Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics concerning the study of finite or countable discrete structures and, in particular, how the discrete structures can be combined or arranged. Aspects of combinatorics include counting the structures of a given kind and size, deciding when certain criteria can be met, and combinatorial optimization.

Combinatorial problems arise in many areas of pure mathematics, notably in algebra, probability theory, topology, and geometry, and combinatorics also has many applications in optimization, computer science, ergodic theory, and statistical physics. 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. Combinatorics is used frequently in computer science to obtain formulas and estimates in the analysis of algorithms.

An important part of the study is to analyze the complexity of the proposed algorithms. In combinatorics, we are interested in particular arrangements or combinations of the objects. For instance, neighboring countries are colored differently when drawn on a map. We might be interested in the minimal number of colors needed or in how many different ways we can color the map when given a number of colors to use.

Knuth [68], page 1 distinguishes five issues of concern in combinatorics:

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