In
mathematics, a
difference operator maps a
function f(
x) to another function
f(
x + a) -
f(
x + b).
The forward difference operator
- <math>\Delta f(x)=f(x+1)-f(x)</math>
occurs frequently in the calculus of
finite differences, where it plays a role formally similar to that of the
derivative. Difference equations can often be solved with techniques very similar to those for solving
differential equations.
When restricted to polynomial functions f, the forward difference operator is a delta operator, i.e., a shift-equivariant linear operator on polynomials that reduces degree by 1. For any polynomial function f we have
- <math>f(x)=\sum_{k=0}^\infty\frac{(\Delta^k f)(0)}{k!}(x)_k</math>
where
- <math>(x)_k=x(x-1)(x-2)\cdots(x-k+1)</math>
is the "
falling factorial" or "lower factorial" and the
empty product (
x)
_{0} defined to be 1.
(
Warning: In the theory of
special functions, the notation (
x)
_{k} is often used for
rising factorials; the former notation, however, is universal among
combinatorialists.)
Note that only finitely many terms in the above sum are non-zero: Δ^{k} f = 0 if k is greater than the degree of f. Note also the formal similarity of this result and Taylor's theorem.
With p-adic numbers, the same identity is true not only of polynomial functions, but of continuous functions generally; that result is called Mahler's theorem.
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