So much of the world runs by mathematical rules. As one of the tools of mathematics, linear systems have multiple uses in the real world. Life is full of situations when the output of a system doubles if the input doubles, and the output cuts in half if the input does the same. Any linear system can be described with a linear equation.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
You can apply linear equations to various real life situations, such as recipe ingredients, weather predications and financial budgets.
In the Kitchen
When you double a favorite recipe, you apply a linear equation. If one cake equals 1/2 cup of butter, 2 cups of flour, 3/4 teaspoon of baking powder, three eggs and 1 cup of sugar and milk, then two cakes equal 1 cup of butter, 4 cups of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, six eggs and 2 cups of sugar and milk. To get twice the output, you put in twice the input.
Suppose a water district wants to know how much snowmelt runoff it can expect this year. The melt comes from a big valley, and every year the district measures the snowpack and the water supply. It gets 60 acre-feet from every 6 inches of snowpack. This year, surveyors measure 6 feet and 4 inches of snow. The district put that in the linear expression (60 acre-feet ÷ 6 inches) x 76 inches. Water officials expect 760 acre-feet of snowmelt from the water.
Just for Fun
Say it’s springtime and Irene wants to fill her swimming pool. She doesn’t want to stand there all day, but she doesn’t want to waste water over the edge of the pool, either. She sees that it takes 25 minutes to raise the pool level by 4 inches. She needs to fill the pool to a depth of 4 feet; she has 44 more inches to go. She figures out her linear equation: 44 inches x (25 minutes ÷ 4 inches) is 275 minutes, so she knows she has four hours and 35 minutes more to wait.
Ralph has also noticed that it’s springtime. The grass has been growing. It grew 2 inches in two weeks. He doesn’t like the grass to be taller than 2 1/2 inches, but he doesn’t like to cut it shorter than 1 3/4 inches. How often does he need to cut the lawn? He just puts that calculation in his linear expression, where (14 days ÷ 2 inches) x 3/4 inch tells hims he needs to cut his lawn every 5 1/4 days. He just ignores the 1/4 and figures he’ll cut the lawn every five days.
In Everyday Life
Another similar situation: you want to buy beer for a party and you’ve got $60 in your pocket. A linear equation tells you how much you can afford. Whether you need to bring in enough wood for the fire to burn overnight, calculate your paycheck, figure out how much paint you need to redo the upstairs bedrooms or buy enough gas to make it to and from your Aunt Sylvia’s, linear equations provide the answers. Linear systems are, literally, everywhere.
Where They Aren’t
One of the paradoxes is that just about every linear system is also a nonlinear system. Quadrupling a recipe won't necessarily produce a good cake. If there’s a really heavy snowfall year and snow gets pushed up against the walls of the valley, the water company’s estimate of available water will be off. After the pool is full and starts washing over the edge, the water won’t get any deeper. So most linear systems have a “linear regime” – a region over which the linear rules apply – and a “nonlinear regime” – where they don’t. As long as you’re in the linear regime, the linear equations hold true.
About the Author
First published in 1998, Richard Gaughan has contributed to publications such as "Photonics Spectra," "The Scientist" and other magazines. He is the author of "Accidental Genius: The World's Greatest By-Chance Discoveries." Gaughan holds a Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of Chicago.