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This limit thing keeps coming up in my calculus textbook. What is it?

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I would recommend you be a bit more specific about what kind of answer you are looking for. If you are looking for a heuristic answer or a more mathematically rigorous one. –  BBischof Jul 20 '10 at 19:24
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I agree with BBischof. This question could use more background. Did you see a mysterious expression with $\epsilon$s and $\delta$s and have no idea what it meant? Does your book just toss around limit like it's the most natural thing in the world? Providing more detail in your question will get you a more appropriate answer. –  Larry Wang Jul 20 '10 at 23:57
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Would the asker please edit the question in response to the above requests for more context/motivation/level of response desired... ? –  Tom Stephens Jul 22 '10 at 14:37
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You’re in good company. Paul Halmos, an eminent mathematician of the last century, was, by his own admission, slow to pick up on the concept of limit, until he finally reached an “ah-hah!” moment late in his mathematical training. –  Mike Jones Jun 23 '11 at 21:39
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The big picture is this: Functions often have meaningful values outside of their domain. The most important example in all of mathematics, namely, that the meaningful value of sinx/x for x = 0 is 1, was already known in antiquity (although the ancients did not express it in our modern limit-notation, of course). The modern theory of limits, initiated by Cauchy, seeks to make all this as rigorous as a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. There is even a book-length treatment of this one specific topic: A Theory of Limits. –  Mike Jones Jun 23 '11 at 21:40

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

For many functions there are undefined values. For example in the function $$f(x) = \frac{x^2 - 1}{x - 1}$$ there is no value of $f(x)$ for $x = 1$, since that involves a division by 0. In this instance though, as x gets closer and closer to 1, $f(x)$ gets closer and closer to 2, so we define that to be the limit.

In calculus limits come up when getting the slope of a linear function as I'm sure you've seen, the problem is that getting the slope at a certain point, using the slope formula we all know, involves dividing by zero, so we use limits to get the answer. More specifically we create a formula for the slope between the point $(x, f(x))$ and the point $(x+h, f(x+h))$ and find the slope as $h \to 0$.

Limits as $x \to \infty$ are also used often, since even if a function is well defined for all $x$ it is still impossible to simply plug in infinite and work it out, in this way it can be used for approximation purposes. Calculating the runtime of computer programs on large inputs is often done by deriving a formula for the run-time given input of a certain length, then finding the limit as $x \to \infty$

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So, can I understand the concept of Limit as just the state itself that x is approaching to specific value? –  Eonil Sep 10 '11 at 14:25
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Pretty much. However, if you ever delve into proving statements there are much more rigorous, a.k.a painstakingly more specific, definitions. But for calculation purposes, that's pretty much it. –  Genomeme Dec 17 '13 at 8:07

What others have provided is a pretty good intuitive/more general definition of a limit. If you want something a bit more technical and rigorous, have a look at the (ε, δ)-definition of limit, which is the one used in mathematical analysis.

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A limit is the term used when you examine a function as it approaches some value. For example, the function f(x) = 1/x. You can take a limit of this function as x approaches infinity and as x approaches 0 and see what occurs, and get an idea of the behaviour of the function in these regions even though the function cannot be defined at the exact values you have taken limits of. (1/0 is undefined, and 1/infinity cannot be done without adding infinity to the number system - see the hyperreals for this)

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There are two slightly different types of limits (at least, in one real variable, as in single-variable calculus): limits as a variable goes to positive or negative infinity, and limits as a variable goes to some real value.

The limit of f(x) as x goes to infinity (or as x goes to negative infinity) is asking what happens to f(x) at the right (left) end of its graph. Does f(x) get arbitrarily close to a single real number as x increases (or decreases) without bound--that is, as x gets really big and positive (or really big and negative)?

The limit of f(x) as x goes to some real value, say c, is asking what happens to f(x) near, but not at, x = c. Does f(x) get arbitrarily close to a single real number as x gets arbitrarily close to c?

"Arbitrarily close" is used somewhat informally above, but these ideas can be translated into more rigorous definitions (as in other people's answers) by reformulating "arbitrarily close" in terms of inequalities with ε and/or δ. Also, while a limit is said to not exist if there isn't the single real number as described above, it is somewhat common to talk about the limit being infinity (or negative infinity) if the limit does not exist, but the values of f(x) increase without bound (or decrease without bound).

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If you were an ant crawling along a curve, at a really small (almost zero) distance away from the point you're taking the limit of, where are you?

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A rigorous mathematical treatment follows:

We say the limit of $f(x)$ as $x$ approaches $c$ is $\tau$ iff for all $\varepsilon$ in $\mathbb R^+$ there exists delta in $\mathbb R^+$ such that $|x-c|< \delta$ implies $|f(x)-\tau| < \varepsilon$.

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IMO this is only a good explanation if you already understand what a limit is. –  Tyler Jul 23 '10 at 6:31

Adding another "famous" heuristic explanation would be Zeno's paradox(es), which is often the first thing mentioned in many Calculus classes when discussing limits.

Before an object can travel a given distance d, it must travel a distance call it d/2. In order to travel d/2, it must travel d/4, etc. This appears to go on forever, and one can reason that the distance d cannot be traveled, as there are infinitely many half steps. But from real world experience, this does not hold up as it is obviously possible to travel and actually arrive at a certain destination.

Mathworld has the 4 paradoxes and additional informative and amusing explanations.

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/ZenosParadoxes.html

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Conceptually, to me at least, a limit is a way approximate something, by realizing the long run behavior is predictable and more important then the short term behavior.

Let's say your baby sitting a rambunctious kid. You could frustrate yourself trying to quite him, or just realize, in the limit he will tire himself out.

A lot of systems seem complicated in the short term, but are simple when viewed in the long term.

The limit is way to take advantage of that, and relate a complex system to a simpler approximation.

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Mathematically, limits are not approximations at all. –  Isaac Jul 20 '10 at 22:29
    
You can reason that way if you like. Or you can think of a infinitesimal close approximation as having distance dx and dx^2 = 0. –  Jonathan Fischoff Jul 20 '10 at 22:51

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