Dirac Delta Function - Overview


The graph of the delta function is usually thought of as following the whole x-axis and the positive y-axis. Despite its name, the delta function is not truly a function, at least not a usual one with domain in real numbers. For example, the objects ƒ(x) = δ(x) and g(x) = 0 are equal everywhere except at x = 0 yet have integrals that are different. According to Lebesgue integration theory, if ƒ and g are functions such that ƒ = g almost everywhere, then ƒ is integrable if and only if g is integrable and the integrals of ƒ and g are identical. Rigorous treatment of the Dirac delta requires measure theory or the theory of distributions.

The Dirac delta is used to model a tall narrow spike function (an impulse), and other similar abstractions such as a point charge, point mass or electron point. For example, to calculate the dynamics of a baseball being hit by a bat, one can approximate the force of the bat hitting the baseball by a delta function. In doing so, one not only simplifies the equations, but one also is able to calculate the motion of the baseball by only considering the total impulse of the bat against the ball rather than requiring knowledge of the details of how the bat transferred energy to the ball.

In applied mathematics, the delta function is often manipulated as a kind of limit (a weak limit) of a sequence of functions, each member of which has a tall spike at the origin: for example, a sequence of Gaussian distributions centered at the origin with variance tending to zero.

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