the derivative dy/dx numerically using forward divided difference scheme, and then use trapezoidal rule (trapz command in MATLAB) for discrete data with unequal segments to find the length of the curve.


  1. Why does METHOD 3 giving inaccurate results? Can you make them better by using better approximations of derivative like central divided difference scheme?
  2. Redo the problem with f(x)= x^{\frac{3}{2}} with a=1 and b=4 as the exact length can be found for such a function.

% Simulation : Find length of a given Curve
% Language : Matlab 2007a
% Authors : Autar Kaw
% Last Revised : June 14 2008
% Abstract: We are finding the length of the curve by three different ways
% 1. Using the formula from calculus
% 2. Breaking the curve into bunch of small straight lines
% 3. Finding dy/dx of the formula numerically to use discrete function
% integration
clear all

disp(‘We are finding the length of the curve by three different ways’)
disp(‘1. Using the formula from calculus’)
disp(‘2. Breaking the curve into bunch of small straight lines’)
disp(‘3. Finding dy/dx of the formula numerically to use discrete function integration’)

%INPUTS – this is where you will change input data if you are doing
% a different problem
syms x;
% Define the function
% lower limit
% b=upper limit
% n = number of straight lines used to approximate f(x) for METHOD 2
%p = number of discrete data points where dy/dx is calculated for METHOD 3

% METHOD 1. Using the calculus formula
% S=int(sqrt(1+dy/dx^2),a,b)
% finding dy/dx
% applying the formula
fprintf (‘\nExact length =%g’,leng_exact)

% METHOD 2. Breaking the curve as if it is made of small length
% straight lines
% Generating n x-points from a to b

xi= a:(b-a)/n:b;
% generating the y-values of the function
% assuming that between consecutive data points, the
% curve can be approximated by linear splines.
% there are m-1 splines for m points
for i=1:1:m-1
dy= yi(i+1)-yi(i);
fprintf (‘\n\nBreaking the line into short lengths =%g’,leng_straight)

% METHOD 3. Same as METHOD1, but calculating dy/dx
% numerically and integrating using trapz
% generating the dy/dx-values
for i=1:1:m-1
% derivative at last point using Backward divided difference formula
% is same as Forward divided difference formula
disp(‘ ‘)
disp(‘ ‘)
disp (‘Using numerical value of dy/dx coupled’)
disp (‘with discrete integration’)
fprintf (‘ =%g’,length_fdd)

This post is brought to you by Holistic Numerical Methods: Numerical Methods for the STEM undergraduate at http://nm.mathforcollege.com