Separation of variables


In mathematics, separation of variables (also known as the Fourier method) is any of several methods for solving ordinary and partial differential equations, in which algebra allows one to rewrite an equation so that each of two variables occurs on a different side of the equation.

Solve proportional first order differential equation[1] by separation of variables.[2]
Solve linear first order differential equation[3] by separation of variables.[2]

Ordinary differential equations (ODE) Edit

A differential equation for the unknown   will be separable if it can be written in the form


where   and   are given functions. This is perhaps more transparent when written using   as:


So now as long as h(y) ≠ 0, we can rearrange terms to obtain:


where the two variables x and y have been separated. Note dx (and dy) can be viewed, at a simple level, as just a convenient notation, which provides a handy mnemonic aid for assisting with manipulations. A formal definition of dx as a differential (infinitesimal) is somewhat advanced.

Alternative notation Edit

Those who dislike Leibniz's notation may prefer to write this as


but that fails to make it quite as obvious why this is called "separation of variables". Integrating both sides of the equation with respect to  , we have







or equivalently,


because of the substitution rule for integrals.

If one can evaluate the two integrals, one can find a solution to the differential equation. Observe that this process effectively allows us to treat the derivative   as a fraction which can be separated. This allows us to solve separable differential equations more conveniently, as demonstrated in the example below.

(Note that we do not need to use two constants of integration, in equation (A1) as in


because a single constant   is equivalent.)

Example Edit

Population growth is often modeled by the "logistic" differential equation


where   is the population with respect to time  ,   is the rate of growth, and   is the carrying capacity of the environment. Separation of variables now leads to


which is readily integrated using partial fractions on the left side yielding


where A is the constant of integration. We can find   in terms of   at t=0. Noting   we get


Generalization of separable ODEs to the nth order Edit

Much like one can speak of a separable first-order ODE, one can speak of a separable second-order, third-order or nth-order ODE. Consider the separable first-order ODE:


The derivative can alternatively be written the following way to underscore that it is an operator working on the unknown function, y:


Thus, when one separates variables for first-order equations, one in fact moves the dx denominator of the operator to the side with the x variable, and the d(y) is left on the side with the y variable. The second-derivative operator, by analogy, breaks down as follows:


The third-, fourth- and nth-derivative operators break down in the same way. Thus, much like a first-order separable ODE is reducible to the form


a separable second-order ODE is reducible to the form


and an nth-order separable ODE is reducible to


Example Edit

Consider the simple nonlinear second-order differential equation:

This equation is an equation only of y'' and y', meaning it is reducible to the general form described above and is, therefore, separable. Since it is a second-order separable equation, collect all x variables on one side and all y' variables on the other to get:
Now, integrate the right side with respect to x and the left with respect to y':
This gives
which simplifies to:
This is now a simple integral problem that gives the final answer:

Partial differential equations Edit

The method of separation of variables is also used to solve a wide range of linear partial differential equations with boundary and initial conditions, such as the heat equation, wave equation, Laplace equation, Helmholtz equation and biharmonic equation.

The analytical method of separation of variables for solving partial differential equations has also been generalized into a computational method of decomposition in invariant structures that can be used to solve systems of partial differential equations.[4]

Example: homogeneous case Edit

Consider the one-dimensional heat equation. The equation is







The variable u denotes temperature. The boundary condition is homogeneous, that is







Let us attempt to find a solution which is not identically zero satisfying the boundary conditions but with the following property: u is a product in which the dependence of u on x, t is separated, that is:







Substituting u back into equation (1) and using the product rule,







Since the right hand side depends only on x and the left hand side only on t, both sides are equal to some constant value −λ. Thus:














λ here is the eigenvalue for both differential operators, and T(t) and X(x) are corresponding eigenfunctions.

We will now show that solutions for X(x) for values of λ ≤ 0 cannot occur:

Suppose that λ < 0. Then there exist real numbers B, C such that


From (2) we get







and therefore B = 0 = C which implies u is identically 0.

Suppose that λ = 0. Then there exist real numbers B, C such that


From (7) we conclude in the same manner as in 1 that u is identically 0.

Therefore, it must be the case that λ > 0. Then there exist real numbers A, B, C such that




From (7) we get C = 0 and that for some positive integer n,


This solves the heat equation in the special case that the dependence of u has the special form of (3).

In general, the sum of solutions to (1) which satisfy the boundary conditions (2) also satisfies (1) and (3). Hence a complete solution can be given as


where Dn are coefficients determined by initial condition.

Given the initial condition


we can get


This is the sine series expansion of f(x) which is amenable to Fourier analysis. Multiplying both sides with   and integrating over [0, L] results in


This method requires that the eigenfunctions X, here  , are orthogonal and complete. In general this is guaranteed by Sturm–Liouville theory.

Example: nonhomogeneous case Edit

Suppose the equation is nonhomogeneous,







with the boundary condition the same as (2).

Expand h(x,t), u(x,t) and f(x) into



















where hn(t) and bn can be calculated by integration, while un(t) is to be determined.

Substitute (9) and (10) back to (8) and considering the orthogonality of sine functions we get


which are a sequence of linear differential equations that can be readily solved with, for instance, Laplace transform, or Integrating factor. Finally, we can get


If the boundary condition is nonhomogeneous, then the expansion of (9) and (10) is no longer valid. One has to find a function v that satisfies the boundary condition only, and subtract it from u. The function u-v then satisfies homogeneous boundary condition, and can be solved with the above method.

Example: mixed derivatives Edit

For some equations involving mixed derivatives, the equation does not separate as easily as the heat equation did in the first example above, but nonetheless separation of variables may still be applied. Consider the two-dimensional biharmonic equation


Proceeding in the usual manner, we look for solutions of the form


and we obtain the equation


Writing this equation in the form


Taking the derivative of this expression with respect to   gives   which means   and likewise, taking derivative with respect to   leads to   and thus  , hence either F(x) or G(y) must be a constant, say −λ. This further implies that either   or   are constant. Returning to the equation for X and Y, we have two cases




which can each be solved by considering the separate cases for   and noting that  .

Curvilinear coordinates Edit

In orthogonal curvilinear coordinates, separation of variables can still be used, but in some details different from that in Cartesian coordinates. For instance, regularity or periodic condition may determine the eigenvalues in place of boundary conditions. See spherical harmonics for example.

Applicability Edit

Partial differential equations Edit

For many PDEs, such as the wave equation, Helmholtz equation and Schrodinger equation, the applicability of separation of variables is a result of the spectral theorem. In some cases, separation of variables may not be possible. Separation of variables may be possible in some coordinate systems but not others,[5] and which coordinate systems allow for separation depends on the symmetry properties of the equation.[6] Below is an outline of an argument demonstrating the applicability of the method to certain linear equations, although the precise method may differ in individual cases (for instance in the biharmonic equation above).

Consider an initial boundary value problem for a function   on   in two variables:


where   is a differential operator with respect to   and   is a differential operator with respect to   with boundary data:


where   is a known function.

We look for solutions of the form  . Dividing the PDE through by   gives


The right hand side depends only on   and the left hand side only on   so both must be equal to a constant  , which gives two ordinary differential equations


which we can recognize as eigenvalue problems for the operators for   and  . If   is a compact, self-adjoint operator on the space   along with the relevant boundary conditions, then by the Spectral theorem there exists a basis for   consisting of eigenfunctions for  . Let the spectrum of   be   and let   be an eigenfunction with eigenvalue  . Then for any function which at each time   is square-integrable with respect to  , we can write this function as a linear combination of the  . In particular, we know the solution   can be written as


For some functions  . In the separation of variables, these functions are given by solutions to  

Hence, the spectral theorem ensures that the separation of variables will (when it is possible) find all the solutions.

For many differential operators, such as  , we can show that they are self-adjoint by integration by parts. While these operators may not be compact, their inverses (when they exist) may be, as in the case of the wave equation, and these inverses have the same eigenfunctions and eigenvalues as the original operator (with the possible exception of zero).[7]

Matrices Edit

The matrix form of the separation of variables is the Kronecker sum.

As an example we consider the 2D discrete Laplacian on a regular grid:


where   and   are 1D discrete Laplacians in the x- and y-directions, correspondingly, and   are the identities of appropriate sizes. See the main article Kronecker sum of discrete Laplacians for details.

Software Edit

Some mathematical programs are able to do separation of variables: Xcas[8] among others.

See also Edit

Notes Edit

  1. ^ "How do you solve this differential equation using the separation of variables dy/dx= (y-2)/x?". Quora. Retrieved 2022-01-22.
  2. ^ a b "Separation of Variables". Retrieved 2021-09-18.
  3. ^ "How do you solve this differential equation using the separation of variables dy/dx= (y-2)/x?". Quora. Retrieved 2022-01-22.
  4. ^ Miroshnikov, Victor A. (15 December 2017). Harmonic Wave Systems: Partial Differential Equations of the Helmholtz Decomposition. ISBN 9781618964069.
  5. ^ John Renze, Eric W. Weisstein, Separation of variables
  6. ^ Willard Miller(1984) Symmetry and Separation of Variables, Cambridge University Press
  7. ^ David Benson (2007) Music: A Mathematical Offering, Cambridge University Press, Appendix W
  8. ^ "Symbolic algebra and Mathematics with Xcas" (PDF).

References Edit

External links Edit

  • "Fourier method", Encyclopedia of Mathematics, EMS Press, 2001 [1994]
  • John Renze, Eric W. Weisstein, Separation of variables (Differential Equation) at MathWorld.
  • Methods of Generalized and Functional Separation of Variables at EqWorld: The World of Mathematical Equations
  • Examples of separating variables to solve PDEs
  • "A Short Justification of Separation of Variables"