Graphs of Trig Equations, Part 3

I know it’s taking a while before I use maths to model a mass on a spring, but that will only make sense by fully describing the graphs of sine equations. Hopefully, this development is interesting in its own right.

Now if you were to plot the daylight length at a certain latitude against days, and if you plotted for a full year, you would see a shape that looks amazingly like the sine graph I showed you in my last post. Except at the equator, the length of a day gets longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Without actual taking a year to collect the data, I’ve plotted the daylight length in Melbourne Australia against days using the equation


where L is the length of daylight in hours and t is the number of days after 22 September of any year. Why I chose 22 September is an interesting topic which I may eventually discuss, but it has to do with what are called equinoxes. The plot is below and is almost exactly the plot created if I actually measured the day length each day and plotted these for a year:

Now the shape of this curve is a sine wave but you can see several differences from the standard sine wave explored in my last post:

  1. The amplitude is 2.63 instead of 1
  2. The wavelength is 365 days instead of 360 degrees
  3. The wave is centered at 12.165 instead of the x-axis
  4. We are evaluating the sine of time instead of degrees.

Let me explain these differences.

  1. Amplitude – The value of sin(x) , regardless of what form x is in, only has values from -1 to +1. So if I multiply the sine by any number, say 2.63, so that I now have y = 2.63 sin(x), then this results in values from 2.63 × (-1) = -2.63 to 2.63 × (+1) = 2.63. This make the amplitude of this new equation 2.63, that is, the number I multiply the sine by. So in general, the amplitude of y = sin(x) is A.
  2. Wavelength – Notice that the wavelength 365 is the denominator in

The 360 in the numerator is the wavelength of the standard sine wave. The common symbol to represent wavelength is the Greek letter lambda, 𝝀, so in general, when you are taking the sine of something that looks like


the denominator, 𝝀, is the wavelength.

Now for those of you who have had exposure to this before, you may have expected to see 2𝜋t in the numerator instead of 360t. This would be the case if we were taking the sine of numbers expressed as radians. But this series of posts is doing everything with calculators in the degree mode. I will explain radians later in a different post.

3. Wave center – Notice that the center of the sine wave is at 12.165 which is the number added to the sine in the daylight length equation. The effect on a graph of adding a number to an equation is to raise or lower it – it does not change shape. So if you can graph and know the shape of y = something, then y = something + 10 will be the same shape, just shifted up 10 units. So adding 12.165 to the sine, doesn’t change its shape, it just changes where it is on the graph.

4. Time – The big change here is that we are no longer finding the sine of an angle. It may appear that we are now taking the sine of numbers in seconds, hours, or days – whatever the units of t are. However, the 360 in the numerator serves the purpose of making the number we are taking the sine of, unitless. That is, 360t/365 does not have any units – it is just a pure number.

Mathematicians/scientists long ago discovered that many periodic physical processes, have motions that follow a sine wave. In fact, when equations were formed that represented the forces on objects that were experiencing periodic motion, the sine of numbers involving time appeared when solving these equations.

And so it is with the length of the day throughout the year. The earth is rotating around the sun and this motion repeats, that is, is periodic. It is no surprise then that the graph of the day length is a sine wave.

I think we are now ready to model a mass on a spring. Let’s do that in my next post.