Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Exponential Distribution

The exponential distribution holds a special significance for me. My PhD thesis was all about optical transients, the simplest mathematical models of which are exponential distributions. Currently, I work in x-ray science, which is heavily concerned with the depletion of an (x-ray) optical field as it traverses some distribution of matter (both in an object being imaged, and in the detector) - this time the exponential distribution is over space, rather than time, but the mathematics is the same.

Any kind of involvement with mathematical science quickly brings us into intimate contact with exponential functions, as these arise left, right, and centre, in the solutions of differential equations. The reason for this is related to the fact that the exponential is the only mathematical function that is its own derivative. This is closely related to a special property of the exponential distribution, known as memorylessness (what will happen next - its rate of change - is entirely governed by the current state). So let's take a quick look into how the exponential distribution comes about, and what its major characteristics are.