Cow-culus and Elegant Geometry - Numberphile | Summary and Q&A

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November 14, 2022
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Numberphile
Cow-culus and Elegant Geometry - Numberphile

TL;DR

A calculus problem that challenges students to find the shortest path between a cow and a river can be solved easily using geometry.

Key Insights

• 🤠 Reflecting the real farmer and cow across the river simplifies the problem to one with a clear and easy solution.
• 🙂 The law of reflection for light and the farmer's strategy both involve finding the shortest path.
• ❓ Calculus and geometry provide different methods for solving optimization problems in mathematics.

Transcript

A problem that I give to my calculus students every  time I teach calculus; we spend a lot of time doing   it with half the techniques, my students at the end  of the exercise are: I hope Zvezda doesn't give this   on an exam. And then I ask them, would you like  to see a three to five line solution that a smart   fifth grader would understand? And... Read More

Q: How does reflecting the farmer and cow across the river simplify the problem?

Reflecting the farmer and cow creates an identical scenario where the shortest path is straightforward. Any path the real farmer takes can be mimicked by the reflected farmer, resulting in equal distances.

Q: Why is the law of reflection for light relevant to this problem?

The fact that light follows the shortest path in the reflection process is similar to what the farmer does. The light's behavior helps explain why the farmer's shortest path strategy is effective.

Q: Could the problem be solved without calculus or geometry?

While calculus provides a rigorous solution, the geometry approach is simpler. However, as the problem becomes more complex or involves additional variables, the calculus approach may become necessary.

Q: Are there practical applications for this problem?

The problem illustrates optimization, which has applications in fields like economics. Real-world scenarios involving multiple variables and constraints can benefit from similar problem-solving approaches.

Summary & Key Takeaways

• The problem involves a cow with a broken leg that needs water from a river. The farmer needs to find the shortest path from a point on the river to the cow.

• Using calculus, the solution involves finding the minimum of a function and taking its derivative. This can be a complicated task.

• However, by using geometry and reflecting the farmer and cow across the river, it can be shown that the shortest path is simply 1 kilometer downstream from the starting point.