Brachistochrone Problem

Find the shape of the curve down which a bead sliding from rest and accelerated by gravity will slip (without friction) from one point to another in the least time. The term derives from the Greek betarhoalphachiiotasigmatauomicronsigma (brachistos) "the shortest" and chirhoomicronnuomicronsigma (chronos) "time, delay."

The brachistochrone problem was one of the earliest problems posed in the calculus of variations. Newton was challenged to solve the problem in 1696, and did so the very next day (Boyer and Merzbach 1991, p. 405). In fact, the solution, which is a segment of a cycloid, was found by Leibniz, L'Hospital, Newton, and the two Bernoullis. Johann Bernoulli solved the problem using the analogous one of considering the path of light refracted by transparent layers of varying density (Mach 1893, Gardner 1984, Courant and Robbins 1996). Actually, Johann Bernoulli had originally found an incorrect proof that the curve is a cycloid, and challenged his brother Jakob to find the required curve. When Jakob correctly did so, Johann tried to substitute the proof for his own (Boyer and Merzbach 1991, p. 417).

In the solution, the bead may actually travel uphill along the cycloid for a distance, but the path is nonetheless faster than a straight line (or any other line).

The time to travel from a point P_1 to another point P_2 is given by the integral


where s is the arc length and v is the speed. The speed at any point is given by a simple application of conservation of energy equating kinetic energy to gravitational potential energy,




Plugging this into (◇) together with the identity


then gives


The function to be varied is thus


To proceed, one would normally have to apply the full-blown Euler-Lagrange differential equation


However, the function f(y,y^') is particularly nice since x does not appear explicitly. Therefore, partialf/partialx=0, and we can immediately use the Beltrami identity




subtracting y^'(partialf/partialy^') from f, and simplifying then gives


Squaring both sides and rearranging slightly results in


where the square of the old constant C has been expressed in terms of a new (positive) constant k^2. This equation is solved by the parametric equations


which are--lo and behold--the equations of a cycloid.

If kinetic friction is included, the problem can also be solved analytically, although the solution is significantly messier. In that case, terms corresponding to the normal component of weight and the normal component of the acceleration (present because of path curvature) must be included. Including both terms requires a constrained variational technique (Ashby et al. 1975), but including the normal component of weight only gives an approximate solution. The tangent and normal vectors are


gravity and friction are then


and the components along the curve are


so Newton's Second Law gives






Using the Euler-Lagrange differential equation gives


This can be reduced to


Now letting


the solution is


See also

Calculus of Variations, Cycloid, Tautochrone Problem

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Ashby, N.; Brittin, W. E.; Love, W. F.; and Wyss, W. "Brachistochrone with Coulomb Friction." Amer. J. Phys. 43, 902-905, 1975.Boyer, C. B. and Merzbach, U. C. A History of Mathematics, 2nd ed. New York: Wiley, 1991.Courant, R. and Robbins, H. What Is Mathematics?: An Elementary Approach to Ideas and Methods, 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.Gardner, M. The Sixth Book of Mathematical Games from Scientific American. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 130-131, 1984.Haws, L. and Kiser, T. "Exploring the Brachistochrone Problem." Amer. Math. Monthly 102, 328-336, 1995.Hayen, J. C. "Brachistochrone with Coulomb Friction." Int. J. Non-Linear Mech. 40, 1057-1075, 2005.Lipp, S. C. "Brachistochrone with Coulomb Friction." SIAM J. Control Optim. 35, 562-584, 1997.Mach, E. The Science of Mechanics. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1893.Phillips, J. P. "Brachistochrone, Tautochrone, Cycloid--Apple of Discord." Math. Teacher 60, 506-508, 1967.Smith, D. E. History of Mathematics, Vol. 2: Special Topics of Elementary Mathematics. New York: Dover, p. 326, 1958.Steinhaus, H. Mathematical Snapshots, 3rd ed. New York: Dover, pp. 148-149, 1999.Wagon, S. Mathematica in Action. New York: W. H. Freeman, pp. 60-66 and 385-389, 1991.Wells, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry. London: Penguin, p. 46, 1991.

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Brachistochrone Problem

Cite this as:

Weisstein, Eric W. "Brachistochrone Problem." From MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource.

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