Using a paraboloid to cover points with a disk

Find the equation of tangent line to parabola {y=x^2}borrring calculus drill.

Okay. Draw two tangent lines to the parabola, then. Where do they intersect?

Two tangent lines
Two tangent lines

If the points of tangency are {a} and {b}, then the tangent lines are
{y=2a(x-a)+a^2} and {y=2b(x-b)+b^2}. Equate and solve:

\displaystyle    2a(x-a)+a^2 = 2b(x-b)+b^2 \implies x = \frac{a+b}{2}

Neat! The {x}-coordinate of the intersection point is midway between {a} and {b}.

What does the {y}-coordinate of the intersection tell us? It simplifies to

\displaystyle    2a(b-a)/2+a^2 = ab

the geometric meaning of which is not immediately clear. But maybe we should look at the vertical distance from intersection to the parabola itself. That would be

\displaystyle    x^2 - y = \left(\frac{a+b}{2}\right)^2 -ab = \left(\frac{a-b}{2}\right)^2

This is the square of the distance from the midpoint to {a} and {b}. In other words, the squared radius of the smallest “disk” covering the set {\{a,b\}}.

Same happens in higher dimensions, where parabola is replaced with the paraboloid {z=|\mathbf x|^2}, {\mathbf x = (x_1,\dots x_n)}.


Indeed, the tangent planes at {\mathbf a} and {\mathbf b} are
{z=2\mathbf a\cdot (\mathbf x-\mathbf a)+|\mathbf a|^2} and {z=2\mathbf b\cdot (\mathbf x-\mathbf b)+|\mathbf b|^2}. Equate and solve:

\displaystyle    2(\mathbf a-\mathbf b)\cdot \mathbf x = |\mathbf a|^2-|\mathbf b|^2 \implies \left(\mathbf x-\frac{\mathbf a+\mathbf b}{2}\right)\cdot (\mathbf a-\mathbf b) =0

So, {\mathbf x} lies on the equidistant plane from {\mathbf a} and {\mathbf b}. And, as above,

\displaystyle    |\mathbf x|^2 -z = \left|\frac{\mathbf a-\mathbf b}{2}\right|^2

is the square of the radius of smallest disk covering both {\mathbf a} and {\mathbf b}.

The above observations are useful for finding the smallest disk (or ball) covering given points. For simplicity, I stick to two dimensions: covering points on a plane with the smallest disk possible. The algorithm is:

  1. Given points {(x_i,y_i)}, {i=1,\dots,n}, write down the equations of tangent planes to paraboloid {z=x^2+y^2}. These are {z=2(x_i x+y_i y)-(x_i^2+y_i^2)}.
  2. Find the point {(x,y,z)} that minimizes the vertical distance to paraboloid, that is {x^2+y^2-z}, and lies (non-strictly) below all of these tangent planes.
  3. The {x,y} coordinates of this point is the center of the smallest disk covering the points. (Known as the Chebyshev center of the set). Also, {\sqrt{x^2+y^2-z}} is the radius of this disk; known as the Chebyshev radius.

The advantage conferred by the paraboloid model is that at step 2 we are minimizing a quadratic function subject to linear constraints. Implementation in Sage:

points = [[1,3], [1.5,2], [3,2], [2,-1], [-1,0.5], [-1,1]] 
constraints = [lambda x, p=q: 2*x[0]*p[0]+2*x[1]*p[1]-p[0]^2-p[1]^2-x[2] for q in points]
target = lambda x: x[0]^2+x[1]^2-x[2]
m = minimize_constrained(target,constraints,[0,0,0]) 
circle((m[0],m[1]),sqrt(m[0]^2+m[1]^2-m[2]),color='red') + point(points)

Smallest disk covering the points
Smallest disk covering the points

Credit: this post is an expanded version of a comment by David Speyer on last year’s post Covering points with caps, where I considered the same problem on a sphere.

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