In this series of posts, I provide a deeper look at common applications of exponential functions that arise in an Algebra II or Precalculus class. In the previous posts in this series, I considered financial applications, radioactive decay, and Newton’s Law of Cooling.

Today, I discuss the logistic growth model, which describes how an infection (like a disease, a rumor, or advertise) spreads in a population. In yesterday’s post, I described an in-class demonstration that engages students while also making the following formula believable:

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I’d like to discuss some observations about this somewhat complicated function that will make producing its graph easier. The first two observations are within reach of Precalculus students.

1. Let’s figure out the intercept:

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In other words, the number represents the initial number of people who have the infection.

2. Let’s figure out the limiting value as gets large:

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As expected, all people will get the infection eventually. (Of course, Precalculus students won’t be familiar with the $\displaystyle \lim$ notation, but they should understand that decays to zero as gets large.

3. Let’s now figure out the point of inflection. Ordinarily, points of inflection are found by setting the second derivative equal to zero. Though this can be done for the function above, it would be a somewhat daunting exercise!

The good news is that the points of inflection can be found quite simply using the governing differential equation, which is

Let’s take the derivative of both sides, remembering that and are constants:

So the second derivative is equal to zero when either or else . The first case corresponds to the trivial cases and ; these constants are called the equilibrium solutions. The second case is the more interesting one:

This suggests that, as the infection spreads throughout a population, the curve changes concavity at the time that half of the population becomes infected. In other words, the infection spreads fastest throughout the population at the time when half of the population has been infected.

The time at which the point of inflection occurs can be found by setting and solving for :

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This technique for finding the points of inflection directly from the differential equation is possible whenever the differential equation is autonomous, which loosely means that the independent variable does not appear on the right-hand side.