Friday, February 07, 2003

Experience Mathematics # 27 -- The exponential function

“It only took 10 minutes for the SQL Slammer worm to race across the globe and wreak havoc on the Internet two weeks ago” is what newspapers reported on February 7, 2003. The number of computers doubled every 8.5 seconds in the first minute of the worm’s existence. So how many computers got infected in the first minute?

The number of computers infected in $t$ seconds can be modelled by the function $N(t)$, where

This is a reasonable model. In the beginning (when $t=0$) we assume that the worm has infected only $1$ computer, and indeed, $N(0)=1$. In 8.5 seconds, the number becomes $N(8.5)=2$, so it doubles. In another $8.5$ seconds, $N(17)=4$. This doesn’t sound like very fast growth, but at the end of one minute ($t=60$) the number becomes more than $133$. In two minutes, $28995$ computers are infected, and in $5$ minutes, the number of computers infected is in the billions. Which means that the rate of growth must have slowed down, because there aren’t so many computers in the world! I hope this helps you understand why it caused the slowdown of the Internet traffic in Korea.

$N(t)$ is an example of an exponential function, which increases very fast. The prototypical example is THE exponential function, $f(x)=e^x$. Here the number e is an irrational number (just like the famous $\pi$, whose value is approximately $2.7182818\dots$. The graph of the function (made using is as follows.

The exponential function is not symmetric across the $y$-axis, nor across the origin. That is to say, it is not an even function or an odd function. However, consider the functions:
$$E(x)=(e^x+e^{-x})/2,$$ and $$O(x)=(e^x-e^{-x})/2.$$ $E$ is an even function, and $O$ is an odd function, and the exponential function is the sum of these functions. Draw the function $E(x)$ from $x=-5$ to $x=5$ using MS-Excel (update: try, and see what the graph looks like. Does it look like a clothesline secured at its two ends?

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