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In mathematics, the **symbol of a linear differential operator** is a polynomial representing a differential operator, which is obtained, roughly speaking, by replacing each partial derivative by a new variable. The symbol of a differential operator has broad applications to Fourier analysis. In particular, in this connection it leads to the notion of a pseudo-differential operator. The highest-order terms of the symbol, known as the principal symbol, almost completely controls the qualitative behavior of solutions of a partial differential equation. Linear elliptic partial differential equations can be characterized as those whose principal symbol is nowhere zero. In the study of hyperbolic and parabolic partial differential equations, zeros of the principal symbol correspond to the characteristics of the partial differential equation. Consequently, the symbol is often fundamental for the solution of such equations, and is one of the main computational devices used to study their singularities.

Let *P* be a linear differential operator of order *k* on the Euclidean space **R**^{d}. Then *P* is a polynomial in the derivative *D*, which in multi-index notation can be written

The **total symbol** of *P* is the polynomial *p*:

The **leading symbol**, also known as the **principal symbol**, is the highest-degree component of *p* :

and is of importance later because it is the only part of the symbol that transforms as a tensor under changes to the coordinate system.

The symbol of *P* appears naturally in connection with the Fourier transform as follows. Let ƒ be a Schwartz function. Then by the inverse Fourier transform,

This exhibits *P* as a Fourier multiplier. A more general class of functions *p*(*x*,ξ) which satisfy at most polynomial growth conditions in ξ under which this integral is well-behaved comprises the pseudo-differential operators.

Let *E* and *F* be vector bundles over a closed manifold *X*, and suppose

is a differential operator of order . In local coordinates on *X*, we have

where, for each multi-index α, is a bundle map, symmetric on the indices α.

The *k*^{th} order coefficients of *P* transform as a symmetric tensor

from the tensor product of the *k*^{th} symmetric power of the cotangent bundle of *X* with *E* to *F*. This symmetric tensor is known as the **principal symbol** (or just the **symbol**) of *P*.

The coordinate system *x*^{i} permits a local trivialization of the cotangent bundle by the coordinate differentials d*x*^{i}, which determine fiber coordinates ξ_{i}. In terms of a basis of frames *e*_{μ}, *f*_{ν} of *E* and *F*, respectively, the differential operator *P* decomposes into components

on each section *u* of *E*. Here *P*_{νμ} is the scalar differential operator defined by

With this trivialization, the principal symbol can now be written

In the cotangent space over a fixed point *x* of *X*, the symbol defines a homogeneous polynomial of degree *k* in with values in .

The differential operator is elliptic if its symbol is invertible; that is for each nonzero the bundle map is invertible. On a compact manifold, it follows from the elliptic theory that *P* is a Fredholm operator: it has finite-dimensional kernel and cokernel.

- Freed, Daniel S. (1987),
*Geometry of Dirac operators*, p. 8, CiteSeerX 10.1.1.186.8445 - Hörmander, L. (1983),
*The analysis of linear partial differential operators I*, Grundl. Math. Wissenschaft., vol. 256, Springer, doi:10.1007/978-3-642-96750-4, ISBN 3-540-12104-8, MR 0717035. - Wells, R.O. (1973),
*Differential analysis on complex manifolds*, Springer-Verlag, ISBN 0-387-90419-0.