Inverse Functions: Arctangent and Angle Between Two Lines (Part 25)

The smallest angle between the non-perpendicular lines y = m_1 x + b_1 and y = m_1 x + b_2 can be found using the formula

\theta = \displaystyle \tan^{-1} \left( \left| \frac{m_1 - m_2}{1 + m_1 m_2} \right| \right).

A generation ago, this formula used to be taught in a typical Precalculus class (or, as it was called back then, analytical geometry). However, I find that analytic geometry has fallen out of favor in modern Precalculus courses.

Why does this formula work? Consider the graphs of y = m_1 x and y = m_1 x + b_1, and let’s measure the angle that the line makes with the positive x-axis.

dotproduct5The lines y = m_1 x + b_1 and y = m_1 x are parallel, and the x-axis is a transversal intersecting these two parallel lines. Therefore, the angles that both lines make with the positive x-axis are congruent. In other words, the + b_1 is entirely superfluous to finding the angle \theta_1. The important thing that matters is the slope of the line, not where the line intersects the y-axis.

The point (1, m_1) lies on the line y = m_1 x, which also passes through the origin. By definition of tangent, \tan \theta_1 can be found by dividing the y- and x-coordinates:

\tan \theta_1 = \displaystyle \frac{m}{1} = m_1.

green linedotproduct6


We now turn to the problem of finding the angle between two lines. As noted above, the y-intercepts do not matter, and so we only need to find the smallest angle between the lines y = m_1 x and y = m_2 x.

The angle \theta will either be equal to \theta_1 - \theta_2 or \theta_2 - \theta_1, depending on the values of m_1 and m_2. Let’s now compute both \tan (\theta_1 - \theta_2) and \tan (\theta_2 - \theta_1) using the formula for the difference of two angles:

\tan (\theta_1 - \theta_2) = \displaystyle \frac{\tan \theta_1 - \tan \theta_2}{1 + \tan \theta_1 \tan \theta_2}

\tan (\theta_2 - \theta_1) = \displaystyle \frac{\tan \theta_2 - \tan \theta_1}{1 + \tan \theta_2 \tan \theta_1}

Since the smallest angle \theta must lie between 0 and \pi/2, the value of \tan \theta must be positive (or undefined if \theta = \pi/2… for now, we’ll ignore this special case). Therefore, whichever of the above two lines holds, it must be that

\tan \theta = \displaystyle \left| \frac{\tan \theta_1 - \tan \theta_2}{1 + \tan \theta_1 \tan \theta_2} \right|

We now use the fact that m_1 = \tan \theta_1 and m_2 = \tan \theta_2:

\tan \theta = \displaystyle \left| \frac{m_1 - m_2}{1 + m_1 m_2} \right|

\theta = \tan^{-1} \left( \displaystyle \left| \frac{m_1 - m_2}{1 + m_1 m_2} \right| \right)

green line

The above formula only applies to non-perpendicular lines. However, the perpendicular case may be remembered as almost a special case of the above formula. After all, \tan \theta is undefined at \theta = \pi/2 = 90^\circ, and the right hand side is also undefined if 1 + m_1 m_2 = 0. This matches the theorem that the two lines are perpendicular if and only if m_1 m_2 = -1, or that the slopes of the two lines are negative reciprocals.

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