In classical geometry an ellipse is usually defined as the locus of points in the plane such that the distances from each point to the two foci have a given sum.

When we speak of an ellipse analytically, we usually describe it as a circle that has been squashed in one direction, i.e. something similar to the curve $x^2+(y/b)^2 = 1$.

"Everyone knows" that these two definitions yield the same family of shapes. But how can that be proved?


Suppose we have a classical ellipse with its two foci and major axis given. We want to prove that it's a squashed circle.

Select a coordinate system with its origin in the center if the ellipse, the $x$-axis passing through the foci, and a scale such that the common sum-of-distances-to-the-foci is $2$. The foci have coordinates $(\pm c,0)$ for some $c\in[0,1)$.

By considering the nodes at the end of the minor axis we find that the semiminor axis of the ellipse must be $b=\sqrt{1-c^2}$. We must then prove that the equations $$ \tag{1} x^2 + \left(\frac{y}{\sqrt{1-c^2}}\right)^2 = 1 $$ $$ \tag{2} \sqrt{(x+c)^2+y^2} + \sqrt{(x-c)^2+y^2} = 2 $$ are equivalent.

Rearranging (1) gives $$\tag{1'} y^2 = (1-c^2)(1-x^2) $$ and therefore $(x+c)^2+y^2 = (1+xc)^2$ by multiplying out each side and collecting terms. Similarly, $(x-c)^2+y^2=(1-xc)^2$. So for points where (1) holds, (2) reduces to $(1+xc)+(1-xc)=2$, which is of course true.

Thus every solution of (1) is a solution of (2). On the other hand, for every fixed $x\in(-1,1)$, it is clear that the left-hand-side of (2) increases monotonically with $|y|$ so it can have at most two solutions, which must then be exactly the two solutions for $y$ we get from (1'). (And neither equation has solutions with $|x|>1$). So the equations are indeed equivalent.

Conversely, if we have a squashed circle with major and minor axes $2a$ and $2b$, we can find the focal distance $2c$ by $c^2+b^2=a^2$ and locate the foci on the major axis. Then the above argument shows that the classical ellipse with these foci coincides with our squashed circle.

  • $\begingroup$ Awesome algebraic explanation! However, do you think there's a way to better see this connection geometrically? To somehow see that if we stretch a circle, there will be two points whose sum of the distances to any point on the ellipse will be a constant? I've been trying to come up with one and haven't been able to. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Joshua Ronis Jan 5 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @JoshuaRonis: If I had a good geometric proof, I wouldn't have needed to rely on mindless formula-crunching here. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Jan 6 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Haha okay I'm asking in a bunch of forums and trying to find one myself, I'll post here if I do $\endgroup$ – Joshua Ronis Jan 6 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Do you know why, given a squashed circle, do the foci lie on the major axis? It's seems so obvious, but I cannot explain it rigorously... $\endgroup$ – Bman72 Jun 26 at 13:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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