Operator (mathematics)

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In mathematics, an operator is generally a mapping or function that acts on elements of a space to produce elements of another space (possibly the same space, sometimes required to be the same space). There is no general definition of an operator, but the term is often used in place of function when the domain is a set of functions or other structured objects. Also, the domain of an operator is often difficult to be explicitly characterized (for example in the case of an integral operator), and may be extended to related objects (an operator that acts on functions may act also on differential equations whose functions are solutions). See Operator (physics) for other examples.


The most basic operators (in some sense) are linear maps, which act on vector spaces. However, when using "linear operator" instead of "linear map", mathematicians often mean actions on vector spaces of functions, which also preserve other properties, such as continuity. For example, differentiation and indefinite integration are linear operators; operators that are built from them are called differential operators, integral operators or integro-differential operators.

Operator is also used for denoting the symbol of a mathematical operation. This is related with the meaning of "operator" in computer programming, see operator (computer programming).

Linear operators

The most common kind of operator encountered are linear operators. Let U and V be vector spaces over a field K. A mapping A: UV is linear if

for all x, y in U and for all α, β in K. This means that a linear operator preserves vector space operations, in the sense that it does not matter whether you apply the linear operator before or after the operations of addition and scalar multiplication. In more technical words, linear operators are morphisms between vector spaces.

In the finite-dimensional case linear operators can be represented by matrices in the following way. Let be a field, and and be finite-dimensional vector spaces over . Let us select a basis in and in . Then let be an arbitrary vector in (assuming Einstein convention), and be a linear operator. Then


Then is the matrix of the operator in fixed bases. does not depend on the choice of , and if . Thus in fixed bases n-by-m matrices are in bijective correspondence to linear operators from to .

The important concepts directly related to operators between finite-dimensional vector spaces are the ones of rank, determinant, inverse operator, and eigenspace.

Linear operators also play a great role in the infinite-dimensional case. The concepts of rank and determinant cannot be extended to infinite-dimensional matrices. This is why very different techniques are employed when studying linear operators (and operators in general) in the infinite-dimensional case. The study of linear operators in the infinite-dimensional case is known as functional analysis (so called because various classes of functions form interesting examples of infinite-dimensional vector spaces).

The space of sequences of real numbers, or more generally sequences of vectors in any vector space, themselves form an infinite-dimensional vector space. The most important cases are sequences of real or complex numbers, and these spaces, together with linear subspaces, are known as sequence spaces. Operators on these spaces are known as sequence transformations.

Bounded linear operators over Banach space form a Banach algebra in respect to the standard operator norm. The theory of Banach algebras develops a very general concept of spectra that elegantly generalizes the theory of eigenspaces.

Bounded operators

Let U and V be two vector spaces over the same ordered field (for example, ), and they are equipped with norms. Then a linear operator from U to V is called bounded if there exists C > 0 such that

for all x in U.

Bounded operators form a vector space. On this vector space we can introduce a norm that is compatible with the norms of U and V:


In case of operators from U to itself it can be shown that


Any unital normed algebra with this property is called a Banach algebra. It is possible to generalize spectral theory to such algebras. C*-algebras, which are Banach algebras with some additional structure, play an important role in quantum mechanics.



In geometry, additional structures on vector spaces are sometimes studied. Operators that map such vector spaces to themselves bijectively are very useful in these studies, they naturally form groups by composition.

For example, bijective operators preserving the structure of a vector space are precisely the invertible linear operators. They form the general linear group under composition. They do not form a vector space under the addition of operators, e.g. both id and -id are invertible (bijective), but their sum, 0, is not.

Operators preserving the Euclidean metric on such a space form the isometry group, and those that fix the origin form a subgroup known as the orthogonal group. Operators in the orthogonal group that also preserve the orientation of vector tuples form the special orthogonal group, or the group of rotations.

Probability theory

Operators are also involved in probability theory, such as expectation, variance, and covariance. Indeed, every covariance is basically a dot product; every variance is a dot product of a vector with itself, and thus is a quadratic norm; every standard deviation is a norm (square root of the quadratic norm); the corresponding cosine to this dot product is the Pearson correlation coefficient; expected value is basically an integral operator (used to measure weighted shapes in the space).


From the point of view of functional analysis, calculus is the study of two linear operators: the differential operator , and the Volterra operator .

Fourier series and Fourier transform

The Fourier transform is useful in applied mathematics, particularly physics and signal processing. It is another integral operator; it is useful mainly because it converts a function on one (temporal) domain to a function on another (frequency) domain, in a way effectively invertible. No information is lost, as there is an inverse transform operator. In the simple case of periodic functions, this result is based on the theorem that any continuous periodic function can be represented as the sum of a series of sine waves and cosine waves:

The tuple (a0, a1, b1, a2, b2, …) is in fact an element of an infinite-dimensional vector space 2, and thus Fourier series is a linear operator.

When dealing with general function RC, the transform takes on an integral form:

Laplace transform

The Laplace transform is another integral operator and is involved in simplifying the process of solving differential equations.

Given f = f(s), it is defined by:

Fundamental operators on scalar and vector fields

Three operators are key to vector calculus:

As an extension of vector calculus operators to physics, engineering and tensor spaces, Grad, Div and Curl operators also are often associated with Tensor calculus as well as vector calculus. [1]

See also

Related Research Articles

In mathematics, more specifically in functional analysis, a Banach space is a complete normed vector space. Thus, a Banach space is a vector space with a metric that allows the computation of vector length and distance between vectors and is complete in the sense that a Cauchy sequence of vectors always converges to a well defined limit that is within the space.

Curl (mathematics) Vector operator describing circulation density at a point in a 3D vector field

In vector calculus, the curl is a vector operator that describes the infinitesimal circulation of a vector field in three-dimensional Euclidean space. The curl at a point in the field is represented by a vector whose length and direction denote the magnitude and axis of the maximum circulation. The curl of a field is formally defined as the circulation density at each point of the field.

In mathematics, any vector space has a corresponding dual vector space consisting of all linear forms on , together with the vector space structure of pointwise addition and scalar multiplication by constants.

Functional analysis Branch of mathematical analysis

Functional analysis is a branch of mathematical analysis, the core of which is formed by the study of vector spaces endowed with some kind of limit-related structure and the linear functions defined on these spaces and respecting these structures in a suitable sense. The historical roots of functional analysis lie in the study of spaces of functions and the formulation of properties of transformations of functions such as the Fourier transform as transformations defining continuous, unitary etc. operators between function spaces. This point of view turned out to be particularly useful for the study of differential and integral equations.

In mathematics, a linear map is a mapping between two vector spaces that preserves the operations of vector addition and scalar multiplication. The same names and the same definition are also used for the more general case of modules over a ring; see Module homomorphism.

Basis (linear algebra) Subset of a vector space that allows defining coordinates

In mathematics, a set B of vectors in a vector space V is called a basis if every element of V may be written in a unique way as a finite linear combination of elements of B. The coefficients of this linear combination are referred to as components or coordinates of the vector with respect to B. The elements of a basis are called basis vectors.

Vector space Basic algebraic structure of linear algebra

A vector space is a set of objects called vectors, which may be added together and multiplied ("scaled") by numbers, called scalars. Scalars are often taken to be real numbers, but there are also vector spaces with scalar multiplication by complex numbers, rational numbers, or generally any field. The operations of vector addition and scalar multiplication must satisfy certain requirements, called vector axioms. To specify that the scalars are real or complex numbers, the terms real vector space and complex vector space are often used.

In mathematics, the Lp spaces are function spaces defined using a natural generalization of the p-norm for finite-dimensional vector spaces. They are sometimes called Lebesgue spaces, named after Henri Lebesgue, although according to the Bourbaki group they were first introduced by Frigyes Riesz. Lp spaces form an important class of Banach spaces in functional analysis, and of topological vector spaces. Because of their key role in the mathematical analysis of measure and probability spaces, Lebesgue spaces are used also in the theoretical discussion of problems in physics, statistics, finance, engineering, and other disciplines.

In mathematics, a linear form is a linear map from a vector space to its field of scalars.

In the mathematical fields of differential geometry and tensor calculus, differential forms are an approach to multivariable calculus that is independent of coordinates. Differential forms provide a unified approach to define integrands over curves, surfaces, solids, and higher-dimensional manifolds. The modern notion of differential forms was pioneered by Élie Cartan. It has many applications, especially in geometry, topology and physics.

Exterior algebra Algebraic construction used in multilinear algebra and geometry

In mathematics, the exterior product or wedge product of vectors is an algebraic construction used in geometry to study areas, volumes, and their higher-dimensional analogues. The exterior product of two vectors and , denoted by , is called a bivector and lives in a space called the exterior square, a vector space that is distinct from the original space of vectors. The magnitude of can be interpreted as the area of the parallelogram with sides and , which in three dimensions can also be computed using the cross product of the two vectors. More generally, all parallel plane surfaces with the same orientation and area have the same bivector as a measure of their oriented area. Like the cross product, the exterior product is anticommutative, meaning that for all vectors and , but, unlike the cross product, the exterior product is associative.

Eigenfunction Mathematical function of a linear operator

In mathematics, an eigenfunction of a linear operator D defined on some function space is any non-zero function f in that space that, when acted upon by D, is only multiplied by some scaling factor called an eigenvalue. As an equation, this condition can be written as

In mathematics, a function space is a set of functions between two fixed sets. Often, the domain and/or codomain will have additional structure which is inherited by the function space. For example, the set of functions from any set X into a vector space has a natural vector space structure given by pointwise addition and scalar multiplication. In other scenarios, the function space might inherit a topological or metric structure, hence the name function space.

In functional analysis, a branch of mathematics, a compact operator is a linear operator L from a Banach space X to another Banach space Y, such that the image under L of any bounded subset of X is a relatively compact subset of Y. Such an operator is necessarily a bounded operator, and so continuous.

In mathematics, infinite-dimensional holomorphy is a branch of functional analysis. It is concerned with generalizations of the concept of holomorphic function to functions defined and taking values in complex Banach spaces, typically of infinite dimension. It is one aspect of nonlinear functional analysis.

In mathematics, the Gateaux differential or Gateaux derivative is a generalization of the concept of directional derivative in differential calculus. Named after René Gateaux, a French mathematician who died young in World War I, it is defined for functions between locally convex topological vector spaces such as Banach spaces. Like the Fréchet derivative on a Banach space, the Gateaux differential is often used to formalize the functional derivative commonly used in the calculus of variations and physics.

In mathematics, the Fredholm alternative, named after Ivar Fredholm, is one of Fredholm's theorems and is a result in Fredholm theory. It may be expressed in several ways, as a theorem of linear algebra, a theorem of integral equations, or as a theorem on Fredholm operators. Part of the result states that a non-zero complex number in the spectrum of a compact operator is an eigenvalue.

In mathematics—specifically, in functional analysis—a weakly measurable function taking values in a Banach space is a function whose composition with any element of the dual space is a measurable function in the usual (strong) sense. For separable spaces, the notions of weak and strong measurability agree.

Hilbert space Mathematical generalization of Euclidean space to infinite dimensions

The mathematical concept of a Hilbert space, named after David Hilbert, generalizes the notion of Euclidean space. It extends the methods of vector algebra and calculus from the two-dimensional Euclidean plane and three-dimensional space to spaces with any finite or infinite number of dimensions. A Hilbert space is a vector space equipped with an inner product, an operation that allows lengths and angles to be defined. Furthermore, Hilbert spaces are complete, which means that there are enough limits in the space to allow the techniques of calculus to be used.

This is a glossary for the terminology in a mathematical field of functional analysis.


  1. h.m. schey (2005). Div Grad Curl and All that. New York: W W Norton. ISBN   0-393-92516-1.