Now that the formula for arc length has been determined, we can pursue surface areas of curved solids.

Some students have great difficulty conceptualizing areas on curved surfaces. The problem lies in the fact that they want to use Δx or Δy in the setup, just as they did when calculating volumes of solids and areas over flat surfaces. Since on a curved surface, both x and y are changing in unison; as one changes, so does the other. For this reason, we need to use a variable linking those two variables together. This brings into play the Pythagorean Theorem and arc length. Arc length is a one-dimensional measure, its formula the result of capturing the interplay between Δx and Δy and expressing that as Δs. Integrating the one-dimensional Δs over a given interval will therefore produce the desired outcome (even though the path might not be linear, its distance is nevertheless one-dimensional).

A similar argument can be made for calculating areas over curved surfaces. Since area is two-dimensional, the integral we set up to calculate area must stick to that. I visualize a sphere wrapped with very narrow “bands”. If one of these bands was removed and cut, it could be stretched out and laid flat; its length on one edge would exceed that of the opposing edge due to the fact that it was wrapped around a curved surface. Ultimately this is not a problem, however, since these two opposing edges approach the same length as the distance between them narrows. This is entirely similar to each annulus in a previous post where circle area was derived using the “onion proof“.

This takes care of one dimension required for surface area. The second dimension is arc length mentioned in paragraph two above. As  Δs approaches zero, the line segment joining the two infinitely close points that determine the “point” of tangency becomes ever more perpendicular to the length of each band mentioned earlier. Each band can be treated as a rectangle; area is determined as the product of width (arc length) and length (circumference of 3-D solid) at each x_i over the given interval.


The following notes reveal surface area of a sphere using the reasoning described above.


Surface Area (sphere)Conventional

Click on the link to view the changing width of each “band” around the sphere.


As before, students can once again benefit having a second example from which to draw comparisons to the first; the cone serves this purpose very well.

Lateral Surface Area of Cone

Cone Lateral Area


Thanks for reading.

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