College Math Teaching

September 9, 2014

Chebyshev polynomials: a topological viewpoint

Chebyshev (or Tchebycheff) polynomials are a class of mutually orthogonal polynomials (with respect to the inner product: f \cdot g  = \int^1_{-1} \frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - x^2}} f(x)g(x) dx ) defined on the interval [-1, 1] . Yes, I realize that this is an improper integral, but it does converge in our setting.

These are used in approximation theory; here are a couple of uses:

1. The roots of the Chebyshev polynomial can be used to find the values of x_0, x_1, x_2, ...x_k \in [-1,1] that minimize the maximum of |(x-x_0)(x-x_1)(x-x_2)...(x-x_k)| over the interval [-1,1] . This is important in minimizing the error of the Lagrange interpolation polynomial.

2. The Chebyshev polynomial can be used to adjust an approximating Taylor polynomial P_n to increase its accuracy (away from the center of expansion) without increasing its degree.

The purpose of this note isn’t to discuss the utility but rather to discuss an interesting property that these polynomials have. The Wiki article on these polynomials is reasonably good for that purpose.

Let’s discuss the polynomials themselves. They are defined for all positive integers n as follows:

T_n = cos(n acos(x)) . Now, it is an interesting exercise in trig identities to discover that these ARE polynomials to begin with; one shows this to be true for, say, n \in \{0, 1, 2\} by using angle addition formulas and the standard calculus resolution of things like sin(acos(x)) . Then one discovers a relation: T_{n+1} =2xT_n - T_{n-1} to calculate the rest.

The cos(n acos(x)) definition allows for some properties to be calculated with ease: the zeros occur when acos(x) = \frac{\pi}{2n} + \frac{k \pi}{n} and the first derivative has zeros where arcos(x) = \frac{k \pi}{n} ; these ALL correspond to either an endpoint max/min at x=1, x = -1 or local max and mins whose y values are also \pm 1 . Here are the graphs of T_4(x), T_5 (x)



Now here is a key observation: the graph of a T_n forms n spanning arcs in the square [-1, 1] \times [-1,1] and separates the square into n+1 regions. So, if there is some other function f whose graph is a connected, piecewise smooth arc that is transverse to the graph of T_n that both spans the square from x = -1 to x = 1 and that stays within the square, that graph must have n points of intersection with the graph of T_n .

Now suppose that f is the graph of a polynomial of degree n whose leading coefficient is 2^{n-1} and whose graph stays completely in the square [-1, 1] \times [-1,1] . Then the polynomial Q(x) = T_n(x) - f(x) has degree n-1 (because the leading terms cancel via the subtraction) but has n roots (the places where the graphs cross). That is clearly impossible; hence the only such polynomial is f(x) = T_n(x) .

This result is usually stated in the following way: T_n(x) is normalized to be monic (have leading coefficient 1) by dividing the polynomial by 2^{n-1} and then it is pointed out that the normalized T_n(x) is the unique monic polynomial over [-1,1] that stays within [-\frac{1}{2^{n-1}}, \frac{1}{2^{n-1}}] for all x \in [-1,1] . All other monic polynomials have a graph that leaves that box at some point over [-1,1] .

Of course, one can easily cook up analytic functions which don’t leave the box but these are not monic polynomials of degree n .

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