There are countless situations in mathematics where it helps to expand a function as a power series. Therefore, Taylor’s theorem, which gives us circumstances under which this can be done, is an important result of the course. It is also the one result that I was dreading lecturing, at least with the Lagrange form of the remainder, because in the past I have always found that the proof is one that I have not been able to understand properly. I don’t mean by that that I couldn’t follow the arguments I read. What I mean is that I couldn’t reproduce the proof without committing a couple of things to memory, which I would then forget again once I had presented them. Briefly, an argument that appears in a lot of textbooks uses a result called the Cauchy mean value theorem, and applies it to a cleverly chosen function. Whereas I understand what the mean value theorem is for, I somehow don’t have the same feeling about the Cauchy mean value theorem: it just works in this situation and happens to give the answer one wants. And I don’t see an easy way of predicting in advance what function to plug in.

I have always found this situation annoying, because a part of me said that the result ought to be a straightforward generalization of the mean value theorem, in the following sense. The mean value theorem applied to the interval tells us that there exists such that , and therefore that . Writing for some we obtain the statement . This is the case of Taylor’s theorem. So can’t we find some kind of “polynomial mean value theorem” that will do the same job for approximating by polynomials of higher degree?

Now that I’ve been forced to lecture this result again (for the second time actually — the first was in Princeton about twelve years ago, when I just suffered and memorized the Cauchy mean value theorem approach), I have made a proper effort to explore this question, and have realized that the answer is yes. I’m sure there must be textbooks that do it this way, but the ones I’ve looked at all use the Cauchy mean value theorem. I don’t understand why, since it seems to me that the way of proving the result that I’m about to present makes the whole argument completely transparent. I’m actually looking forward to lecturing it (as I add this sentence to the post, the lecture is about half an hour in the future), since the demands on my memory are going to be close to zero.

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