# Different definitions of e (Part 11): Numerical computation

In this series of posts, we have seen that the number $e$ can be thought about in three different ways.

1. $e$ defines a region of area 1 under the hyperbola $y = 1/x$. 2. We have the limits $e = \displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} (1+h)^{1/h} = \displaystyle \lim_{n \to \infty} \left(1 + \frac{1}{n} \right)^n$.

These limits form the logical basis for the continuous compound interest formula.

3. We have also shown that $\frac{d}{dx} \left(e^x \right) = e^x$. From this derivative, the Taylor series expansion for $e^x$ about $x = 0$ can be computed: $e^x = \displaystyle \sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{x^n}{n!}$

Therefore, we can let $x = 1$ to find $e$: $e = \displaystyle \sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{1}{n!} = \displaystyle 1 + 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{6} + \frac{1}{24} + \dots$ Let’s now consider how the decimal expansion of $e$ might be obtained from these three different methods.

1. Finding $e$ using only the original definition is a genuine pain in the neck. The only way to approximate $e$ is by trapping the value of $e$ using various approximation. For example, consider the picture below, showing the curve $y = 1/x$ and trapezoidal approximations on the intervals $[1,1.8]$ and $[1.8,2.6]$. (Because I need a good picture, I used Mathematica and not Microsoft Paint.) Each trapezoid has a (horizontal) height of $h = 0.8$. Furthermore, the bases of the first trapezoids have length $\displaystyle \frac{1}{1} = 1$ and $\displaystyle \frac{1}{1.8}$, while the bases of the second trapezoid of length $\displaystyle \frac{1}{1.8}$ and $\displaystyle \frac{1}{2.6}$. Notice that the trapezoids extend above the hyperbola, so that $\displaystyle \int_1^{2.6} \frac{dx}{x} < \displaystyle \frac{0.8}{2} \left( 1 + \frac{1}{1.8} \right) + \frac{0.8}{2} \left( \frac{1}{1.8} + \frac{1}{2.6} \right)$ $\displaystyle \int_1^{2.6} \frac{dx}{x} < 0.9983 < 1$

However, the number $e$ is defined to be the place where the area under the curve is exactly equal to $1$, and so $\displaystyle \int_1^{2.6} \frac{dx}{x} < \displaystyle \int_1^{e} \frac{dx}{x}$

In other words, we know that the area between $1$ and $2.6$ is strictly less than $1$, and therefore a number larger than $2.6$ must be needed to obtain an area equal to $1$.

Great, so $e > 2.6$. Can we do better? Sadly, with two equal-sized trapezoids, we can’t do much better. If the height of the trapezoids was $h$ and not $0.8$, then the sum of the areas of the two trapezoids would be $\displaystyle \frac{h}{2} \left( 1 + \frac{2}{1+h} + \frac{1}{1+2h} \right)$

By either guessing and checking — or with the help of Mathematica — it can be determined that this function of $h$ is equal to 1 at approximately $h \approx 0.8019$, thus establishing that $e > 1 + 2h \approx 2.6039$. We can try to better with additional trapezoids. With four trapezoids, we can establish that $e > 2.6845$. With 100 trapezoids, we can show that $e > 2.71822$. However, trapezoids can only provide a lower bound on $e$ because the original trapezoids all extend over the hyperbola. To obtain an upper bound on $e$, we will use a lower Riemann sum to approximate the area under the curve. For example, notice the following picture of 19 rectangles of width $h = 0.1$ ranging from $x =1$ to $x = 2.9$. The rectangles all lie below the hyperbola. The width of each one is $h = 0.1$, and the heights vary from $\frac{1}{1.1}$ to $\frac{1}{2.9}$. Therefore, $\displaystyle \int_1^{2.9} \frac{dx}{x} > \displaystyle 0.1 \left( \frac{1}{1.1}+ \frac{1}{1.2} + \dots + \frac{1}{2.9} \right)$ $\displaystyle \int_1^{2.9} \frac{dx}{x} > 1.0326 > 1$

In other words, we know that the area between $1$ and $2.9$ is strictly greater than $1$, and therefore a number smaller than $2.9$ must be needed to obtain an area equal to $1$. So, in a nutshell, we’ve shown that $e < 2.9$.

Once again, additional rectangles can provide better and better upper bounds on $e$. However, since rectangles do not approximate the hyperbola as well as trapezoids, we expect the convergence to be much slower. For example, with 100 rectangles of width $h$, the sum of the areas of the rectangles would be $h \displaystyle \left( \frac{1}{1+h} + \frac{1}{1+2h} + \dots + \frac{1}{1+100h} \right)$

It then becomes necessary to plug in numbers for $h$ until we find something that’s decently close to $1$ yet greater than $1$. Or we can have Mathematica do the work for us: So with 100 rectangles, we can establish that $e < 2.7333$. With 1000 rectangles, we can establish that $e < 2.71977$.

Clearly, this is a lot of work for approximating $e$. With all of the work shown in this post, we have shown that $e = 2.71\dots$, but we’re not yet sure if the next digit is $8$ or $9$.

In the next post, we’ll explore the other two ways of thinking about the number $e$ as well as their computational tractability.

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