One of the major activities of mathematicians and scientists of all kinds is learning, and attempting to prove, how and why things work.
Since Ancient Greece at the beginning of the millennium, and likely well before, the properties of conic sections have been studied. One that has been explored extensively is the "Focal Property", which we have referred to in nearly every lesson in this section.
There are a number of mathematical proofs of the focal property, but trying to explain such proofs to someone who does not dedicate his or her life to mathematics is difficult. The Dandelin Spheres are one solution.
Conic Sections and Dandelin Spheres
Dandelin Spheres and the Equation of an Ellipse
It wasn’t until 1822 that the French mathematician Germinal Dandelin thought of this very clever construction. Dandelin found a way to find the foci and prove the focal property in one fell swoop.
Take the conic section in question. Then choose a sphere that is just the right size so that when it’s dropped into the conic, it touches the intersecting plane, as well as being snug against the cone on all sides. If you prefer, you can think of the sphere as a perfectly round balloon that is blown up until it “just fits” inside the cone, still touching the plane. Then do the same on the other side of the plane. After we’ve drawn both of these spheres we have this picture:
These spheres are often called “Dandelin spheres”, named after their discoverer. It turns out that not only is our shape an ellipse (which, like all ellipses satisfies the focal property), but these spheres touch the ellipse exactly at the two foci. To see this, consider this geometric argument.
Dandelin and the Parabola
Like the ellipse, the parabola has a focal property. And, also like the ellipse, a construction similar to Dandelin’s with the spheres can show us what it is. Dandelin himself didn’t prove the focal property for parabolas that we are about to discuss, but Pierce Morton used a sphere construction similar to Dandelin’s to prove the focal property of parabolas in 1829. We’ll look at Morton’s argument here.
In contrast with the argument we made for the ellipse, for a parabola we can only fit one tangent sphere inside the cone. That is, only one sphere can be tangent to both the cone and the cutting plane. In the diagram below, the sphere fits underneath the cutting plane, but there is no room for a sphere to lie on top of the cutting plane and still be tangent to the cone.
Dandelin Spheres and Hyperbolas
To prove the focal property of hyperbolas, we examine Dandelin’s sphere construction. Unlike the construction for ellipses, which used two spheres on one side of the cone, and the sphere construction for parabolas, which used one sphere on one side of the cone, this construction uses two spheres, one on each side of the cone. As with the ellipse construction, each sphere touches the plane at one of the foci of the hyperbola. And as with the argument for the elliptical focal property, the argument uses the fact that tangents from a common point to a sphere are equal.
What would the Dandelin spheres look like if used to explore a circle?
Since the spheres touch the figure within just at the foci, and since a circle is an ellipse with both foci at the same point, the spheres would sit directly above each other, and would touch the circle at the center point on both sides.
Conceptually speaking, why is there only one Dandelin Sphere used in the proof of a parabola?
As we learned in the proof for an ellipse, the Dandelin sphere must be tangent to both the cone, e.g., the sphere touches the cone all the way around in a circle, and the plane, where the tangency is a single point. In the case of a parabola, the sphere below the plane "fits" just fine, but a sphere above the plane would "sit on" the plane, and not touch the cone all the way around. The figure only allows for one sphere to be tangent.
- Who was the first mathematician who conceptualized dandelin spheres? When?
- What is proved by dandelin spheres?
- How do you identify the foci of an ellipse using dandelin spheres?
- If two tangents are drawn from a single point to a sphere, what can you say about the line segments formed?
- How do the tangents relate to a radius of a sphere?
- Describe the focal property of ellipses.
- How and when did Germinal Dandelin prove the focal property for parabolas?
- What is the line that results from the intersection between the cutting plane and the plane that contains the circle of contact between the sphere and cone?
- What is defined by the point where the sphere intersects the cutting plane?
- Which construction uses two spheres in a single cone?
- Which construction uses one sphere in a single cone?
- Which construction uses two spheres and two cones?
Identify the parts listed on the diagram as specified below:
- Directrix Line - Small Sphere
- Directrix Line - Large Sphere
- Focus - Small Sphere
- Focus - Large Sphere
- Vertex - Small Sphere
- Vertex - Large Sphere
- Directrix Plane - Small Sphere
- Directrix Plane - Large Sphere
- Cutting Plane
- What conic section is illustrated here?
To see the Review answers, open this PDF file and look for section 6.8.