In calculus, an improper integral is the limit of a definite integral as an endpoint of the interval(s) of integration approaches either a specified real number or ∞ or −∞ or, in some cases, as both endpoints approach limits. Such an integral is often written symbolically just like a standard definite integral, perhaps with infinity as a limit of integration. But that conceals the limiting process. By using the more advanced Lebesgue integral, rather than the Riemann integral, one can in some cases get an answer without taking a limit of standard definite integrals.
Specifically, an improper integral is a limit of the form
or of the form
in which one takes a limit in one or the other (or sometimes both) endpoints (Apostol 1967, §10.23). Integrals are also improper if the integrand is undefined at an interior point of the domain of integration, or at multiple such points.
It is often necessary to use improper integrals in order to compute a value for integrals which may not exist in the conventional sense (as a Riemann integral, for instance) because of a singularity in the function, or an infinite endpoint of the domain of integration.
The original definition of the Riemann integral does not apply to a function such as on the interval [1, ∞), because in this case the domain of integration is unbounded. However, the Riemann integral can often be extended by continuity, by defining the improper integral instead as a limit
The narrow definition of the Riemann integral also does not cover the function on the interval [0, 1]. The problem here is that the integrand is unbounded in the domain of integration (the definition requires that both the domain of integration and the integrand be bounded). However, the improper integral does exist if understood as the limit
Convergence of the integral
An improper integral converges if the limit defining it exists. Thus for example one says that the improper integral
exists and is equal to L if the integrals under the limit exist for all sufficiently large t, and the value of the limit is equal to L.
It is also possible for an improper integral to diverge to infinity. In that case, one may assign the value of ∞ (or −∞) to the integral. For instance
However, other improper integrals may simply diverge in no particular direction, such as
which does not exist, even as an extended real number. This is called divergence by oscillation.
A limitation of the technique of improper integration is that the limit must be taken with respect to one endpoint at a time. Thus, for instance, an improper integral of the form
can be defined by taking two separate limits; to wit
provided the double limit is finite. It can also be defined as a pair of distinct improper integrals of the first kind:
where c is any convenient point at which to start the integration. This definition also applies when one of these integrals is infinite, or both if they have the same sign.
An example of an improper integrals where both endpoints are infinite is the Gaussian integral . An example which evaluates to infinity is . But one cannot even define other integrals of this kind unambiguously, such as , since the double limit is infinite and the two-integral method
yields . In this case, one can however define an improper integral in the sense of Cauchy principal value:
The questions one must address in determining an improper integral are:
- Does the limit exist?
- Can the limit be computed?
The first question is an issue of mathematical analysis. The second one can be addressed by calculus techniques, but also in some cases by contour integration, Fourier transforms and other more advanced methods.
Types of integrals
There is more than one theory of integration. From the point of view of calculus, the Riemann integral theory is usually assumed as the default theory. In using improper integrals, it can matter which integration theory is in play.
- For the Riemann integral (or the Darboux integral, which is equivalent to it), improper integration is necessary both for unbounded intervals (since one cannot divide the interval into finitely many subintervals of finite length) and for unbounded functions with finite integral (since, supposing it is unbounded above, then the upper integral will be infinite, but the lower integral will be finite).
- The Lebesgue integral deals differently with unbounded domains and unbounded functions, so that often an integral which only exists as an improper Riemann integral will exist as a (proper) Lebesgue integral, such as . On the other hand, there are also integrals that have an improper Riemann integral but do not have a (proper) Lebesgue integral, such as . The Lebesgue theory does not see this as a deficiency: from the point of view of measure theory, and cannot be defined satisfactorily. In some situations, however, it may be convenient to employ improper Lebesgue integrals as is the case, for instance, when defining the Cauchy principal value. The Lebesgue integral is more or less essential in the theoretical treatment of the Fourier transform, with pervasive use of integrals over the whole real line.
- For the Henstock–Kurzweil integral, improper integration is not necessary, and this is seen as a strength of the theory: it encompasses all Lebesgue integrable and improper Riemann integrable functions.
Improper Riemann integrals and Lebesgue integrals
In some cases, the integral
can be defined as an integral (a Lebesgue integral, for instance) without reference to the limit
but cannot otherwise be conveniently computed. This often happens when the function f being integrated from a to c has a vertical asymptote at c, or if c = ∞ (see Figures 1 and 2). In such cases, the improper Riemann integral allows one to calculate the Lebesgue integral of the function. Specifically, the following theorem holds (Apostol 1974, Theorem 10.33):
- If a function f is Riemann integrable on [a,b] for every b ≥ a, and the partial integrals
- are bounded as b → ∞, then the improper Riemann integrals
- both exist. Furthermore, f is Lebesgue integrable on [a, ∞), and its Lebesgue integral is equal to its improper Riemann integral.
For example, the integral
can be interpreted alternatively as the improper integral
or it may be interpreted instead as a Lebesgue integral over the set (0, ∞). Since both of these kinds of integral agree, one is free to choose the first method to calculate the value of the integral, even if one ultimately wishes to regard it as a Lebesgue integral. Thus improper integrals are clearly useful tools for obtaining the actual values of integrals.
In other cases, however, a Lebesgue integral between finite endpoints may not even be defined, because the integrals of the positive and negative parts of f are both infinite, but the improper Riemann integral may still exist. Such cases are "properly improper" integrals, i.e. their values cannot be defined except as such limits. For example,
cannot be interpreted as a Lebesgue integral, since
But is nevertheless Riemann integrable between any two finite endpoints, and its integral between 0 and ∞ is usually understood as the limit of the Riemann integral:
One can speak of the singularities of an improper integral, meaning those points of the extended real number line at which limits are used.
Cauchy principal value
Consider the difference in values of two limits:
The former is the Cauchy principal value of the otherwise ill-defined expression
Similarly, we have
The former is the principal value of the otherwise ill-defined expression
All of the above limits are cases of the indeterminate form ∞ − ∞.
An indefinite integral may diverge in the sense that the limit defining it may not exist. In this case, there are more sophisticated definitions of the limit which can produce a convergent value for the improper integral. These are called summability methods.
is Cesàro summable (C, α) if
exists and is finite (Titchmarsh 1948, §1.15). The value of this limit, should it exist, is the (C, α) sum of the integral.
An integral is (C, 0) summable precisely when it exists as an improper integral. However, there are integrals which are (C, α) summable for α > 0 which fail to converge as improper integrals (in the sense of Riemann or Lebesgue). One example is the integral
which fails to exist as an improper integral, but is (C,α) summable for every α > 0. This is an integral version of Grandi's series.
- Apostol, T (1974), Mathematical analysis, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 978-0-201-00288-1.
- Apostol, T (1967), Calculus, Vol. 1 (2nd ed.), Jon Wiley & Sons.
- Autar Kaw, Egwu Kalu (2008), Numerical Methods with Applications (1st ed.), autarkaw.com
- Titchmarsh, E (1948), Introduction to the theory of Fourier integrals (2nd ed.), New York, N.Y.: Chelsea Pub. Co. (published 1986), ISBN 978-0-8284-0324-5.