This is, of course, a very good question. I should preface with the disclaimer that despite having worked on some aspects of integrability, I do not consider myself an expert. However I have thought about this question on and (mostly) off.

I will restrict myself to integrability in classical (i.e., hamiltonian) mechanics, since quantum integrability has to my mind a very different flavour.

The standard definition, which you can find in the wikipedia article you linked to, is that of Liouville. Given a Poisson manifold $P$ parametrising the states of a mechanical system, a *hamiltonian* function $H \in C^\infty(P)$ defines a vector field $\lbrace H,-\rbrace$, whose flows are the classical trajectories of the system. A function $f \in C^\infty(P)$ which Poisson-commutes with $H$ is constant along the classical trajectories and hence is called a *conserved quantity*. The Jacobi identity for the Poisson bracket says that if $f,g \in C^\infty(P)$ are conserved quantities so is their Poisson bracket $\lbrace f,g\rbrace$. Two conserved quantities are said to be in involution if they Poisson-commute. The system is said to be *classically integrable* if it admits "as many as possible" independent conserved quantities $f_1,f_2,\dots$ in involution. Independence means that the set of points of $P$ where their derivatives $df_1,df_2,\dots$ are linearly independent is dense.

I'm being purposefully vague above. If $P$ is a finite-dimensional and symplectic, hence of even dimension $2n$, then "as many as possible" means $n$. (One can include $H$ among the conserved quantities.) However there are interesting infinite-dimensional examples (e.g., KdV hierarchy and its cousins) where $P$ is only Poisson and "as many as possible" means in practice an infinite number of conserved quantities. Also it is not strictly necessary for the conserved quantities to be in involution, but one can allow the Lie subalgebra of $C^\infty(P)$ they span to be solvable but nonabelian.

Now the reason that integrability seems to be such a slippery notion is that one can argue that "locally" any reasonable hamiltonian system is integrable in this sense. The hallmark of integrability, according to the practitioners anyway, seems to be coordinate-dependent. I mean this in the sense that $P$ is not usually given abstractly as a manifold, but comes with a given coordinate chart. Integrability then requires the conserved quantities to be written as local expressions (e.g., differential polynomials,...) of the given coordinates.

This post imported from StackExchange MathOverflow at 2018-08-28 16:20 (UTC), posted by SE-user José Figueroa-O'Farrill