In the mathematical fields of differential geometry and tensor calculus, differential forms are an approach to multivariable calculus that is independent of coordinates. Differential forms provide a unified approach to define integrands over curves, surfaces, solids, and higher-dimensional manifolds. The modern notion of differential forms was pioneered by Élie Cartan. It has many applications, especially in geometry, topology and physics.
The symbol ∧ denotes the exterior product, sometimes called the wedge product, of two differential forms. Likewise, a 3-form f(x, y, z) dx ∧ dy ∧ dz represents a volume element that can be integrated over an oriented region of space. In general, a k-form is an object that may be integrated over a k-dimensional oriented manifold, and is homogeneous of degree k in the coordinate differentials. On an n-dimensional manifold, the top-dimensional form (n-form) is called a volume form.
The algebra of differential forms is organized in a way that naturally reflects the orientation of the domain of integration. There is an operation d on differential forms known as the exterior derivative that, when given a k-form as input, produces a (k + 1)-form as output. This operation extends the differential of a function, and is directly related to the divergence and the curl of a vector field in a manner that makes the fundamental theorem of calculus, the divergence theorem, Green's theorem, and Stokes' theorem special cases of the same general result, known in this context also as the generalized Stokes theorem. In a deeper way, this theorem relates the topology of the domain of integration to the structure of the differential forms themselves; the precise connection is known as de Rham's theorem.
The general setting for the study of differential forms is on a differentiable manifold. Differential 1-forms are naturally dual to vector fields on a manifold, and the pairing between vector fields and 1-forms is extended to arbitrary differential forms by the interior product. The algebra of differential forms along with the exterior derivative defined on it is preserved by the pullback under smooth functions between two manifolds. This feature allows geometrically invariant information to be moved from one space to another via the pullback, provided that the information is expressed in terms of differential forms. As an example, the change of variables formula for integration becomes a simple statement that an integral is preserved under pullback.