Some curves get simple in the limit. As an example, look at the red curve below. As you move out to the right along the -axis, the curve gets closer and closer to the horizontal blue line. And as you move up the -axis, the curve gets closer and closer to the vertical blue line.

The blue lines are called the *asymptotes* of the curve: the distance between the curve and the respective asymptote tends to zero as either or tend to infinity.

In this example the curve is given by the function

(1) |

and the asymptotes are given by the equations

Knowing a curve’s asymptotes can be very useful. For example, imagine that the curve above tells you the value of some quantity (e.g. the money in you bank account) months from now, where is measured along the -axis. Then even though it’s a bit tricky to work out for a given , knowing that the asymptote as goes to infinity is the horizontal blue line tells you that in the long run you’ll have approximately £1 in your account.

Not all curves look like a straight line as or tend to infinity, so not all curves have asymptotes. But if they do (and of you are comfortable with limits) then you can find the asymptotes by taking the limit of the function describing the curve as or tend to infinity. In our example above this gives

That gives you the horizontal asymptote. Rearranging the expression (1) to phrase it in terms of gives

so

This gives you the vertical asymptote.

We leave you with an example of a pretty crazy curve and its perfectly uncrazy asymptote.

The curve is given by a more complex *parametric* equation

The asymptote (to the wriggly part of the curve) as goes to infinity is the line .

Thanks to Guillaume Jacquenot for posting this example on on Wikipedia.

This example again highlights how useful asymptotes are. It’s not easy to work out the exact value of for a given , but knowing the asymptote gives you a good approximation of for large — the larger , the better the approximation.

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*This article is part of our collaboration with the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences (INI), an international research centre and our neighbour here on the University of Cambridge's maths campus. INI attracts leading mathematical scientists from all over the world, and is open to all. Visit www.newton.ac.uk to find out more.*