- See also constants in computer programming.
The most widely mentioned sort of constant is a fixed, but possibly unspecified, number. Usually the term constant is used in connection with mathematical functions of one or more variable arguments. These arguments, or other variables, are often called x, y, or z, using lower-case letters from the end of the English alphabet. Constants are by convention usually denoted by lower-case letters from the beginning of the English alphabet, such as a, b, and c.
A special case of this may be found in physics, chemistry, and related fields, where certain features of the natural world that are described by numbers are found to have the same value at all times and places.
Here, the letter c stands for the speed of light in a vacuum, which is the same in all physical situations (to the best of current knowledge). In contrast, the letter m stands for the mass of an object, which could be anything, so it is a variable. E stands for the object's rest energy, another variable, and the formula defines a function that gives rest energy in terms of mass.
Here the constant c is the constant term of the function f. The value of c has not been specified in this formula, but it must be a specific value for f to be a specific function.
The constant term may depend on how the formula is written. For example
are formulae for the same function.
In a polynomial (or a generalisation of a polynomial, such as a Taylor series or Fourier expansion), the constant term is associated to the exponent zero. Note that the constant term may be zero, however. In a sense, any formula has a constant term, if you allow the constant term to be zero.
For some purposes, the constant is taken to be the value of f(0), but this depends on the function being defined at 0; it would not work for f(x)=1-1/x.
Constants vs variables
A number that is constant in one place may be a variable in another. Consider the example above, with a function f defined by
- f(x) = sin x + c.
Now consider a functional F, a function whose argument is itself another function, defined by
- F(g) = g(π/2).
Then for the function f given above, we have
- F(f) = c + 1.
In the formula for f(x), we are fixing c and varying x, so c is a constant. But in the formula for F(f), we are varying both c and f, so c is a variable. Even this statement might be false in the presence of some larger context that gives yet another point of view.
Thus, there is no precise definition of "constant" in mathematics; only phrases such as "constant function" or "constant term of a polynomial" can be defined.
There is a mathematicians' joke to the effect that "variables don't; constants aren't." That is, the term variable is frequently used to mean a value that is fixed in a given equation, albeit unknown; while the term constant is used to mean an arbitrary quantity which may assume any value, as in the constant of integration.