Concept

Calculus of variations

Summary
The calculus of variations (or variational calculus) is a field of mathematical analysis that uses variations, which are small changes in functions and functionals, to find maxima and minima of functionals: mappings from a set of functions to the real numbers. Functionals are often expressed as definite integrals involving functions and their derivatives. Functions that maximize or minimize functionals may be found using the Euler–Lagrange equation of the calculus of variations. A simple example of such a problem is to find the curve of shortest length connecting two points. If there are no constraints, the solution is a straight line between the points. However, if the curve is constrained to lie on a surface in space, then the solution is less obvious, and possibly many solutions may exist. Such solutions are known as geodesics. A related problem is posed by Fermat's principle: light follows the path of shortest optical length connecting two points, which depends upon the material of the medium. One corresponding concept in mechanics is the principle of least/stationary action. Many important problems involve functions of several variables. Solutions of boundary value problems for the Laplace equation satisfy the Dirichlet's principle. Plateau's problem requires finding a surface of minimal area that spans a given contour in space: a solution can often be found by dipping a frame in soapy water. Although such experiments are relatively easy to perform, their mathematical formulation is far from simple: there may be more than one locally minimizing surface, and they may have non-trivial topology. The calculus of variations may be said to begin with Newton's minimal resistance problem in 1687, followed by the brachistochrone curve problem raised by Johann Bernoulli (1696). It immediately occupied the attention of Jakob Bernoulli and the Marquis de l'Hôpital, but Leonhard Euler first elaborated the subject, beginning in 1733. Lagrange was influenced by Euler's work to contribute significantly to the theory.