Perturbation theory comprises mathematical methods that are used to find an approximate solution to a problem which cannot be solved exactly, by starting from the exact solution of a related problem. Perturbation theory is applicable if the problem at hand can be formulated by adding a "small" term to the mathematical description of the exactly solvable problem.
Perturbation theory leads to an expression for the desired solution in terms of a formal power series in some "small" parameter that quantifies the deviation from the exactly solvable problem. The leading term in this power series is the solution of the exactly solvable problem, while further terms describe the deviation in the solution, due to the deviation from the initial problem. Formally, we have for the approximation to the full solution A, a series in the small parameter (here called ε), like the following:
In this example, A0 would be the known solution to the exactly solvable initial problem and A1, A2,... represent the higher-order terms which may be found iteratively by some systematic procedure. For small ε these higher order terms in the series become successively smaller. An approximate "perturbation solution" is obtained by truncating the series, usually by keeping only the first two terms, the initial solution and the "first order" perturbation correction:
Perturbation theory is closely related to methods used in numerical analysis. The earliest use of what would now be called perturbation theory was to deal with the otherwise unsolvable mathematical problems of celestial mechanics: Newton's solution for the orbit of the Moon, which moves noticeably differently from a simple Keplerian ellipse because of the competing gravitation of the Earth and the Sun.
Perturbation methods start with a simplified form of the original problem, which is simple enough to be solved exactly. In celestial mechanics, this is usually a Keplerian ellipse. An ellipse is exactly correct when there are only two gravitating bodies (say, the Earth and the Moon) but not quite correct when there are three or more objects (say, the Earth, Moon, Sun, and the rest of the solar system).
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