From the preface of:

Differential Equations, Fourth Edition, by Blanchard, Devaney, Hall.

The study of differential equations is a beautiful application of the ideas and techniques of calculus to our everyday lives. Indeed, it could be said that calculus was developed mainly so that the fundamental principles that govern many phenomena could be expressed in the language of differential equations. Unfortunately, it was difficult to convey the beauty of the subject in the traditional first course on differential equations because the number of equations that can be treated by analytic techniques is very limited. Consequently, the course tended to focus on technique rather than on concept.

At Boston University, we decided to revise our course, and we wrote this book to support our efforts. We now approach our course with several goals in mind. First, the traditional emphasis on specialized tricks and techniques for solving differential equations is no longer appropriate given the technology (laptops, ipads, smart phones, ...) that we carry around with us everywhere. Second, many of the most important differential equations are nonlinear, and numerical and qualitative techniques are more effective than analytic techniques in this setting. Finally, the differential equations course is one of the few undergraduate courses where we can give our students a glimpse of the nature of contemporary mathematical research.

The Qualitative, Numeric, and Analytic Approaches

Accordingly, this book is a very different from the typical "cookbook" differential equations text. We have eliminated many of the specialized techniques for deriving formulas for solutions, and we have replaced them with topics that focus on the formulation of differential equations and the interpretation of their solutions. To obtain an understanding of the solutions, we generally attack a given equation from three different points of view.

One major approach we adopt is qualitative. We expect students to be able to visualize differential equations and their solutions in many geometric ways. For example, we readily use slope fields, graphs of solutions, vector fields, and solution curves in the phase plane as tools to gain a better understanding of solutions. We also ask students to become adept at moving among these geometric representations and more traditional analytic representations.

Since differential equations are easily studied using a computer, we also emphasize numerical techniques. DETools, the software that accompanies this book, provides students with ample computational tools to investigate the behavior of solutions of differential equations both numerically and graphically. Even if we can find an explicit formula for a solution, we often work with the equation both numerically and qualitatively to understand the geometry and the long-term behavior of solutions. When we can find explicit solutions easily, we do the calculations. But we always examine the resulting formulas using qualitative and numerical points of view as well..

How This Book is Different

There are several specific ways in which this book differs from other books at this level. First, we incorporate modeling throughout. We expect students to understand the meaning of the variables and parameters in a differential equation and to be able to interpret this meaning in terms of a particular model. Certain models reappear often as running themes, and they are drawn from a variety of disciplines so that students with various backgrounds will find something familiar.

We also advocate a dynamical systems point of view. That is, we are always concerned with the long-term behavior of solutions of an equation, and using all of the appropriate approaches outlined above, we ask students to predict this long-term behavior. In addition, we emphasize the role of parameters in many of our examples, and we specifically address the manner in which the behavior of solutions changes as these parameters vary.

It is our philosophy that using a computer is as natural and necessary to the study of differential equations as is the use of paper and pencil. DETools should make the inclusion of technology in the course as easy as possible. This suite of computer programs illustrates the basic concepts of differential equations. Three of these programs are solvers which allow the student to compute and graph numerical solutions of both first-order equations and systems of differential equations. The other 26 tools are demonstrations that allow students and teachers to investigate in detail specific topics covered in the text. A number of exercises in the text refer directly to these tools. DETools is available through

As most texts do, we begin with a chapter on first-order equations. However, the only analytic technique we use to find closed-form solutions is separation of variables until we discuss linear equations at the end of the chapter. Instead, we emphasize the meaning of a differential equation and its solutions in terms of its slope field and the graphs of its solutions. If the differential equation is autonomous, we also discuss its phase line. This discussion of the phase line serves as an elementary introduction to the idea of a phase plane, which plays a fundamental role in subsequent chapters.

We then move directly from first-order equations to systems of first-order differential equations. Rather than consider second-order equations separately, we convert these equations to first-order systems. When these equations are viewed as systems, we are able to use qualitative and numerical techniques more readily. Of course, we then use the information about these systems gleaned from these techniques to recover information about the solutions of the original equation.

We also begin the treatment of systems with a general approach. We do not immediately restrict our attention to linear systems. Qualitative and numerical techniques work just as easily on nonlinear systems, and one can proceed a long way toward understanding solutions without resorting to algebraic techniques. However, qualitative ideas do not tell the whole story, and we are led naturally to the idea of linearization. With this background in the fundamental geometric and qualitative concepts, we then discuss linear systems in detail. Not only do we emphasize the formula for the general solution of a linear system, but also the geometry of its solution curves and its relationship to the eigenvalues and eigenvectors of the system.

While our study of systems requires the minimal use of some linear algebra, it is definitely not a prerequisite. Because we deal primarily with two-dimensional systems, we easily develop all of the necessary algebraic techniques as we proceed. In the process, we give considerable insight into the geometry of eigenvectors and eigenvalues.

These topics form the core of our approach. However, there are many additional topics that one would like to cover in the course. Consequently, we have included discussions of forced second-order equations, nonlinear systems, Laplace transforms, numerical methods, and discrete dynamical systems. In Appendix A, we even have a short discussion of Riccati and Bernoulli equations, and Appendix B is an ultra-lite treatment of power series methods. In Appendix B we take the point of view that power series are an algebraic way of finding approximate solutions much like numerical methods. Occasional surprises, such as Hermite and Legendre polynomials, are icing on the cake. Although some of these topics are quite traditional, we always present them in a manner that is consistent with the philosophy developed in the first half of the text.

At the end of each chapter, we have included several ``labs.'' Doing detailed numerical experimentation and writing reports has been our most successful modification of our course at Boston University. Good labs are tough to write and to grade, but we feel that the benefit to students is extraordinary.

Changes in the Fourth Edition

This revision has been our most extensive since we published the first edition in 1998. In Chapter 1, the table of contents remains the same. However, many new exercises have been added, and they often introduce models that are new to the text. For example, the theta model for the spiking of a neuron appears in the exercise sets of Section 1.3 (Qualitative Technique: Slope Fields), Section 1.4 (Numerical Technique: Euler's Method), Section 1.6 (Equilibria and the Phase Line), and Section 1.7 (Bifurcations). The concept of a time constant is introduced in Section 1.1 (Modeling via Differential Equations) and discussed in the context of a blinking light in Section 1.3 (Qualitative Technique: Slope Fields). The velocity of a freefalling skydiver is discussed in three exercise sets. In Section 1.1 (Modeling via Differential Equations), we discuss terminal velocity to illustrate the concept of long-term behavior. In Section 1.2 (Analytical Technique: Separation of Variables), we find the general solution of the velocity equation using the method of of separation of varibles, and in Section 1.4 (Numerical Technique: Euler's Method), we study these solutions numerically using Euler's method.

Chapter 2 has undergone a complete overhaul. We added a section (Section 2.7) on the SIR model. We include this topic for two reasons. First, many of our students had first-hand experience with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-2010. Second, many users of the preliminary edition liked the fact that we discussed nullclines in Chapter 2. Section 2.7 (The SIR Model of an Epidemic) provides some phase plane analysis without going into the detail that is found in in our section on nullclines in Chapter 5.

Chapter 2 now has eight sections rather than five. Section 2.1 (Modeling via Systems) and Section 2.2 (The Geometry of Systems) are essentially unchanged. Section 2.3 (The Damped Harmonic Oscillator) is a short section in which the damped harmonic oscillator is introduced. This model is so important that it deserves a section of its own rather than being buried at the end of a section as it was in previous editions. The remaining analytic techniques that we presented in the previous editions can now be found in Section 2.4 (Additional Analytic Methods for Special Systems). The Existence and Uniqueness Theorem for systems along with its consequences has its own section (Section 2.6), and the consequences of uniqueness are discussed in more detail. The presentations of Euler's method for systems and Lorenz's chaotic system are essentially unchanged.

This material is presented in smaller sections to give the instructor more flexibility to pick and choose topics from Chapter 2. Only Section 2.1 and Section 2.2 are absolute prerequisities for what follows. Chapter 2 has always been the most difficult one to teach, and now instructors can cover as many (or as few) sections from Chapter 2 as they see fit.

Pathways Through This Book

There are a number of possible tracks that instructors can follow in using this book. Chapters 1-3 form the core (with the possible exception of Section 2.8 and Section 3.8, which cover systems in three dimensions). Most of the later chapters assume familiarity with this material. Certain sections such as Section 1.7 (Bifurcations), Section 1.9 (Integrating Factors for Linear Equations), and Sections 2.4-2.7 can be skipped if some care is taken in choosing material from subsequent sections. However, the material on phase lines and phase planes, qualitative analysis, and solutions of linear systems is central.

A typical track for an engineering-oriented course would follow Chapters 1-3 (perhaps skipping Sections 1.7, 1.9, 2.4, 2.6, 2.7, and 3.8) Appendix A (Changing Variables) can be covered at the end of Chapter 1. These chapters will take roughly two-thirds of a semester. The final third of the course might cover Sections 4.1-4.3 (Forced, Second-Order Linear Equations and Resonance), Section 5.1 (Linearization of Nonlinear Systems), and Chapter 6 (Laplace Transforms). Chapters 4 and 5 are independent of each other and can be covered in either order. In particular, Section 5.1 on linearization of nonlinear systems near equilibrium points forms an excellent capstone for the material on linear systems in Chapter 3. Appendix B (Power Series) goes well after Chapter 4.

Incidentally, it is possible to cover Sections 6.1 and 6.2 (Laplace Transforms for First-Order Equations) immediately after Chapter 1. As we have learned from our colleagues in the College of Engineering at Boston University, some engineering programs teach a circuit theory course that uses the Laplace transform early in the course. Consequently, Sections 6.1 and 6.2 are written so that the differential equations course and such a circuits course could proceed in parallel. However, if possible, we recommend waiting to cover Chapter 6 entirely until after the material in Sections 4.1-4.3 has been discussed.

Instructors can substitute material on discrete dynamics (Chapter 8) for Laplace transforms. A course for students with a strong background in physics might involve more of Chapter 5, including a treatment of systems that are Hamiltonian (Section 5.3) and gradient (Section 5.4). A course geared toward applied mathematics might include a more detailed discussion of numerical methods (Chapter 7).

Our Website and Ancillaries

Readers and instructors are invited to make extensive use of our web site

At this site we have posted an on-line instructor's guide that includes discussions of how we use the text. We have sample syllabi contributed by users at various institutions as well as information about workshops and seminars dealing with the teaching of differential equations. Solution Builder, available to instructors who have adopted the text for class use, creates customized, secure PDF copies of solutions matched exactly to the the exercises assigned for class. The website for Solution Builder is

The Student Solutions Manual contains the solutions to all odd-numbered exercises.

The Boston University Differential Equations Project

This book is a product of the now complete National Science Foundation Boston University Differential Equations Project (NSF Grant DUE-9352833) sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Boston University. The goal of that project was to rethink the traditional, sophomore-level differential equations course. We are especially thankful for that support.

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