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§2.2 How to parametrize a curve?

Recall that a parameterized curve is a map α : I → Rn (n = 2 or 3). We can


write α(t) = (x1 (t), x2 (t), . . . , xn (t)). Here t ∈ I is called the parameter. Sometimes,
we emphasize the parameter by writing

t 7→ α(t) = (x1 (t), x2 (t), . . . , xn (t)).

A parameterized curve in R2 (i.e. a map α : I → R2 ) is called a plane curve. A


parameterized curve in R3 (i.e. a map α : I → R3 ) is called a space curve.

Theoretically, every curve can be parametrized. But, in practice, it is sometimes


not easy to find the expression α. We also note that parameterizations are not unique,
i.e., a curve can have many different parameterizations.

Here are some common ways(tricks) in finding the parameterizations for a curve.

• Use the trigonometric identities, like sin2 + cos2 t = 1, 1 + tan2 t = sec2 t,


sinh2 t−cosh2 t = 1 etc. For example, to parametrize the unit circle x2 + y 2 = 1,
we use x1 (t) = cos t, x2 (t) = sin t, i.e. α(t) = (cos t, sin t), 0 < t < 2π. The el-
lipse x2 /a2 + y 2 /b2 = 1 can be parametrized as

α(t) = (a cos t, b sin t), 0 < t < 2π.

Note that the parameterizations are not unique. For example, for the upper-half
unit circle, we can either parametrize it as

α(t) = (cos t, sin t), 0 < t < π,

or √
α(t) = (t, 1 − t2 ), − 1 < t < 1.

• If the curve is the graph of a function f (x), i.e. the curve is y = f (x), x ∈ I, then
we can parametrize this curve as α(t) = (t, f (t)), t ∈ I (i.e. we let x = t). For
example, the parabola y = x2 , x ∈ (−1, 1) has parametrization α(t) = (t, t2 ).
Similarily (by switching x and y), if the curve is the graph of x = f (y), then
we can parametrize this curve as α(t) = (f (t), t), t ∈ I (i.e. we let x = t). For
example, the curve y 2 = x has parametrization α(t) = (t2 , t).

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• While, in above, you use x = t, we sometimes can use x = t2 to avoid taking
the square root. For example, consider the curve y 2 = x again. We see that
x must be non-negative, so if you want to choose a parameter for t, you you
can let x = t2 for t ∈ (−∞, +∞). Then y = t. So it parametrization can
be chosen as α(t) = (t2 , t), t ∈ (−∞, +∞). Note that if we choose x = t
for t ∈ [0, +∞) (rememeber x is always negative), and y = t1/2 , then α(t) =
(t, t1/2 ), t ∈ (0, +∞) is NOT the parametrization of the curve y 2 = x, since
it only represents HALF part (where y ≥ 0) of the curve. Similarly, for the
cuspidal cubic
y 2 = x3 .
If we let x = t2 , then y = t3 (note, if we take x = t, then we need to take the
square root to get y. In this case, we would have to worry about the sign!).
Hence, we get the following parametrization for cuspidal cubic α(t) = (t2 , t3 ).
(see the figure below). In the same spirite, consider the curve y 2 = x2 (x + 1)
(see the graph below). Note that x + 1 must be non-negative, so if we let
x + 1 = t2 , t ∈ (−∞, +∞) (or equivalently x = t2 − 1), then we get y 2 =
(t2 − 1)2 t2 = ((t2 − 1)t)2 , so its parametrization for cuspidal cubic α(t) =
(t2 − 1, (t2 − 1)t), t ∈ (−∞, +∞).

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What you should know:

• Theoretically, every curve can be parametrized. But, in practice, it is not easy


to find the expression for α. The parameterizations are not unique, i.e., a curve
can have many different parameterizations.

• Given a parametrization α, you should be able to sketch its trace. For example,
what is the trace of α(t) = (a cos t, a sin t, bt).

• On the other hand, given a curve which is not parametrized, say the circle
x2 + y 2 = 1, you should know how to find its parametrization.