Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

How do you use the unit circle to prove the double angle formulas for sine and cosine?

share|cite|improve this question
I'd suggest deriving the formula for sums of angles. – user21436 Apr 25 '12 at 13:00
Use complex numbers. – The Chaz 2.0 Apr 25 '12 at 13:01
I once saw a direct geometric proof of $\cos\,u=2\cos^2 u-1$, but I don't remember where I saw it... – J. M. Apr 25 '12 at 13:36
@J.M. Here is one geometric proof of $\cos 2\theta=1-2\sin^2\theta$. – David Mitra Apr 25 '12 at 13:56

Look at this figure:


share|cite|improve this answer
Ingenious -- but the unit circle is mostly decoration here, isn't it? – Henning Makholm Apr 25 '12 at 15:22

Here's one possibility. Say we want to find $\sin 2\theta$ and $\cos 2\theta$. Draw the unit circle in an ordinary $x$-$y$ coordinarte system, and also introduce a new coordinate system $x'$-$y'$ that has been turned $\theta$ clockwise around the origin. It is important that the unit circle in the $xy$ system and in the $x'y'$ system is the same:

(a diagram)

The relation between the two coordinate systems is $$ x' = x\cos\theta - y\sin\theta \qquad y'=x\sin\theta + y\cos\theta $$

The point $P$ on the diagram has coordinates $(x,y)=(\cos\theta,\sin\theta)$ in the $xy$-system, but in the $x'y'$ system is is $2\theta$ above the $x'$-axis and so its coordinates there must be $(x',y')=(\cos2\theta, \sin2\theta)$. Substituting this into the known relation between the coordinate systems yields: $$ \cos2\theta = (\cos \theta)^2 - (\sin\theta)^2 \qquad \sin2\theta = \cos(\theta)\sin(\theta) + \sin(\theta)\cos(\theta)$$

share|cite|improve this answer
How did you produce your diagram? Did you draw it with pen and then scan it? – MJD Apr 25 '12 at 14:41
I drew it with a pen, photographed it with a digital camera, and then cleaned it up (for background and contrast) in Gimp. – Henning Makholm Apr 25 '12 at 14:43

Compute lengths of the thick line segments in the figure below in two different ways.enter image description here

share|cite|improve this answer

This is essentially Christian Blatter's proof, with some minor differences, but I like the area interpretation that this one employs, and the historical connection. It also explains a bit more the connection of Christian Blatter's proof with the circle. This version gives the double-angle formula for $\sin$ only.

A right triangle with hypotenuse $1$ and angle $\theta$ has area $\frac{1}{2}\cos\theta\sin\theta.$ Four such triangles together have area $2\cos\theta\sin\theta.$ Arrange the four right triangles to form a kite-shaped figure.

enter image description here

The two diagonals of the kite-shaped figure (represented by solid lines) are perpendicular, and the area of the figure equals half the product of their lengths. But one diagonal has length $1$ while the other has length $2\sin2\theta$. The double-angle formula for $\sin$ follows.

My interest in this proof is partly historical. Inscribe a regular $n$-gon in the unit circle. Let $\ell_n$ be the length of a side of the $n$-gon. This $n$-gon can be broken into $n$ isosceles triangles with side lengths $1,$ $1,$ $\ell_n.$

inscribed polygon with n sides

Now form a regular $2n$-gon from $n$ kite-shaped figures.

inscribed polygon with 2n sides

The diagonals of these kite-shaped figures are $1$ and $\ell_n$. The area of this $2n$-gon is therefore $$ A_{2n}=\frac{n\ell_n}{2}. $$ By repeatedly doubling the number of sides, $A_{2n}$ becomes an increasingly accurate approximation of $\pi.$ This is the method for estimating $\pi$ devised by Liu Hui around 263 AD. He started with $n=6$ $(\ell_6=1)$ and applied five doublings. In doing this, Liu Hui needed to compute $\ell_{2n}$ from $\ell_n.$ This can be done using the formula $$ \ell_{2n}^2=2-\sqrt{4-\ell_n^2}, $$ which is essentially the half-angle formula (since $\ell_{2n}=2\sin\theta$ and $\ell_n=2\sin2\theta$), but which Liu Hui derived using the Gougu Theoerem (Pythaogorean Theorem). Chinese geometry of that era apparently did not employ the notion of angle, so the connection with the double-angle and half-angle formulas is ahistorical. Obviously the modern algebraic notation is also ahistorical.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.