Projections and Filtered Projections of a Square

Chapter 12 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology describes tomography. Russ Hobbie and I write

The reconstruction problem can be stated as follows. A function f(x,y) exists in two dimensions. Measurements are made that give projections: the integrals of f(x,y) along various lines as a function of displacement perpendicular to each line. For example, integration parallel to the y axis gives a function of x,

as shown in Fig. 12.12. The scan is repeated at many different angles θ with the x axis, giving a set of functions F(θ, x’), where x’ is the distance along the axis at angle θ with the x axis.

One example in IPMB is the projection of a simple object: the circular top-hat

The projection can be calculated analytically

It’s independent of θ; it looks the same in every direction.

Let’s consider a slightly more complicated object: the square top-hat

This projection can be found using high school geometry and trigonometry (evaluating it is equivalent to finding the length of lines passing through the square at different angles). I leave the details to you. If you get stuck, email me ( and I’ll send a picture of some squares and triangles that explains it.

The plot below shows the projections at four angles. For θ = 0° the projection is a rectangle; for θ = 45° it’s a triangle, and for intermediate angles (θ = 15° and 30°) it’s a trapezoid. Unlike the circular top-hat, the projection of the square top-hat depends on the direction.

What I just described is the forward problem of tomography: calculating the projections from the object. As Russ and I wrote, usually the measuring device records projections, so you don’t have to calculate them. The central goal of tomography is the inverse problem: calculating the object from the projections. One way to perform such a reconstruction is a two-step procedure known as filtered back projection: first high-pass filter the projections and then back project them. In a previous post, I went through this entire procedure analytically for a circular top-hat. Today, I go through the filtering process analytically, obtaining an expression for the filtered projection of a square top-hat.

Here we go. I warn you, there’s lots of math. To perform the filtering, we first calculate the Fourier transform of the projection, CF(θ,k). Because the top-hat is even, we can use the cosine transform

where k is the spatial frequency.

Next, place the expression for F(θ,x’) into the integral and evaluate it. There’s plenty of book-keeping, but the projection is either constant or linear in x’, so the integrals are straightforward. I leave the details to you; if you work it out yourself, you’ll be delighted to find that many terms cancel, leaving the simple result

To high-pass filter CF(θ,k), multiply it by |k|/2π to get the Fourier transform of the filtered projection CG(θ,k)

Finally, take the inverse Fourier transform to obtain the filtered projection G(θ,x’)

Inserting our expression for CG(θ,k), we find

This integral is not trivial, but with some help from WolframAlpha I found

where Ci is the cosine integral. I admit, this is a complicated expression. The cosine integral goes to zero for large argument, so the upper limit vanishes. It goes to negative infinity logarithmically at zero argument. We’re in luck, however, because the four cosine integrals conspire to cancel all the infinities, allowing us to obtain an analytical expression for the filtered projection

We did it! Below are plots of the filtered projections at four angles.

Why must we analyze all this math? Because solving a simple example analytically provides insight into filtered back projection. You can do tomography using canned computer code, but you won’t experience the process like you will by slogging through each step by hand. If you don’t buy that argument, then another reason for doing the math is: it’s fun!

Originally published at



Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

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Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.