Numerical Differentiation
Introduction
Often we need to approximate the derivative of a function when we cannot obtain it analytically. Here we discuss several ways to do this numerically.
Taylor Series
Let's consider the situation where we have samples of a function at discrete points seperated by spacing as depicted in the following figure:
Consider a Taylor series expansions about some arbitrary point . Since we can write these as follows:
Approximation location Taylor Series Expansion about
If we subtract the Taylor series expansion at from the one at , we find
Now we solve this for to find
Now if is small, then the second term (with the in it) is small and we can approximate the derivative as
We call this a second order approximation to because when we truncated the series approximation to the largest term there was of the order of .
Note that we now have a way to approximate the derivative of a function if we have the function's values at two locations.
On a uniform mesh, we can use this technique to generate a variety of approximations to derivatives, as summarized in the following table:

As can be seen in the figure above, higher order approximations result in significantly lower error for a given spacing . Note that for the fourthorder approximation is contaminated by roundoff error. The same would happen for the other derivative approximations, but at smaller .
Lagrange Polynomials
Lagrange polynomials, which are commonly used for interpolation, can also be used for differentiation. The formula is
where is given as
Here is the order of the polynomial and we require points to form the Lagrange polynomial.
Here are the results for n = 2, 3, 4
n=2 n=3 n=4