The term foundations is used to refer to the formulation and analysis of the language, axioms, and logical methods on which all of mathematics rests (see logic; symbolic logic). The scope and complexity of modern mathematics requires a very fine analysis of the formal language in which meaningful mathematical statements may be formulated and perhaps be proved true or false. Most apparent mathematical contradictions have been shown to derive from an imprecise and inconsistent use of language. A basic task is to furnish a set of axioms effectively free of contradictions and at the same time rich enough to constitute a deductive source for all of modern mathematics. The modern axiom schemes proposed for this purpose are all couched within the theory of sets, originated by Georg Cantor, which now constitutes a universal mathematical language.
Historically, algebra is the study of solutions of one or several algebraic equations, involving the polynomial functions of one or several variables. The case where all the polynomials have degree one (systems of linear equations) leads to linear algebra. The case of a single equation, in which one studies the roots of one polynomial, leads to field theory and to the so-called Galois theory. The general case of several equations of high degree leads to algebraic geometry, so named because the sets of solutions of such systems are often studied by geometric methods.
Modern algebraists have increasingly abstracted and axiomatized the structures and patterns of argument encountered not only in the theory of equations, but in mathematics generally. Examples of these structures include groups (first witnessed in relation to symmetry properties of the roots of a polynomial and now ubiquitous throughout mathematics), rings (of which the integers, or whole numbers, constitute a basic example), and fields (of which the rational, real, and complex numbers are examples). Some of the concepts of modern algebra have found their way into elementary mathematics education in the so-called new mathematics.
Some important abstractions recently introduced in algebra are the notions of category and functor, which grew out of so-called homological algebra. Arithmetic and number theory, which are concerned with special properties of the integers—e.g., unique factorization, primes, equations with integer coefficients (Diophantine equations), and congruences—are also a part of algebra. Analytic number theory, however, also applies the nonalgebraic methods of analysis to such problems.
The essential ingredient of analysis is the use of infinite processes, involving passage to a limit. For example, the area of a circle may be computed as the limiting value of the areas of inscribed regular polygons as the number of sides of the polygons increases indefinitely. The basic branch of analysis is the calculus. The general problem of measuring lengths, areas, volumes, and other quantities as limits by means of approximating polygonal figures leads to the integral calculus. The differential calculus arises similarly from the problem of finding the tangent line to a curve at a point. Other branches of analysis result from the application of the concepts and methods of the calculus to various mathematical entities. For example, vector analysis is the calculus of functions whose variables are vectors. Here various types of derivatives and integrals may be introduced. They lead, among other things, to the theory of differential and integral equations, in which the unknowns are functions rather than numbers, as in algebraic equations. Differential equations are often the most natural way in which to express the laws governing the behavior of various physical systems. Calculus is one of the most powerful and supple tools of mathematics. Its applications, both in pure mathematics and in virtually every scientific domain, are manifold.
The shape, size, and other properties of figures and the nature of space are in the province of geometry. Euclidean geometry is concerned with the axiomatic study of polygons, conic sections, spheres, polyhedra, and related geometric objects in two and three dimensions—in particular, with the relations of congruence and of similarity between such objects. The unsuccessful attempt to prove the "parallel postulate" from the other axioms of Euclid led in the 19th cent. to the discovery of two different types of non-Euclidean geometry.
The 20th cent. has seen an enormous development of topology, which is the study of very general geometric objects, called topological spaces, with respect to relations that are much weaker than congruence and similarity. Other branches of geometry include algebraic geometry and differential geometry, in which the methods of analysis are brought to bear on geometric problems. These fields are now in a vigorous state of development.
The term applied mathematics loosely designates a wide range of studies with significant current use in the empirical sciences. It includes numerical methods and computer science, which seeks concrete solutions, sometimes approximate, to explicit mathematical problems (e.g., differential equations, large systems of linear equations). It has a major use in technology for modeling and simulation. For example, the huge wind tunnels, formerly used to test expensive prototypes of airplanes, have all but disappeared. The entire design and testing process is now largely carried out by computer simulation, using mathematically tailored software. It also includes mathematical physics, which now strongly interacts with all of the central areas of mathematics. In addition, probability theory and mathematical statistics are often considered parts of applied mathematics. The distinction between pure and applied mathematics is now becoming less significant.