In mathematics, a continuous function is a function that does not have any abrupt changes in value, known as discontinuities. More precisely, a function is continuous if arbitrarily small changes in its output can be assured by restricting to sufficiently small changes in its input. If not continuous, a function is said to be discontinuous. Up until the 19th century, mathematicians largely relied on intuitive notions of continuity, during which attempts such as the epsilon–delta definition were made to formalize it.
Continuity of functions is one of the core concepts of topology, which is treated in full generality below. The introductory portion of this article focuses on the special case where the inputs and outputs of functions are real numbers. A stronger form of continuity is uniform continuity. In addition, this article discusses the definition for the more general case of functions between two metric spaces. In order theory, especially in domain theory, one considers a notion of continuity known as Scott continuity. Other forms of continuity do exist but they are not discussed in this article.
As an example, the function H(t) denoting the height of a growing flower at time t would be considered continuous. In contrast, the function M(t) denoting the amount of money in a bank account at time t would be considered discontinuous, since it "jumps" at each point in time when money is deposited or withdrawn.
A real function, that is a function from real numbers to real numbers, can be represented by a graph in the Cartesian plane; such a function is continuous if, roughly speaking, the graph is a single unbroken curve whose domain is the entire real line. A more mathematically rigorous definition is given below.
Using mathematical notation, there are several ways to define continuous functions in each of the three senses mentioned above.
(Here, we have assumed that the domain of f does not have any isolated points.)
This definition only requires that the domain and the codomain are topological spaces and is thus the most general definition. It follows from this definition that a function f is automatically continuous at every isolated point of its domain. As a specific example, every real valued function on the set of integers is continuous.Weierstrass and Jordan definitions (epsilon–delta) of continuous functions
Cauchy defined continuity of a function in the following intuitive terms: an infinitesimal change in the independent variable corresponds to an infinitesimal change of the dependent variable (see Cours d'analyse, page 34). Non-standard analysis is a way of making this mathematically rigorous. The real line is augmented by the addition of infinite and infinitesimal numbers to form the hyperreal numbers. In nonstandard analysis, continuity can be defined as follows.
(see microcontinuity). In other words, an infinitesimal increment of the independent variable always produces to an infinitesimal change of the dependent variable, giving a modern expression to Augustin-Louis Cauchy's definition of continuity.
Checking the continuity of a given function can be simplified by checking one of the above defining properties for the building blocks of the given function. It is straightforward to show that the sum of two functions, continuous on some domain, is also continuous on this domain. Given
In the same way it can be shown that the reciprocal of a continuous function
the sinc-function becomes a continuous function on all real numbers. The term removable singularity is used in such cases, when (re)defining values of a function to coincide with the appropriate limits make a function continuous at specific points.
A more involved construction of continuous functions is the function composition. Given two continuous functions
For example, if a child grows from 1 m to 1.5 m between the ages of two and six years, then, at some time between two and six years of age, the child's height must have been 1.25 m.
Another, more abstract, notion of continuity is continuity of functions between topological spaces in which there generally is no formal notion of distance, as there is in the case of metric spaces. A topological space is a set X together with a topology on X, which is a set of subsets of X satisfying a few requirements with respect to their unions and intersections that generalize the properties of the open balls in metric spaces while still allowing to talk about the neighbourhoods of a given point. The elements of a topology are called open subsets of X (with respect to the topology).
An extreme example: if a set X is given the discrete topology (in which every subset is open), all functions
The translation in the language of neighborhoods of the leads to the following definition of the continuity at a point:
This definition is equivalent to the same statement with neighborhoods restricted to open neighborhoods and can be restated in several ways by using preimages rather than images.
Several equivalent definitions for a topological structure exist and thus there are several equivalent ways to define a continuous function.
In several contexts, the topology of a space is conveniently specified in terms of limit points. In many instances, this is accomplished by specifying when a point is the limit of a sequence, but for some spaces that are too large in some sense, one specifies also when a point is the limit of more general sets of points indexed by a directed set, known as nets. A function is (Heine-)continuous only if it takes limits of sequences to limits of sequences. In the former case, preservation of limits is also sufficient; in the latter, a function may preserve all limits of sequences yet still fail to be continuous, and preservation of nets is a necessary and sufficient condition.
For instance, consider the case of real-valued functions of one real variable: