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The Folium of Descartes

The folium of Descartes is a famous curve named after the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (pictured top right).  As well as significant contributions to philosophy (“I think therefore I am”) he was also the father of modern geometry through the development of the x,y coordinate system of plotting algebraic curves.  As such the Cartesian plane (as we call the x,y coordinate system) is named after him.

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Pascal and Descartes

Descartes was studying what is now known as the folium of Descartes (folium coming from the Latin for leaf) in the first half of the 1600s.  Prior to the invention of calculus, the ability to calculate the gradient at a given point was a real challenge.  He placed a wager with Pierre de Fermat, a contemporary French mathematician (of Fermat’s Last Theorem fame) that Fermat would be unable to find the gradient of the curve – a challenge that Fermat took up and succeeded with.

Calculus – implicit differentiation:

Today, armed with calculus and the method of implicit differentiation, finding the gradient at a point for the folium of Descartes is more straightforward.  The original Cartesian equation is:

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which can be differentiated implicitly to give:

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Therefore if we take (say) a =1 and the coordinate (1.5, 1.5) then we will have a gradient of -1.

Parametric equations

It’s sometimes easier to express a curve in a different way to the usual Cartesian equation.  Two alternatives are polar coordinates and parametric coordinates.  The parametric equations for the folium are given by:

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In order to use parametric equations we simply choose a value of t (say t =1) and put this into both equations in order to arrive at a coordinate pair in the x,y plane.  If we choose t = 1 and have set a = 1 as well then this gives:

x(1) = 3/2

y(1) = 3/2

therefore the point (1.5, 1.5) is on the curve.

You can read a lot more about famous curves and explore the maths behind them with the excellent “50 famous curves” from Bloomsburg University.

Essential resources for IB students:

1) Revision Village

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Revision Village has been put together to help IB students with topic revision both for during the course and for the end of Year 12 school exams and Year 13 final exams.  I would strongly recommend students use this as a resource during the course (not just for final revision in Y13!) There are specific resources for HL and SL students for both Analysis and Applications.

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There is a comprehensive Questionbank takes you to a breakdown of each main subject area (e.g. Algebra, Calculus etc) and then provides a large bank of graded questions.  What I like about this is that you are given a difficulty rating, as well as a mark scheme and also a worked video tutorial.  Really useful!

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The Practice Exams section takes you to a large number of ready made quizzes, exams and predicted papers.   These all have worked solutions and allow you to focus on specific topics or start general revision.  This also has some excellent challenging questions for those students aiming for 6s and 7s.

Each course also has a dedicated video tutorial section which provides 5-15 minute tutorial videos on every single syllabus part – handily sorted into topic categories.

2) Exploration Guides and Paper 3 Resources

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I’ve put together four comprehensive pdf guides to help students prepare for their exploration coursework and Paper 3 investigations. The exploration guides talk through the marking criteria, common student mistakes, excellent ideas for explorations, technology advice, modeling methods and a variety of statistical techniques with detailed explanations. I’ve also made 17 full investigation questions which are also excellent starting points for explorations.  The Exploration Guides can be downloaded here and the Paper 3 Questions can be downloaded here.

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All content on this site has been written by Andrew Chambers (MSc. Mathematics, IB Mathematics Examiner).

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Three comprehensive pdf guides to help you get excellent marks on your maths exploration coursework.

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