Differential equations show you relationships between rates of functions.

A differential equation is simply an equation with a derivative in it. Here is an example:
What is a differential equation?
An equation that you take the derivative of. An equation that relates the rate of a function to other values. It is a formula for the slope of a tangent line at a given point.

When a mathematician solves a differential equation, they are finding functions satisfying the equation.

Which of the following functions solve the differential equation
Remember, is the fourth derivative of .

The differential equation above is an example of a fourth order differential equation, because the highest derivative in the equation is a ‘‘fourth’’ derivative. In general the highest derivative in a differential equation is the order.

Differential equations are one of the most practical objects of mathematical study. They appear constantly in every field of science and engineering. They are a powerful way to model many diverse situations.

Modeling with differential equations

Setting up differential equations is a skill to be acquired. However, you can try your hand with our next question.

Imagine that a glass of water has initial temperature , and that the ambient temperature is . The water will warm up over time. Assume that the rate of change in the temperature of the water is directly proportional to the difference between the current water temperature and the ambient temperature. Which of the following differential equations must be satisfied by the function which measures the temperature of the water with respect to time?
for some for some for some for some
This is just a straight translation job. ‘‘The rate of change in the temperature of the water’’ is . ‘‘Directly proportional to’’ means that it is equal to some constant (say ) times whatever it is proportional to. ‘‘The difference between the current water temperature and the ambient temperature” is either or , since is the temperature of the water and is the ambient temperature. Think about which we should choose before looking at the next hint. Will it be or where ?
Since the temperature of the water is increasing over time, we want . Since the temperature will be increasing (and it is reasonable to assume it never surpasses the ambient temperature!) is positive. So we can conclude that for some .

Sometimes the rates in question are constant.

One can approximate the force of gravity as constant near the Earth. So the acceleration of a falling object is a constant . If is the height of an object at time , which differential equation must satisfy?
The acceleration of an object is the second derivative of its position, so the differential equation should say the second derivative, , is constant. Should it be a positive of negative constant?
A falling object will fall quicker and quicker, so the second derivative of its height should be negative. Thus is the correct answer.

Initial value problems

We have already seen, and solved, a particular kind of differential equation in this course. Namely a solution to the differential equation is just an antiderivative of ! We know the ‘‘general solution’’ of this differential equation is just , as long as the domain of is an interval. We can use this idea to solve differential equations of the form , by just repeatedly integrating and solving for ‘‘’’ when we can.

We can use the general solution to give specific solutions.