Unreasonable effectiveness of Runge-Kutta 2

I used to give this example of an initial-value problem whenever numerical solutions of ODE came up in class:

\displaystyle    y' = -y^2, \quad y(0)=1

The exact solution is {y(t)=1/(1+t)}. Using Euler’s method with step {h=1} (admittedly large) we get, starting with {y_0=1}:

\displaystyle    y_1 = y_0 + h (-y_0^2) = 0,\quad y_2 = y_1 + h (-y_1^2) = 0, \dots

The numerical solution drops down to zero at once and stays there. Not good at all.

Euler's method
Euler’s method

The trapezoidal version of RK2 (also known as improved Euler, or Heun’s method) treats the above value of {y_1} merely as prediction {\tilde y_1}, and computes the actual {y_1} using the average of the slopes at {y_0} and {\tilde y_1}:

\displaystyle    y_1 = y_0 + \frac{h}{2} (-y_0^2 - \tilde y_1^2) = 1 + \frac12 (-1 - 0 ) = \frac12

… which is right on target. Let’s do it again: the prediction {\tilde y_2 = y_1 + h (-y_1^2) = 1/4} and correction

\displaystyle    y_2 = y_1 + \frac{h}{2} (-y_1^2 - \tilde y_2^2) = 1 + \frac12 \left(-\frac{1}{4}-\frac{1}{16} \right) =    \frac{11}{32}

… which is {\approx 0.34}, compared to the exact solution {1/3}. Nice!

Trapezoidal RK2
Trapezoidal RK2

I like the example, because all numbers are manageable with mental arithmetics for two steps. And it’s clear that {11/32} is pretty close to {1/3 = 11/33}.


But the fact that the relative error stays below {3.7\%} throughout the computation despite the large step size {h=1} seems… too good to be true. Consider that for the exact solution, the expression {y^2} can differ by the factor of {4} between two {t}-values at distance {1}.

The midpoint version of RK2, which generally performs about as well as the trapezoidal version, is nowhere as close in this example. Indeed, using the same data as above, we get

\displaystyle    y_1 = y_0 - h \left(\frac{y_0+\tilde y_1}{2}\right)^2 = \frac{3}{4}

and so forth: the relative error reaches {59\%} at the second step. That’s 16 times worse than the trapezoidal version.

Midpoint RK2
Midpoint RK2

What happens here has less to do with numerical analysis than with algebra of rational functions. Using {h=1} in trapezoidal RK2, we are in effect iterating the function

\displaystyle \varphi(y) = y + \frac12 (-y^2-(y-y^2)^2) = y-y^2+y^3-\frac12 y^4

The exact solution would be obtained by iterating

\displaystyle \Phi (y) = \frac{y}{1+y} = y-y^2+ y^3 - y^4 + \dots

Two functions just happen to coincide at {y=1}, which is our starting point here.

Two iterands
Two iterands

From there we get to {0.5}, and on {[0,0.5]} they are really close anyway, due to another coincidence: the truncation error {|\varphi(y)-\Phi(y)|} is {O(y^4)} instead of {O(y^3)} as it is normally for second-order methods.

The midpoint method with {h=1} amounts to iterating

\displaystyle \psi(y) = y - \left(\frac{y+y-y^2}{2} \right)^2 = y-y^2+y^3-\frac14 y^4

which is not substantially further away from {\Phi}, but does not enjoy the lucky coincidence at {y=1}.


The tables are turned with the initial value {y_0=3}. The exact solution is {y(t) = 3/(1+3t)}, which drops sharply from {t=0} to {t=1}; its slope decreases by the factor of {16} during one step. Still, midpoint-RK2 does a decent job with {h=1}:

Midpoint RK2 starting with y=3
Midpoint RK2 starting with y=3

while trapezoidal RK2 outputs {y_1=-19.5}, {y_2=-80110}, {y_3 = -2\cdot 10^{19}} and promptly overflows.


With a reasonable step size, like {h=0.1}, normality is restored: both methods perform about equally well, with {0.13\%} error for trapezoidal and {0.21\%} for midpoint.

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