Second derivative

The second derivative of a quadratic function is constant.

In calculus, the second derivative, or the second order derivative, of a function f is the derivative of the derivative of f. Roughly speaking, the second derivative measures how the rate of change of a quantity is itself changing; for example, the second derivative of the position of an object with respect to time is the instantaneous acceleration of the object, or the rate at which the velocity of the object is changing with respect to time. In Leibniz notation:

where a is acceleration, v is velocity, t is time, x is position, and d is the instantanteous "delta" or change. The last expression is the second derivative of position (x) with respect to time.

On the graph of a function, the second derivative corresponds to the curvature or concavity of the graph. The graph of a function with a positive second derivative is upwardly concave, while the graph of a function with a negative second derivative curves in the opposite way.

Second derivative power ruleEdit

The power rule for the first derivative, if applied twice, will produce the second derivative power rule as follows:



The second derivative of a function   is usually denoted  . That is:


When using Leibniz's notation for derivatives, the second derivative of a dependent variable y with respect to an independent variable x is written


This notation is derived from the following formula:



Given the function


the derivative of f is the function


The second derivative of f is the derivative of f′, namely


Relation to the graphEdit

A plot of   from   to  . The tangent line is blue where the curve is concave up, green where the curve is concave down, and red at the inflection points (0,  /2, and  ).


The second derivative of a function f measures the concavity of the graph of f. A function whose second derivative is positive will be concave up (also referred to as convex), meaning that the tangent line will lie below the graph of the function. Similarly, a function whose second derivative is negative will be concave down (also simply called concave), and its tangent lines will lie above the graph of the function.

Inflection pointsEdit

If the second derivative of a function changes sign, the graph of the function will switch from concave down to concave up, or vice versa. A point where this occurs is called an inflection point. Assuming the second derivative is continuous, it must take a value of zero at any inflection point, although not every point where the second derivative is zero is necessarily a point of inflection.

Second derivative testEdit

The relation between the second derivative and the graph can be used to test whether a stationary point for a function (i.e. a point where   ) is a local maximum or a local minimum. Specifically,

  • If   then   has a local maximum at  .
  • If   then   has a local minimum at  .
  • If  , the second derivative test says nothing about the point  , a possible inflection point.

The reason the second derivative produces these results can be seen by way of a real-world analogy. Consider a vehicle that at first is moving forward at a great velocity, but with a negative acceleration. Clearly the position of the vehicle at the point where the velocity reaches zero will be the maximum distance from the starting position – after this time, the velocity will become negative and the vehicle will reverse. The same is true for the minimum, with a vehicle that at first has a very negative velocity but positive acceleration.


It is possible to write a single limit for the second derivative:


The limit is called the second symmetric derivative.[1][2] Note that the second symmetric derivative may exist even when the (usual) second derivative does not.

The expression on the right can be written as a difference quotient of difference quotients:


This limit can be viewed as a continuous version of the second difference for sequences.

Please note that the existence of the above limit does not mean that the function   has a second derivative. The limit above just gives a possibility for calculating the second derivative but does not provide a definition. As a counterexample look on the sign function   which is defined through


The sign function is not continuous at zero and therefore the second derivative for   does not exist. But the above limit exists for  :


Quadratic approximationEdit

Just as the first derivative is related to linear approximations, the second derivative is related to the best quadratic approximation for a function f. This is the quadratic function whose first and second derivatives are the same as those of f at a given point. The formula for the best quadratic approximation to a function f around the point x = a is


This quadratic approximation is the second-order Taylor polynomial for the function centered at x = a.

Eigenvalues and eigenvectors of the second derivativeEdit

For many combinations of boundary conditions explicit formulas for eigenvalues and eigenvectors of the second derivative can be obtained. For example, assuming   and homogeneous Dirichlet boundary conditions, i.e.,  , the eigenvalues are   and the corresponding eigenvectors (also called eigenfunctions) are  . Here,  

For other well-known cases, see the main article eigenvalues and eigenvectors of the second derivative.

Generalization to higher dimensionsEdit

The HessianEdit

The second derivative generalizes to higher dimensions through the notion of second partial derivatives. For a function f:R3 → R, these include the three second-order partials


and the mixed partials


If the function's image and domain both have a potential, then these fit together into a symmetric matrix known as the Hessian. The eigenvalues of this matrix can be used to implement a multivariable analogue of the second derivative test. (See also the second partial derivative test.)

The LaplacianEdit

Another common generalization of the second derivative is the Laplacian. This is the differential operator   defined by


The Laplacian of a function is equal to the divergence of the gradient and the trace of the Hessian matrix.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ A. Zygmund (2002). Trigonometric Series. Cambridge University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-521-89053-3.
  2. ^ Thomson, Brian S. (1994). Symmetric Properties of Real Functions. Marcel Dekker. p. 1. ISBN 0-8247-9230-0.

Further readingEdit


Online booksEdit

External linksEdit