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Brachistochrones with loose ends

Stephan Mertens and Sebastian Mingramm


The classical problem of the brachistochrone asks for the curve down which a body sliding from rest and accelerated by gravity will slip (without friction) from one point to another in least time. In undergraduate courses on classical mechanics, the solution of this problem is the primary example of the power of variational calculus. Here, we address the generalized brachistochrone problem that asks for the fastest sliding curve between a point and a given curve or between two given curves. The generalized problem can be solved by considering variations with varying end points. We will contrast the formal solution with a much simpler solution based on symmetry and kinematic reasoning. Our exposition should encourage teachers to include variational problems with free boundary conditions in their courses and students to try simple, intuitive solutions first.

BiBTeX Entry

  author = {Stephan Mertens and Sebastian Mingramm},
  title = {Brachistochrones with loose ends},
  journal = {European Journal of Physics},
  volume = {29},
  year = {2008},
  pages = {1191--1199} 

brachis.pdf (pdf, 120 k)

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