In mathematics, deformation theory is the study of infinitesimal conditions associated with varying a solution P of a problem to slightly different solutions Pε, where ε is a small number, or a vector of small quantities. The infinitesimal conditions are the result of applying the approach of differential calculus to solving a problem with constraints. The name is an analogy to non-rigid structures that deform slightly to accommodate external forces.
Some characteristic phenomena are: the derivation of first-order equations by treating the ε quantities as having negligible squares; the possibility of isolated solutions, in that varying a solution may not be possible, or does not bring anything new; and the question of whether the infinitesimal constraints actually 'integrate', so that their solution does provide small variations. In some form these considerations have a history of centuries in mathematics, but also in physics and engineering. For example, in the geometry of numbers a class of results called isolation theorems was recognised, with the topological interpretation of an open orbit (of a group action) around a given solution. Perturbation theory also looks at deformations, in general of operators.
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