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Calculus (from Latin calculus, literally “small pebble used for counting”) is the mathematical study of change, in the same way that geometry is the study of shape and algebra is the study of operations and their application to solving equations. It has two major branches, differential calculus (concerning rates of change and slopes of curves), and integral calculus (concerning accumulation of quantities and the areas under and between curves); these two branches are related to each other by the fundamental theorem of calculus. Both branches make use of the fundamental notions of convergence of infinite sequences and infinite series to a well-defined limit. Generally, modern calculus is considered to have been developed in the 17th century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Today, calculus has widespread uses in science, engineering and economics and can solve many problems that elementary algebra alone cannot.
Calculus is a part of modern mathematics education. A course in calculus is a gateway to other, more advanced courses in mathematics devoted to the study of functions and limits, broadly called mathematical analysis. Calculus has historically been called “the calculus of infinitesimals”, or “infinitesimal calculus”. Calculus (plural calculi) is also used for naming some methods of calculation or theories of computation, such as propositional calculus, calculus of variations, lambda calculus, and process calculus.
Limits and infinitesimals.
Calculus is usually developed by working with very small quantities. Historically, the first method of doing so was by infinitesimals. These are objects which can be treated like real numbers but which are, in some sense, “infinitely small”. For example, an infinitesimal number could be greater than 0, but less than any number in the sequence 1, 1/2, 1/3, … and thus less than any positive real number. From this point of view, calculus is a collection of techniques for manipulating infinitesimals. The symbols dx and dy were taken to be infinitesimal, and the derivative dy/dx was simply their ratio.
The infinitesimal approach fell out of favor in the 19th century because it was difficult to make the notion of an infinitesimal precise. However, the concept was revived in the 20th century with the introduction of non-standard analysis and smooth infinitesimal analysis, which provided solid foundations for the manipulation of infinitesimals.
In the 19th century, infinitesimals were replaced by the epsilon, delta approach to limits. Limits describe the value of a function at a certain input in terms of its values at a nearby input. They capture small-scale behavior in the context of the real number system. In this treatment, calculus is a collection of techniques for manipulating certain limits. Infinitesimals get replaced by very small numbers, and the infinitely small behavior of the function is found by taking the limiting behavior for smaller and smaller numbers. Limits were the first way to provide rigorous foundations for calculus, and for this reason they are the standard approach.