Combinatorics is an area of mathematics primarily concerned with counting, both as a means and an end in obtaining results, and certain properties of finite structures. It is closely related to many other areas of mathematics and has many applications ranging from logic to statistical physics and from evolutionary biology to computer science.
The full scope of combinatorics is not universally agreed upon. According to H.J. Ryser, a definition of the subject is difficult because it crosses so many mathematical subdivisions. Insofar as an area can be described by the types of problems it addresses, combinatorics is involved with:
- the enumeration (counting) of specified structures, sometimes referred to as arrangements or configurations in a very general sense, associated with finite systems,
- the existence of such structures that satisfy certain given criteria,
- the construction of these structures, perhaps in many ways, and
- optimization: finding the "best" structure or solution among several possibilities, be it the "largest", "smallest" or satisfying some other optimality criterion.
Leon Mirsky has said: "combinatorics is a range of linked studies which have something in common and yet diverge widely in their objectives, their methods, and the degree of coherence they have attained." One way to define combinatorics is, perhaps, to describe its subdivisions with their problems and techniques. This is the approach that is used below. However, there are also purely historical reasons for including or not including some topics under the combinatorics umbrella. Although primarily concerned with finite systems, some combinatorial questions and techniques can be extended to an infinite (specifically, countable) but discrete setting.
Combinatorics is well known for the breadth of the problems it tackles. Combinatorial problems arise in many areas of pure mathematics, notably in algebra, probability theory, topology, and geometry, as well as in its many application areas. Many combinatorial questions have historically been considered in isolation, giving an ad hoc solution to a problem arising in some mathematical context. In the later twentieth century, however, powerful and general theoretical methods were developed, making combinatorics into an independent branch of mathematics in its own right. One of the oldest and most accessible parts of combinatorics is graph theory, which by itself has numerous natural connections to other areas. Combinatorics is used frequently in computer science to obtain formulas and estimates in the analysis of algorithms.
A mathematician who studies combinatorics is called a combinatorialist.