In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

In differential equations, we teach our students that to solve a homogeneous differential equation with constant coefficients, such as

,

the first step is to construct the characteristic equation

by essentially replacing with , with , and so on. Standard techniques from Algebra II/Precalculus, like the rational root test and synthetic division, are then used to find the roots of this polynomial; in this case, the roots are and . Therefore, switching back to the realm of differential equations, the general solution of the differential equation is

.

As , this general solution blows up (unless, by some miracle, ). The last two terms decay to 0, but the first term dominates.

The moral of the story is: if any of the roots have a positive real part, then the solution will blow up to or . On the other hand, if all of the roots have a negative real part, then the solution will decay to 0 as .

This sets up the following awful math pun, which I first saw in the book Absolute Zero Gravity:

An Aeroflot plan en route to Warsaw ran into heavy turbulence and was in danger of crashing. In desparation, the pilot got on the intercom and asked, “Would everyone with a Polish passport please move to the left side of the aircraft.” The passengers changed seats, and the turbulence ended. Why? The pilot achieved stability by putting all the Poles in the left half-plane.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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