Differentiable curve

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Differential geometry of curves is the branch of geometry that deals with smooth curves in the plane and the Euclidean space by methods of differential and integral calculus.


Many specific curves have been thoroughly investigated using the synthetic approach. Differential geometry takes another path: curves are represented in a parametrized form, and their geometric properties and various quantities associated with them, such as the curvature and the arc length, are expressed via derivatives and integrals using vector calculus. One of the most important tools used to analyze a curve is the Frenet frame, a moving frame that provides a coordinate system at each point of the curve that is "best adapted" to the curve near that point.

The theory of curves is much simpler and narrower in scope than the theory of surfaces and its higher-dimensional generalizations because a regular curve in a Euclidean space has no intrinsic geometry. Any regular curve may be parametrized by the arc length (the natural parametrization). From the point of view of a theoretical point particle on the curve that does not know anything about the ambient space, all curves would appear the same. Different space curves are only distinguished by how they bend and twist. Quantitatively, this is measured by the differential-geometric invariants called the curvature and the torsion of a curve. The fundamental theorem of curves asserts that the knowledge of these invariants completely determines the curve.


A parametricCr-curve or a Cr-parametrization is a vector-valued function

that is r-times continuously differentiable (that is, the component functions of γ are continuously differentiable), where n, r ∈ ℕ ∪ {∞}, and I be a non-empty interval of real numbers. The image of the parametric curve is γ[I] ⊆ n. The parametric curve γ and its image γ[I] must be distinguished because a given subset of n can be the image of several distinct parametric curves. The parameter t in γ(t) can be thought of as representing time, and γ the trajectory of a moving point in space. When I is a closed interval [a,b], γ(a) is called the starting point and γ(b) is the endpoint of γ. If the starting and the end points coincide (that is, γ(a) = γ(b)), then γ is a closed curve or a loop. For being a Cr-loop, the function γ must be r-times continuously differentiable and satisfy γ(k)(a) = γ(k)(b) for 0 ≤ kr.

The parametric curve is simple if

is injective. It is analytic if each component function of γ is an analytic function, that is, it is of class Cω.

The curve γ is regular of orderm (where mr) if, for every tI,

is a linearly independent subset of n. In particular, a parametric C1-curve γ is regular if and only if γ′(t) ≠ 0 for any tI.

Re-parametrization and equivalence relation

Given the image of a parametric curve, there are several different parametrizations of the parametric curve. Differential geometry aims to describe the properties of parametric curves that are invariant under certain reparametrizations. A suitable equivalence relation on the set of all parametric curves must be defined. The differential-geometric properties of a parametric curve (such as its length, its Frenet frame, and its generalized curvature) are invariant under reparametrization and therefore properties of the equivalence class itself. The equivalence classes are called Cr-curves and are central objects studied in the differential geometry of curves.

Two parametric Cr-curves, γ1 : I1n and γ2 : I2n, are said to be equivalent if and only if there exists a bijective Cr-map φ : I1I2 such that


γ2 is then said to be a re-parametrization of γ1.

Re-parametrization defines an equivalence relation on the set of all parametric Cr-curves of class Cr. The equivalence class of this relation simply a Cr-curve.

An even finer equivalence relation of oriented parametric Cr-curves can be defined by requiring φ to satisfy φ′(t) > 0.

Equivalent parametric Cr-curves have the same image, and equivalent oriented parametric Cr-curves even traverse the image in the same direction.

Length and natural parametrization

The length l of a parametric C1-curve γ : [a,b] → n is defined as

The length of a parametric curve is invariant under reparametrization and is therefore a differential-geometric property of the parametric curve.

For each regular parametric Cr-curve γ : [a,b] → n, where r ≥ 1, the function is defined

Writing γ(s) = γ(t(s)), where t(s) is the inverse function of s(t). This is a re-parametrization γ of γ that is called an arc-length parametrization, natural parametrization, unit-speed parametrization. The parameter s(t) is called the natural parameter of γ.

This parametrization is preferred because the natural parameter s(t) traverses the image of γ at unit speed, so that

In practice, it is often very difficult to calculate the natural parametrization of a parametric curve, but it is useful for theoretical arguments.

For a given parametric curve γ, the natural parametrization is unique up to a shift of parameter.

The quantity

is sometimes called the energy or action of the curve; this name is justified because the geodesic equations are the Euler–Lagrange equations of motion for this action.

Frenet frame

An illustration of the Frenet frame for a point on a space curve. T is the unit tangent, P the unit normal, and B the unit binormal. Frenet frame.png
An illustration of the Frenet frame for a point on a space curve. T is the unit tangent, P the unit normal, and B the unit binormal.

A Frenet frame is a moving reference frame of n orthonormal vectors ei(t) which are used to describe a curve locally at each point γ(t). It is the main tool in the differential geometric treatment of curves because it is far easier and more natural to describe local properties (e.g. curvature, torsion) in terms of a local reference system than using a global one such as Euclidean coordinates.

Given a Cn + 1-curve γ in n which is regular of order n the Frenet frame for the curve is the set of orthonormal vectors

called Frenet vectors. They are constructed from the derivatives of γ(t) using the Gram–Schmidt orthogonalization algorithm with

The real-valued functions χi(t) are called generalized curvatures and are defined as

The Frenet frame and the generalized curvatures are invariant under reparametrization and are therefore differential geometric properties of the curve.

Bertrand curve

A Bertrand curve is a Frenet curve in with the additional property that there is a second curve in such that the principal normal vectors to these two curves are identical at each corresponding point. In other words, if r1(t) and r2(t) are two curves in such that for any t, N1 = N2, then r1 and r2 are Bertrand curves. For this reason it is common to speak of a Bertrand pair of curves (like r1 and r2 in the previous example). According to problem 25 in Kühnel's "Differential Geometry Curves – Surfaces – Manifolds", it is also true that two Bertrand curves that do not lie in the same two-dimensional plane are characterized by the existence of a linear relation + = 1 where a and b are real constants and a ≠ 0. [1] Furthermore, the product of torsions of a Bertrand pair of curves is constant. [2]

Special Frenet vectors and generalized curvatures

The first three Frenet vectors and generalized curvatures can be visualized in three-dimensional space. They have additional names and more semantic information attached to them.

Tangent vector

If a curve γ represents the path of a particle, then the instantaneous velocity of the particle at a given point P is expressed by a vector, called the tangent vector to the curve at P. Mathematically, given a parametrized C1 curve γ = γ(t), for every value t = t0 of the parameter, the vector

is the tangent vector at the point P = γ(t0). Generally speaking, the tangent vector may be zero. The tangent vector's magnitude

is the speed at the time t0.

The first Frenet vector e1(t) is the unit tangent vector in the same direction, defined at each regular point of γ:

If t = s is the natural parameter, then the tangent vector has unit length. The formula simplifies:


The unit tangent vector determines the orientation of the curve, or the forward direction, corresponding to the increasing values of the parameter. The unit tangent vector taken as a curve traces the spherical image of the original curve.

Normal or curvature vector

The normal vector, sometimes called the curvature vector, indicates the deviance of the curve from being a straight line.

It is defined as

Its normalized form, the unit normal vector, is the second Frenet vector e2(t) and is defined as

The tangent and the normal vector at point t define the osculating plane at point t.

It can be shown that ē2(t) ∝ e1(t). Therefore,


The first generalized curvature χ1(t) is called curvature and measures the deviance of γ from being a straight line relative to the osculating plane. It is defined as

and is called the curvature of γ at point t. It can be shown that

The reciprocal of the curvature

is called the radius of curvature.

A circle with radius r has a constant curvature of

whereas a line has a curvature of 0.

Binormal vector

The unit binormal vector is the third Frenet vector e3(t). It is always orthogonal to the unit tangent and normal vectors at t. It is defined as

In 3-dimensional space, the equation simplifies to

or to

That either sign may occur is illustrated by the examples of a right-handed helix and a left-handed helix.


The second generalized curvature χ2(t) is called torsion and measures the deviance of γ from being a plane curve. In other words, if the torsion is zero, the curve lies completely in the same osculating plane (there is only one osculating plane for every point t). It is defined as

and is called the torsion of γ at point t.


The third derivative may be used to define aberrancy, a metric of non-circularity of a curve. [3] [4] [5]

Main theorem of curve theory

Given n − 1 functions:

then there exists a unique (up to transformations using the Euclidean group) Cn + 1-curve γ which is regular of order n and has the following properties:

where the set

is the Frenet frame for the curve.

By additionally providing a start t0 in I, a starting point p0 in n and an initial positive orthonormal Frenet frame {e1, …, en − 1} with

the Euclidean transformations are eliminated to obtain a unique curve γ.

Frenet–Serret formulas

The Frenet–Serret formulas are a set of ordinary differential equations of first order. The solution is the set of Frenet vectors describing the curve specified by the generalized curvature functions χi.

2 dimensions

3 dimensions

n dimensions (general formula)

See also

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  1. Kühnel, Wolfgang (2005). Differential Geometry: Curves, Surfaces, Manifolds. Providence: AMS. p. 53. ISBN   0-8218-3988-8.
  2. Weisstein, Eric W. "Bertrand Curves". mathworld.wolfram.com.
  3. Schot, Stephen (November 1978). "Aberrancy: Geometry of the Third Derivative". Mathematics Magazine. 5. 51 (5): 259–275. doi:10.2307/2690245. JSTOR   2690245.
  4. Cameron Byerley; Russell a. Gordon (2007). "Measures of Aberrancy". Real Analysis Exchange. Michigan State University Press. 32 (1): 233. doi:10.14321/realanalexch.32.1.0233. ISSN   0147-1937.
  5. Gordon, Russell A. (2004). "The aberrancy of plane curves". The Mathematical Gazette. Cambridge University Press (CUP). 89 (516): 424–436. doi:10.1017/s0025557200178271. ISSN   0025-5572. S2CID   118533002.

Further reading