In
mathematicsMathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...
, a differential operator is an operator defined as a function of the
differentiationIn calculus, a branch of mathematics, the derivative is a measure of how a function changes as its input changes. Loosely speaking, a derivative can be thought of as how much one quantity is changing in response to changes in some other quantity; for example, the derivative of the position of a...
operator. It is helpful, as a matter of notation first, to consider differentiation as an abstract operation, accepting a function and returning another (in the style of a
higherorder functionIn mathematics and computer science, higherorder functions, functional forms, or functionals are functions which do at least one of the following:*take one or more functions as an input*output a function...
in
computer scienceComputer science or computing science is the study of the theoretical foundations of information and computation and of practical techniques for their implementation and application in computer systems...
).
This article considers only linear operators, even though the
Schwarzian derivativeIn mathematics, the Schwarzian derivative, named after the German mathematician Hermann Schwarz, is a certain operator that is invariant under all linear fractional transformations. Thus, it occurs in the theory of the complex projective line, and in particular, in the theory of modular forms and...
is a prominent example of a nonlinear operator.
Notations
The most commonly used differential operator is the action of taking the derivative itself. Common notations for this operator include:

 where the variable with respect to which one is differentiating is clear, and
 where the variable is declared explicitly.

 , is an alternative notation.
First derivatives are signified as above, but when taking higher,
nth derivatives, the following alterations are useful:



For a function
f of an argument
x, the derivative operator is sometimes given as either of the following:


The
D notation's use and creation is credited to
Oliver HeavisideOliver Heaviside was a selftaught English electrical engineer, mathematician, and physicist who adapted complex numbers to the study of electrical circuits, invented mathematical techniques to the solution of differential equations , reformulated Maxwell's field equations in terms of electric and...
, who considered differential operators of the form

in his study of
differential equationA differential equation is a mathematical equation for an unknown function of one or several variables that relates the values of the function itself and its derivatives of various orders...
s.
One of the most frequently seen differential operators is the
Laplacian operatorIn mathematics the Laplace operator or Laplacian is a differential operator given by the divergence of the gradient of a function on Euclidean space. It is usually denoted by the symbols ∇·∇, ∇2 or Δ...
, defined by
Another differential operator is the Θ operator, or theta operator, defined by
This is sometimes also called the homogeneity operator, because its
eigenfunctionIn mathematics, an eigenfunction of a linear operator, A, defined on some function space is any nonzero function f in that space that returns from the operator exactly as is, except for a multiplicative scaling factor. More precisely, one has...
s are the
monomialsIn mathematics, in the context of polynomials, the word monomial can have one of two different meanings:*The first is a product of powers of variables, or formally any value obtained by finitely many multiplications of a variable. If only a single variable x is considered, this means that any...
in
z:
In
n variables the homogeneity operator is given by
As in one variable, the eigenspaces of Θ are the spaces of
homogeneous polynomialIn mathematics, a homogeneous polynomial is a polynomial whose monomials with nonzero coefficients all have thesame total degree. For example, x^5 + 2 x^3 y^2 + 9 x y^4 is a homogeneous polynomial...
s.
Adjoint of an operator
Given a linear differential operator T

the
adjoint of this operatorIn mathematics, specifically in functional analysis, each linear operator on a Hilbert space has a corresponding adjoint operator.Adjoints of operators generalize conjugate transposes of square matrices to infinitedimensional situations...
is defined as the operator
such that

where the notation
is used for the scalar product or inner product. This definition therefore depends on the definition of the scalar product.
Formal adjoint in one variable
In the functional space of square integrable functions, the scalar product is defined by

If one moreover adds the condition that
f or
g vanishes for
and
, one can also define the adjoint of
T by

This formula does not explicitly depend on the definition of the scalar product. It is therefore sometimes chosen as a definition of the adjoint operator. When
is defined according to this formula, it is called the formal adjoint of
T.
A (formally)
selfadjointIn mathematics, on a finitedimensional inner product space, a selfadjoint operator is an operator that is its own adjoint, or, equivalently, one whose matrix is Hermitian, where a Hermitian matrix is one which is equal to its own conjugate transpose...
operator is an operator equal to its own (formal) adjoint.
Several variables
If Ω is a domain in R
^{n}, and
P a differential operator on Ω, then the adjoint of
P is defined in
L^{2}(Ω)In mathematics, the Lp spaces are function spaces defined using a natural generalization of the pnorm for finitedimensional vector spaces...
by duality in the analogous manner:
for all smooth
L^{2} functions
f,
g. Since smooth functions are dense in
L^{2}, this defines the adjoint on a dense subset of
L^{2}: P
^{*} is a
denselydefined operatorIn mathematics — specifically, in operator theory — a densely defined operator is a type of partially defined function; in a topological sense, it is a linear operator that is defined "almost everywhere"...
.
Example
The Sturm–Liouville operator is a wellknown example of formal selfadjoint operator. This secondorder linear differential operator
L can be written in the form

This property can be proven using the formal adjoint definition above.

This operator is central to Sturm–Liouville theory where the eigenfunctions (analogues to eigenvectors) of this operator are considered.
Properties of differential operators
Differentiation is linearIn mathematics, the linearity of differentiation is a most fundamental property of the derivative, in differential calculus. It follows from the sum rule in differentiation and the constant factor rule in differentiation...
, i.e.,
where f and g are functions, and a is a constant.
Any polynomial in D with function coefficients is also a differential operator. We may also compose differential operators by the rule
Some care is then required: firstly any function coefficients in the operator D_{2} must be differentiable as many times as the application of D_{1} requires. To get a ringIn mathematics, a ring is an algebraic structure consisting of a set together with two binary operations usually called addition and multiplication, where the set is an abelian group under addition and a semigroup under multiplication such that multiplication distributes over addition...
of such operators we must assume derivatives of all orders of the coefficients used. Secondly, this ring will not be commutative: an operator gD isn't the same in general as Dg. In fact we have for example the relation basic in quantum mechanicsQuantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particlelike and wavelike behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...
:
The subring of operators that are polynomials in D with constant coefficientsIn mathematics, constant coefficients is a term applied to differential operators, and also some difference operators, to signify that they contain no functions of the independent variables, other than constant functions. In other words, it singles out special operators, within the larger class of...
is, by contrast, commutative. It can be characterised another way: it consists of the translationinvariant operators.
The differential operators also obey the shift theoremIn mathematics, the shift theorem is a theorem about polynomial differential operators and exponential functions...
.
Several variables
The same constructions can be carried out with partial derivativeIn mathematics, a partial derivative of a function of several variables is its derivative with respect to one of those variables, with the others held constant...
s, differentiation with respect to different variables giving rise to operators that commute (see symmetry of second derivativesIn mathematics, the symmetry of second derivatives refers to the possibility of interchanging the order of taking partial derivatives of a functionfof n variables...
).
Coordinateindependent description
In differential geometry and algebraic geometryAlgebraic geometry is a branch of mathematics which combines techniques of abstract algebra, especially commutative algebra, with the language and the problems of geometry. It occupies a central place in modern mathematics and has multiple conceptual connections with such diverse fields as complex...
it is often convenient to have a coordinateindependent description of differential operators between two vector bundleIn mathematics, a vector bundle is a topological construction that makes precise the idea of a family of vector spaces parameterized by another space X : to every point x of the space X we associate a vector space V in such a way that these vector spaces fit together...
s. Let E and F be two vector bundles over a differentiable manifoldA differentiable manifold is a type of manifold that is locally similar enough to a linear space to allow one to do calculus. Any manifold can be described by a collection of charts, also known as an atlas. One may then apply ideas from calculus while working within the individual charts, since...
M. An Rlinear mapping of sectionsIn mathematics, a vector bundle is a topological construction that makes precise the idea of a family of vector spaces parameterized by another space X : to every point x of the space X we associate a vector space V in such a way that these vector spaces fit together...
is said to be a kthorder linear differential operator if it factors through the jet bundleIn differential geometry, the jet bundle is a certain construction which makes a new smooth fiber bundle out of a given smooth fiber bundle. It makes it possible to write differential equations on sections of a fiber bundle in an invariant form...
J^{k}(E).
In other words, there exists a linear mapping of vector bundles
such that
where is the prolongation that associates to any section of E its kjetIn mathematics, the jet is an operation which takes a differentiable function f and produces a polynomial, the truncated Taylor polynomial of f, at each point of its domain...
.
This just means that for a given sectionsIn mathematics, a vector bundle is a topological construction that makes precise the idea of a family of vector spaces parameterized by another space X : to every point x of the space X we associate a vector space V in such a way that these vector spaces fit together...
s of E, the value of P(s) at a point x ∈ M is fully determined by the kthorder infinitesimal behavior of s in x. In particular this implies that P(s)(x) is determined by the germIn mathematics, a sheaf is a tool for systematically tracking locally defined data attached to the open sets of a topological space. The data can be restricted to smaller open sets, and the data assigned to an open set is equivalent to all collections of compatible data assigned to collections of...
of s in x, which is expressed by saying that differential operators are local. A foundational result is the Peetre theoremIn mathematics, the Peetre theorem, named after Jaak Peetre, is a result of functional analysis that gives a characterisation of differential operators in terms of their effect on generalized function spaces, and without mentioning differentiation in explicit terms...
showing that the converse is also true: any (linear) local operator is differential.
Relation to commutative algebra
An equivalent, but purely algebraic description of linear differential operators is as follows: an Rlinear map P is a kthorder linear differential operator, if for any k + 1 smooth functions we have
Here the bracket is defined as the commutator
This characterization of linear differential operators shows that they are particular mappings between modulesIn abstract algebra, the concept of a module over a ring is a generalization of the notion of vector space, wherein the corresponding scalars are allowed to lie in an arbitrary ring...
over a commutative algebraIn mathematics, specifically in ring theory, an algebra over a commutative ring is a generalization of the concept of an algebra over a field, where the base field K is replaced by a commutative ring R....
, allowing the concept to be seen as a part of commutative algebraCommutative algebra is the branch of abstract algebra that studies commutative rings, their ideals, and modules over such rings. Both algebraic geometry and algebraic number theory build on commutative algebra...
.
Examples
 In applications to the physical sciences, operators such as the Laplace operator
In mathematics the Laplace operator or Laplacian is a differential operator given by the divergence of the gradient of a function on Euclidean space. It is usually denoted by the symbols ∇·∇, ∇2 or Δ...
play a major role in setting up and solving partial differential equationIn mathematics, partial differential equations are a type of differential equation, i.e., a relation involving an unknown function of several independent variables and their partial derivatives with respect to those variables...
s.
 In differential topology
In mathematics, differential topology is the field dealing with differentiable functions on differentiable manifolds. It is closely related to differential geometry and together they make up the geometric theory of differentiable manifolds. Description :...
the exterior derivativeIn differential geometry, the exterior derivative extends the concept of the differential of a function, which is a 1form, to differential forms of higher degree. Its current form was invented by Élie Cartan....
and Lie derivativeIn mathematics, the Lie derivative , named after Sophus Lie by Władysław Ślebodziński, evaluates the change of a vector field or more generally a tensor field, along the flow of another vector field...
operators have intrinsic meaning.
 In abstract algebra
Abstract algebra is the subject area of mathematics that studies algebraic structures, such as groups, rings, fields, modules, vector spaces, and algebras...
, the concept of a derivationIn abstract algebra, a derivation is a function on an algebra which generalizes certain features of the derivative operator. Specifically, given an algebra A over a ring or a field K, a Kderivation is a Klinear map D: A → A that satisfies Leibniz's law: D = b + a.More...
allows for generalizations of differential operators which do not require the use of calculus. Frequently such generalizations are employed in algebraic geometryAlgebraic geometry is a branch of mathematics which combines techniques of abstract algebra, especially commutative algebra, with the language and the problems of geometry. It occupies a central place in modern mathematics and has multiple conceptual connections with such diverse fields as complex...
and commutative algebraCommutative algebra is the branch of abstract algebra that studies commutative rings, their ideals, and modules over such rings. Both algebraic geometry and algebraic number theory build on commutative algebra...
. See also jet (mathematics)In mathematics, the jet is an operation which takes a differentiable function f and produces a polynomial, the truncated Taylor polynomial of f, at each point of its domain...
.
See also
 Difference operator
 Delta operator
 Elliptic operator
In the theory of partial differential equations, elliptic operators are differential operators that generalize the Laplace operator. They are defined by the condition that the coefficients of the highestorder derivatives be positive, which implies the key property that the principal symbol is...
 Fractional calculus
Fractional calculus is a branch of mathematical analysis that studies the possibility of taking real number powers or complex number powers of the differentiation operator.and the integration operator J...
 Invariant differential operator
 Differential calculus over commutative algebras
In mathematics the differential calculus over commutative algebras is a part of commutative algebra based on the observation that most concepts known from classical differential calculus can be formulated in purely algebraic terms...
 Lagrangian system
In mathematics, a Lagrangian system is a pair of a smoothfiber bundle Y\to X and a Lagrangian density L which yields the EulerLagrange differential operator acting on sections of Y\to X.In classical mechanics, many dynamical systems are...