On this episode of our podcast My Favorite Theorem, my cohost Kevin Knudson and I got to talk with Robert Ghrist. Dr. Ghrist has a joint professorship in the departments of mathematics and of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. You can listen to the episode here or a kpknudson.com, where there is also a transcript.

Dr. Ghrist chose a theorem (one that doesn't have a name of its own, so we’ll just have to call it Ghrist’s favorite theorem) that to him sums up a deep relationship between discrete analogs of calculus. Calculus is the study of continuous change over time, but many important systems change discretely. (For example, think of the birth of a new organism or generation of organisms.) Some tools from calculus can be used to study these systems as well, and Ghrist’s favorite theorem is one way to form a link between the two subjects.

In continuous calculus, the derivative is a central object of study. The derivative is a measure of change in a system over time, so the discrete analog of the derivative is a shift. The shift operator acts on a function by taking an input to the output of the function at the next time step. If we call the shift operator E, as Ghrist does, E(f(x))=f(x+1). Ghrist’s favorite theorem connects the shift operator to a procedure in continuous calculus of exponentiating a function, that is, of taking e to the power of a function.

While the idea of raising a number to a functional power doesn’t immediately seem meaningful, the magic of Taylor’s theorem allows us to define the process into something meaningful. In fact, Taylor’s theorem is the best way to make sense of raising e to irrational or imaginary powers. Taylor’s theorem allows us to approximate more difficult functions with polynomials. (These polynomials are in turn called Taylor series.) By using the Taylor series for the exponential function, we can give meaning to the idea of taking e to the power of the differentiation operator. When we do this, it turns out the exponential of the differentiation operator is the shift operator, a bridge between the continuous and discrete worlds. 

Dr. Ghrist is a dedicated teacher, and this theorem is a favorite of his from his massive online open course (MOOC), available here. His favorite theorem appears in this video from the MOOC. (You may need to watch previous videos to get an understanding of the notation and nomenclature.) Ghrist’s videos on Taylor series start here, and 3Blue1Brown has a video introduction here.

In each episode of the podcast, we ask our guest to pair their favorite theorem with something: food, beverage, art, music, or other delight in life. Dr. Ghrist chose to pair his theorem with Monster energy drink (“low carb, please, because sugar is not so good for you,” he says). You’ll have to listen to the episode to learn why he thinks it’s the perfect pairing for his favorite theorem.

You can find Dr. Ghrist on his website, YouTube channel, or Twitter. He is working on a series of videos called Calculus Blue that will serve as a video text for multivariable calculus. The trailer for Calculus Blue is here.

You can find more information about the mathematicians and theorems featured in this podcast, along with other delightful mathematical treats, at kpknudson.com and here at Roots of Unity. A transcript is available here. You can subscribe to and review the podcast on iTunes and other podcast delivery systems. We love to hear from our listeners, so please drop us a line at myfavoritetheorem@gmail.com. Kevin Knudson’s handle on Twitter is @niveknosdunk, and mine is @evelynjlamb. The show itself also has a Twitter feed: @myfavethm and a Facebook page. Join us next time to learn another fascinating piece of mathematics.

Previously on My Favorite Theorem:

Episode 0: Your hosts' favorite theorems
Episode 1: Amie Wilkinson’s favorite theorem
Episode 2: Dave Richeson's favorite theorem
Episode 3: Emille Davie Lawrence's favorite theorem
Episode 4: Jordan Ellenberg's favorite theorem
Episode 5: Dusa McDuff's favorite theorem
Episode 6: Eriko Hironaka's favorite theorem
Episode 7: Henry Fowler's favorite theorem
Episode 8: Justin Curry's favorite theorem
Episode 9: Ami Radunskaya's favorite theorem
Episode 10: Mohamed Omar's favorite theorem
Episode 11: Jeanne Clelland's favorite theorem
Episode 12: Candice Price's favorite theorem
Episode 13: Patrick Honner's favorite theorem
Episode 14: Laura Taalman's favorite theorem
Episode 15: Federico Ardila's favorite theorem
Episode 16: Jayadev Athreya's favorite theorem
Episode 17: Nalini Joshi's favorite theorem
Episode 18: John Urschel's favorite theorem
Episode 19: Emily Riehl's favorite theorem
Episode 20: Francis Su's favorite theorem
Episode 21: Jana Rordiguez Hertz's favorite theorem
Episode 22: Ken Ribet's favorite theorem
Episode 23: Ingrid Daubechies's favorite theorem
Episode 24: Vidit Nanda's favorite theorem
Episode 25: Holly Krieger's favorite theorem
Episode 26: Erika Camacho's favorite theorem
Episode 27: James Tanton's favorite theorem
Episode 28: Chawne Kimber's favorite theorem
Episode 29: Mike Lawler's favorite theorem
Episode 30: Katie Steckles' favorite theorem
Episode 31: Yen Duong's favorite theorem
Episode 32: Anil Venkatesh's favorite theorem
Episode 33: Michèle Audin's favorite theorem
Episode 34: Skip Garibaldi's favorite theorem
Episode 35: Nira Chamberlain's favorite theorem
Episode 36: Nikita Nikolaev and Beatriz Navarro Lameda's favorite theorem
Episode 37: Cynthia Flores' favorite theorem