Uses of trigonometry

From Academic Kids

Trigonometry has an enormous variety of applications. The ones mentioned explicitly in textbooks and courses on trigonometry are its uses in practical endeavors such as navigation, land surveying, building, and the like. It is also used extensively in a number of academic fields, primarily mathematics, science and engineering.

Among the lay public of non-mathematicians and non-scientists, trigonometry is known chiefly for its application to measurement problems, yet is also often used in ways that are far more subtle, such as its place in the theory of music; still other uses are more technical, such as in number theory. The mathematical topics of Fourier series and Fourier transforms, relying heavily on knowledge of trigonometric functions, find application in a number of areas, including statistics.


Some fields to which trigonometry is applied

Among the scientific fields that make use of trigonometry are these:

acoustics, architecture, astronomy (and hence navigation, on the oceans, in aircraft, and in space; in this connection, see great circle distance), biology, cartography, chemistry, civil engineering, computer graphics, geophysics, crystallography, economics (in particular in analysis of financial markets), electrical engineering, electronics, land surveying and geodesy, many physical sciences, mechanical engineering, medical imaging (CAT scans and ultrasound), meteorology, music theory, number theory (and hence cryptography), oceanography, optics, pharmacology, phonetics, probability theory, psychology, seismology, statistics, and visual perception.

How these fields interact with trigonometry

The fact that these fields make use of trigonometry does not mean knowledge of trigonometry is needed in order to learn anything about them. It does mean that some things in these fields cannot be understood without trigonometry. For example, a professor of music may perhaps know nothing of mathematics, but would probably know that Pythagoras was the earliest known contributor to the mathematical theory of music.

In some of the fields of endeavor listed above it is easy to imagine how trigonometry could be used. For example, in navigation and land surveying, the occasions for the use of trigonometry are in at least some cases simple enough that they can be described in a beginning trigonometry textbook. In the case of music theory, the application of trigonometry is related to work begun by Pythagoras, who observed that the sounds made by plucking two strings of different lengths are consonant if both lengths are small integer multiples of a common length. The resemblance between the shape of a vibrating string and the graph of the sine function is no coincidence. In oceanography, the resemblance between the shapes of some waves and the graph of the sine function is also not coincidental. In some other fields, among them climatology, biology, and economics, there are seasonal periodicities. The study of these often involves the periodic nature of the sine and cosine functions.

Fourier series

Many fields make use of trigonometry in a more advanced way than can be discussed in a single article. Often those involve what are called Fourier series, after the 18th- and 19th-century French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier. Fourier series have a surprisingly diverse array of applications in many scientific fields, in particular in all of the phenomena involving seasonal periodicities mentioned above, and in wave motion, and hence in the study of radiation, of acoustics, of seismology, of modulation of radio waves in electronics, and of electric power engineering.

A Fourier series is a sum of this form:


\square+\underbrace{\square\cos\theta+\square\sin\theta}_{1}+ \underbrace{\square\cos(2\theta)+\square\sin(2\theta)}_{2}+ \\ \\ \underbrace{\square\cos(3\theta)+\square\sin(3\theta)}_{3}+\,\cdots \\ \end{matrix} <math>

where each of the squares (<math>\square<math>) is a different number, and one is adding infinitely many terms. Fourier used these for studying heat flow and diffusion (diffusion is the process whereby, when you drop a sugar cube into a gallon of water, the sugar gradually spreads through the water, (or a pollutant spreads through the air, or any dissolved substance spreads through any fluid).

Fourier series are also applicable to subjects whose connection with wave motion is far from obvious. One ubiquitous example is digital compression whereby images, audio and video data are compressed into a much smaller size which makes their transmission feasible over telephone, internet and broadcast networks. Another example, mentioned above, is diffusion. Among others are: the geometry of numbers, isoperimetric problems, recurrence of random walks, quadratic reciprocity, the central limit theorem, Heisenberg's inequality.

Fourier transforms

A more abstract concept than Fourier series is the idea of Fourier transform. Fourier transforms involve integrals rather than sums, and are used in a similarly diverse array of scientific fields. Many natural laws are expressed by relating rates of change of quantities to the quantities themselves. For example: The rate of change of population is sometimes jointly proportional to (1) the present population and (2) the amount by which the present population falls short of the carrying capacity. This kind of relationship is called a differential equation. If, given this information, we try to express population as a function of time, we are trying to "solve" the differential equation. Fourier transforms may be used to convert some differential equations to algebraic equations for which methods of solving them are known. Fourier transforms have many uses. In almost any scientific context in which you encounter the words spectrum, harmonic, or resonance, Fourier transforms or Fourier series are nearby.

Statistics, including mathematical psychology

Some psychologists have claimed that intelligence quotients are distributed according to the celebrated bell-shaped curve. About 40% of the area under the curve is in the interval from 100 to 120; correspondingly, about 40% of the population scores between 100 and 120 on IQ tests. About 9% of the area under the curve is in the interval from 120 to 140; correspondingly, about 9% of the population scores between 120 and 140 on IQ tests, etc. Similarly many other things are distributed according to the "bell-shaped curve", including measurement errors in many physical measurements and the number of times you get heads when you toss a coin 10,000 times. Why the ubiquity of the "bell-shaped curve"? There is a theoretical reason for this, and it involves Fourier transforms and hence trigonometric functions). That is one of a variety of applications of Fourier transforms to statistics.

Trigonometric functions are also applied when statisticians study seasonal periodicities, which are often represented by Fourier series.

A simple experiment with polarized sunglasses

Get two pairs of identical polarized sunglasses (unpolarized sunglasses won't work here). Put the left lens of one pair atop the right lens of the other, both aligned identically. Slowly rotate one pair, and you observe that the amount of light that gets through decreases until the two lenses are at right angles to each other, when no light gets through. When the angle through which the one pair is rotated is θ, what fraction of the light that penetrates when the angle is 0, gets through? Answer: it is cos2 θ. For example, when the angle is 60 degrees, only 1/4 as much light penetrates the series of two lenses as when the angle is 0 degrees, since the cosine of 60 degrees is 1/2.

Number theory

There is a hint of a connection between trigonometry and number theory. Loosely speaking, one could say that number theory deals with qualitative rather than quantitative properties of numbers. A central concept in number theory is divisibility (as in: 42 is divisible by 14 but not by 15). The idea of putting a fraction in lowest terms also uses the concept of divisibility: e.g., 15/42 is not in lowest terms because 15 and 42 are both divisible by 3. Look at the sequence of fractions


\frac{1}{42}, \qquad \frac{2}{42}, \qquad \frac{3}{42}, \qquad \dots\dots, \qquad \frac{39}{42}, \qquad \frac{40}{42}, \qquad \frac{41}{42}. <math>

Discard the ones that are not in lowest terms; keep only those that are in lowest terms:


\frac{1}{42}, \qquad \frac{5}{42}, \qquad \frac{11}{42}, \qquad \dots, \qquad \frac{31}{42}, \qquad \frac{37}{42}, \qquad \frac{41}{42}. <math>

Then bring in trigonometry:


\cos\left(2\pi\cdot\frac{1}{42}\right)+ \cos\left(2\pi\cdot\frac{5}{42}\right)+ \cdots+ \cos\left(2\pi\cdot\frac{37}{42}\right)+ \cos\left(2\pi\cdot\frac{41}{42}\right) <math>

The value of the sum is −1. How do we know that? Because 42 has an odd number of prime factors and none of them are repeated: 42 = 2 × 3 × 7. (If there had been an even number of non-repeated factors then the sum would have been 1; if there had been any repeated prime factors (e.g., 60 = 2 × 2 × 3 × 5) then the sum would have been 0; the sum is the Möbius function evaluated at 42.) This hints at the possibility of applying Fourier analysis to number theory.

Complex exponentials

In many applications of trigonometry, it is more convenient to convert trigonometric functions to complex exponentials using two identities derived from Euler's formula:

<math>\cos x = {e^{ix} + e^{-ix} \over 2}<math>
<math>\sin x = {e^{ix} - e^{-ix} \over 2i}<math>

This makes for easier calculations, since it reduces trigonometric identities to applications of the rules for manipulating exponents.


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools