In mathematics, to solve an equation is to find its solutions, which are the values (numbers, functions, sets, etc.) that fulfill the condition stated by the equation, consisting generally of two expressions related by an equals sign. When seeking a solution, one or more variables are designated as unknowns. A solution is an assignment of values to the unknown variables that makes the equality in the equation true. In other words, a solution is a value or a collection of values (one for each unknown) such that, when substituted for the unknowns, the equation becomes an equality. A solution of an equation is often called a root of the equation, particularly but not only for polynomial equations. The set of all solutions of an equation is its solution set.
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An equation may be solved either numerically or symbolically. Solving an equation numerically means that only numbers are admitted as solutions. Solving an equation symbolically means that expressions can be used for representing the solutions.
For example, the equation x + y = 2x – 1 is solved for the unknown x by the expression x = y + 1, because substituting y + 1 for x in the equation results in (y + 1) + y = 2(y + 1) – 1, a true statement. It is also possible to take the variable y to be the unknown, and then the equation is solved by y = x – 1. Or x and y can both be treated as unknowns, and then there are many solutions to the equation; a symbolic solution is (x, y) = (a + 1, a), where the variable a may take any value. Instantiating a symbolic solution with specific numbers gives a numerical solution; for example, a = 0 gives (x, y) = (1, 0) (that is, x = 1, y = 0), and a = 1 gives (x, y) = (2, 1).
The distinction between known variables and unknown variables is generally made in the statement of the problem, by phrases such as "an equation in x and y", or "solve for x and y", which indicate the unknowns, here x and y. However, it is common to reserve x, y, z, ... to denote the unknowns, and to use a, b, c, ... to denote the known variables, which are often called parameters. This is typically the case when considering polynomial equations, such as quadratic equations. However, for some problems, all variables may assume either role.
Depending on the context, solving an equation may consist to find either any solution (finding a single solution is enough), all solutions, or a solution that satisfies further properties, such as belonging to a given interval. When the task is to find the solution that is the best under some criterion, this is an optimization problem. Solving an optimization problem is generally not referred to as "equation solving", as, generally, solving methods start from a particular solution for finding a better solution, and repeating the process until finding eventually the best solution.