Applications of Trigonometry

model of the solar system What can you do with trig? Historically, it was developed for astronomy and geography, but scientists have been using it for centuries for other purposes, too. Besides other fields of mathematics, trig is used in physics, engineering, and chemistry. Within mathematics, trig is used in primarily in calculus (which is perhaps its greatest application), linear algebra, and statistics. Since these fields are used throughout the natural and social sciences, trig is a very useful subject to know.

Astronomy and geography

Trigonometric tables were created over two thousand years ago for computations in astronomy. The stars were thought to be fixed on a crystal sphere of great size, and that model was perfect for practical purposes. Only the planets moved on the sphere. (At the time there were seven recognized planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, and the sun. Those are the planets that we name our days of the week after. The earth wasn’t yet considered to be a planet since it was the center of the universe, and the outer planets hadn’t been discovered yet.)

The kind of trigonometry needed to understand positions on a sphere is called spherical trigonometry. Spherical trigonometry is rarely taught now since its job has been taken over by linear algebra. Nonetheless, one application of trigonometry is astronomy.

Cosmographia Claudii Ptolomaei
Ptolemy’s World Map
Date 1467, by Nicolaus Germanus

As the earth is also a sphere, trigonometry is used in geography and in navigation. Ptolemy (100–178) used trigonometry in his Geography and used trigonometric tables in his works. Columbus carried a copy of Regiomontanus’ Ephemerides Astronomicae on his trips to the New World and used it to his advantage.

Engineering and physics

Although trigonometry was first applied to spheres, it has had greater application to planes. Surveyors have used trigonometry for centuries. Engineers, both military engineers and otherwise, have used trigonometry nearly as long.

Physics lays heavy demands on trigonometry. Optics and statics are two early fields of physics that use trigonometry, but all branches of physics use trigonometry since trigonometry aids in understanding space. Related fields such as physical chemistry naturally use trig.
arctangent is the integral of 1 divided by 1 plus x squared

Mathematics and its applications

Of course, trigonometry is used throughout mathematics, and, since mathematics is applied throughout the natural and social sciences, trigonometry has many applications. Calculus, linear algebra, and statistics, in particular, use trigonometry and have many applications in the all the sciences.