Web Homework College Algebra

Chapter 3: Polynomial Equations

3.1 Polynomials

A polynomial p(x) with coefficients in a field F is an expression of the form images/poly1.png where the coefficients images/poly2.png are in F, and n is a non-negative integer. Each of the summands is called a term of the polynomial. If images/poly3.png , then n is called the degree of the polynomial. The degree of the zero polynomial is defined to be -1. If images/poly4.png , then the coefficient images/poly5.png is called the leading coefficient of the polynomial p(x). If the leading coefficient of the p(x) is 1, the polynomial is said to be monic. The set of all polynomials with coefficients in F is denoted F[x].

A rational function of one variable is a fraction p(x)/q(x) where p and q are polynomials with coefficients in F and images/poly6.png . (Note: we mean rational functions to simply be an expression of this form; we are not thinking of it as being an actual function.) The set of all rational functions of one variable x is denoted F(x).

We can define operations on polynomials in the usual manner. The sum of two polynomials is obtained by taking the sums of the coefficients. If images/poly7.png and images/poly8.png are two polynomials, then their product is obtained by taking the sum of all the terms of the form images/poly9.png and collecting the terms with the same powers of x. This is precisely what one would do if you just expanded the product using the distributive law. One can extend in the obvious way, these operations to operations on rational functions.

Although tedious, it is straightforward to show that the rational functions of one variable with coefficients in a field F form a field.

Example 1: Let F is an ordered field. A rational function f(x) of one variable with coefficients in F can be expressed as f(x) = cp(x)/q(x) where p(x) and q(x) are monic and c is in F. We say that such a rational function is positive if and only if c is positive. One can show that this makes the field of rational functions of one variable with coefficients in F into an ordered field. It is an example of an ordered field which is NOT Archimedean.

Recall from high school algebra that one can do long division of polynomials to obtain a polynomial quotient and a polynomial remainder whose degree is smaller than that of the divisor. In summary:

Proposition 1: (Division Theorem) If p(x) and d(x) are polynomials with coefficients in a field F and images/poly10.png , then there are unique polynomials q(x) and r(x) with coefficients in F such that p(x) = q(x)d(x) + r(x) and the degree of r(x) is less than the degree of d.

Corollary 1: If f(x) is a polynomial with coefficients in a field F and a in F is a root of f(x) = 0, the f(x) = (x - a)q(x) for some polynomial q(x) with coefficients in F.

Proof: By Proposition 1, we have f(x) = (x - a)q(x) + r(x) where r(x) has degree less than 1. But then r(x) is a constant. Furthermore, 0 = f(a) = (a - a)q(a) + r(a) = r(a). So r(a) = 0. Since r is a constant, this means that r = 0.

Corollary 2: If f(x) is a non-zero polynomial of degree n with coefficients in a field F, then f has at most n roots in f.

Proof: If it is false, we can can choose an f of smallest degree for which it is false. If a is a root, then f(x) = (x - a)q(x) where q is of degree n - 1. If f has more than n roots including x = a, then this equation shows that q has at least n roots other than x = a. This contradicts the choice of f as being a counterexample of smallest degree.

In particular, any element of F has at most n images/poly11.png -roots. So, the list of roots we found by Corollary 8 in section 2.8.2 is complete.

Let f(x) and g(x) be two polynomials with coefficients in a field F. Then f(x) is a divisor of g(x) if and only if there is a polynomial q(x) with coefficients in F such that g(x) = f(x)q(x). Note that the degrees are related by


One says that f(x) is a proper divisor of g(x) if f(x) is a divisor of g(x), f(x) is not a constant, and f(x) has degree less than that of g(x). The polynomial f(x) is said to be irreducible if it is non-zero and has no proper divisors.

Basically, irreducible polynomials play the same role as did prime numbers. Just as with the natural numbers, the division theorem can be used to define the Euclidean Algorithm which allows one to calculate the greatest common divisor of two polynomials and to express it as a linear combination of the two original polynomials. The only difference here is that we compare polynomials using their degrees; so, for example, the greatest common divisor is any common divisor with largest possible degree. Details are given in the exercises.

One has:

Proposition 2: (Unique Factorization) Every non-zero polynomial over a field F can be factored into a product of zero or more irreducible polynomials. If f(x) is a non-zero monic polynomial, then every non-zero polynomial factors uniquely (up to order) into a product of monic irreducible polynomials.

Proof: This proof is also completely parallel to the one with natural numbers and so is left to the exercises.

3.2.1 Graphing near a Point

Let's start off by assuming that our polynomials f(x) have real number coefficients and that we are evaluating them for real values of the variable x.

Behavior near zero. How can you approximate the graph of a polynomial function images/poly13.png for values of x near 0? The idea is that x being near zero means that images/poly14.png is small. But then images/poly15.png is much smaller than zero -- for example, if images/poly16.png , then images/poly17.png , which says that the absolute value of the square is a hundredth the size of the absolute value of x. For higher powers, the numbers are even smaller; for example, images/poly18.png is at most one ten thousandth the size of the absolute value of x. In terms of what you can see in the graph, this means that only the low degree terms have visible effects.

  1. For x near zero, the graph of y = f(x) is close to the graph of the constant function y = f(0).
  2. If you take the constant term and the term of lowest positive degree, then, for x close to zero, the graph of y = f(x) is approximately the same as the graph of this much simpler function.
    1. For example if the coefficient of x is non-zero, then our new function looks like images/poly19.png . This is a straight line with slope equal to the coefficient of the x term. (To see this, graph any polynomial function on your calculator -- regardless of how curved the graph looks, it straightens out as soon as you zoom in on the value at zero.)
    2. If the coefficient of x is zero, but the coefficient of images/poly20.png is non-zero, then our new function looks like images/poly21.png . This is a parabola. If images/poly22.png , the parabola opens upward and the graph takes on its smallest value images/poly23.png at x = 0. Our original function does the same for x sufficiently close to zero; we say that the function has a local minimum at x = 0. If images/poly24.png , the parabola opens downward, and so the function is biggest at x = 0; one says that the function has a local maximum at x = 0.

Examples: The function images/poly25.png can be approximated for x near zero by images/poly26.png ; the graph of f looks like a straight line with slope -3 near 0. (Of course, this is only true very close to zero.)

The function images/poly27.png is approximated by images/poly28.png for x close to zero. images/poly29.png has a local maximum at x = 0.

Behavior near x = a We want to see how a polynomial function images/poly30.png behaves near a fixed value x = a. The previous discussion told us how to do this when a = 0. When a is not zero, we can simply apply our previous discussion to the polynomial g(x) = f(a + x).

Examples: Let images/poly31.png . We have seen that near x = 0, the graph is approximated by the straight line y = -3x + 4. Suppose we wanted to know what it looked like near x = 2? Let images/poly32.png . One has


So, the graph of y = f(x) near x = 2 is the same as the graph of y = g(x) near zero, and it is approximated by y = 9x + 6. So, the graph of y = f(x) near x = 2 looks like a straight line with slope 9 and passing through (2, 6).

If we are interested in what the graph of y = f(x) looks like near x = -1, then consider g(x) = f(-1 + x):


So, the graph of y = f(x) near x = -1 is the same as the graph of y = g(x) near x = 0, which is approximated by images/poly35.png . So, the graph of y = f(x) has a local maximum at x = -1.

As a final example, check you understanding by showing that the function f(x) has a local minimum at x = 1.

Derivatives. As the example shows, it can be quite tiresome to keep computing g(x) = f(a + x) for various values of a. So, what is a short-cut? Note that images/poly36.png for every k. By substituting, it is easy to see that




The polynomial f'(y) is called the derivative of f(x). We have just seen that the graph of y = f(x) is approximated near x = a by a straight line with slope f'(a) through the point (a, f(a)).

Large values of x. When x is large in absolute value, the polynomial function images/poly39.png behaves like its term of highest degree. This is because images/poly40.png is much bigger than images/poly41.png and all the other terms. In particular, if images/poly42.png , then for x positive and large in absolute value, f(x) is positive and very large in absolute value. If images/poly43.png , then f(x) is negative and large in absolute value when x is positive and large in absolute value.

When x is negative and large in absolute value, images/poly44.png will be large in absolute value, but its sign will be either negative or positive depending on whether n is odd or even.

Complex polynomials. If the polynomial function images/poly45.png has complex coefficients and we allow x to range through complex values, then we can still get an idea of how the function behaves near particular points.

  1. For x near 0, the function y = f(x) behaves like its low degree terms. (If |x| is small, then images/poly46.png is smaller still, etc.) So, y = f(x) is approximated by images/poly47.png or more generally by the sum of the constant term and term of lowest positive degree.
  2. For x near the complex number a, the function y = f(x) behaves like g(x) = f(a + x) near x = 0.
  3. When x is large in absolute value, then f(x) is dominated by its highest degree term, and so f(x) is approximated by images/poly48.png . In particular, if f is not a constant, then |f(x)| is large as soon as |x| is.

In the case of real polynomials, |f(x)| be smallest at x = a for all x near a even though images/poly49.png . For example, images/poly50.png has a local minimum at x = 0 and images/poly51.png .

This only happens because we restrict the values of x to be real. For example, if we allowed x = it, then images/poly52.png takes on values f(it) smaller than 3 for all sufficiently small real values of t.

One can do the same thing for a general polynomial. If we approximate f(x) by its constant term and its term of lowest positive degree, then images/poly53.png . Then we can write the numbers in polar form:


Then one has


Now, if images/poly56.png is non-zero, we can choose images/poly57.png so that the angle of this last equation differs from images/poly58.png by precisely images/poly59.png . If we did this, then the sum of the two terms would be smaller in absolute value than images/poly60.png provided that r is not too large. What one has shown is:

Lemma (d'Alembert): If f(x) is a non-constant polynomial with complex coefficients and images/poly61.png for some complex value images/poly62.png , then there are complex numbers x arbitrarily close to images/poly63.png for which images/poly64.png .

3.2 Rational Roots

If f(x) = 0 is a non-zero polynomial equation with integer coefficients, then there are at most a finite number of possible rational number roots:

Proposition 3: Consider the equation


where the coefficients are integers and images/poly66.png and images/poly67.png . Any rational root of this equation must be expressible in the form images/poly68.png where p is a divisor of images/poly69.png and q is a divisor of images/poly70.png .

Proof: Suppose x = a/b is a root of the equation where a and b are integers with a and b are relatively prime. Both a and b are non-zero. Substituting x = a/b into the equation, one gets


Multiplying through by images/poly72.png gives


The first n terms are all multiples of a and so a divides images/poly74.png . On the other hand, b is a divisor of the last n terms; so b divides images/poly75.png . The result now follows from these two assertions and

Lemma 1: Let a, b, and c be integers with images/poly76.png . If a and b are relatively prime and a divides the product cb, then a divides c.

Proof: If the result were false, then there would be a counter-example with a having smallest possible absolute value. One has ae = cb for some integer e. Clearly a is not 1. Let a = pq where p is a prime and q an integer. Then p also divides cb and p is relatively prime to b. By Corollary 3 of Section 2.6, it follows that p divides c, say c = pr with r an integer. since ae = cb, we have pqe = prb and so p(qe - rb) = 0. Since images/poly77.png , it follows that qe = rb and q is a proper divisor of a. In particular, q is also relatively prime to b. This contradicts the minimality of the choice of a, and proves the lemma.

Example 2: i. The square root of 2 is irrational because it is a root of images/poly78.png and is different from -2, -1, 1, and 2.

ii. The equation f(x) = 1 has no rational solutions where images/poly79.png because both f(1) and f(-1) are non-zero.

iii. Consider the quartic equation images/poly80.png . The possible roots are 10, 10/2 = 5, 10/3, 10/6, 5, 5/2, 5/3, 5/6, 2, 2/2 = 1, 2/3, 2/6 = 1/3, 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/6 and the negatives of these numbers. Substituting these into the equation, one eventually discovers that the first of these that is a root is x = 5/2. Since it is a root, we can apply the division theorem; x - 5/2 is a divisor of the quartic. Dividing out we are reduced to a cubic equation: images/poly81.png . Dividing out by 2, we get images/poly82.png The possible rational roots of the new equation are: 2/1 = 2, 2/3, 1/1 = 1, and 1/3 as well as the negatives of all these numbers. Checking each of the possibilities, we see that x = 2/3 is a root. Again, we can divide by x - 2/3 to get images/poly83.png This is a quadratic; so we know we can solve it completely. In our case the two roots are images/poly84.png . So the original equation has rational roots 5/2 and 2/3 as well as two complex roots images/poly85.png .

Remark 1: An examination of the proof of the Proposition should convince you that it basically only depended on the unique factorization of integers. In the last section, we saw that for any field F, the polynomials with coefficients in F also factor uniquely. In particular, the same argument therefore tells us about the rational function solutions of polynomial equations with coefficients in F[y]. This would show, for example, that there is NO rational function which is a square root of images/poly86.png .

3.3 The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra

We will not be ready to prove this result until we get to Chapter 5, but we can at least state the result and see a few of its consequences.

Theorem 1: (Fundamental Theorem of Algebra) Every non-constant polynomial f(x) with complex number coefficients has at least one complex number root.

Corollary 2: Every non-zero polynomial f(x) with complex number coefficients can be factored into a product of linear polynomials with complex coefficients.

Proof: This is a simple descent argument using the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra and the Division Theorem.

The complex conjugate images/poly87.png of the complex number z = a + bi is defined by images/poly88.png . Geometrically, this is reflection across the x-axis in the complex plane.

Proposition 4: The complex conjugate function images/poly89.png satisfies

  1. images/poly90.png
  2. images/poly91.png
  3. If r is a real number, then images/poly92.png . Conversely, if images/poly93.png , then z is a real number.
  4. The complex conjugate of the complex conjugate of any complex number is equal to the original complex number.

Proof: Let us prove the second assertion leaving the other two as exercises. Let images/poly94.png for j = 1, 2. Then expanding the left side gives:


Expanding the right side gives


which is the same as the expansion of the left side.

Corollary 3: For any complex number z and natural number n, one has images/poly97.png .

Proof: This follows by induction (or descent).

Given a polynomial images/poly98.png with complex coefficients, one can define the conjugate of f by applying the complex conjugate function to each of the coefficients, i.e. images/poly99.png .

Corollary 4: If f(x) is a polynomial with complex coefficients and z is a complex number, then images/poly100.png .

Proof: This is another descent argument.

Corollary 5: If f(x) = 0 where f is a non-zero polynomial with real coefficients has a complex root z, then images/poly101.png is also a root of the same equation.

Proof: Since f has real coefficients, images/poly102.png . So, images/poly103.png

Corollary 6: If f(x) is a non-zero polynomial with real coefficients, then the non-real complex roots of f(x) = 0 occur in complex conjugate pairs (i.e. If z is a root, so is images/poly104.png .). In particular, the polynomial f(x) factors into a product of zero or more linear and quadratic polynomials with real coefficients.

Proof: The first assertion is just Corollary 5. If the second assertion were false, then choose a counter-example f of minimal degree. Clearly f is not a constant; so it has at least one complex root. If f has a real root a, then the Division Theorem says that f(x) = (x - a) g(x) where g is a polynomial with real coefficients. Since g has lower degree than f, the assertion is true for g, but then substituting shows that it is also true of f, which would be contradiction.

So, f must have no real roots. Suppose f has a non-real complex root a. Then Corollary 5 tells us that images/poly105.png is also a root of f. Applying the Division Theorem twice, we get images/poly106.png where g has complex coefficients. Now, images/poly107.png Now, the coefficients of this quadratic are equal to their complex conjugate; so the last proposition says that the quadratic has real coefficients. Since f also has real coefficients, images/poly108.png also has real coefficients. But g has degree less than the degree of f; so it is a product of zero or more linear and quadratic polynomials with real coefficients. But then so is f(x), which again is a contradiction.

Corollary 6: Every non-zero polynomial of odd degree with real coefficients has at least one real root.

Proof: Since the non-real roots occur in complex conjugate pairs, the only way for there to be no real roots would be if the degree were even.

3.4 Cubic Equations

Whereas the solution of quadratic equations was known in some form from the time of the Babylonians, the solution of the general cubic equation was first discovered perhaps by Tartaglia and published by Cardan during the Renaissance. It represented a giant leap forward; the most spectacular achievement showing for the first time in close to two millenia that the great achievement of the classical civilizations could be bettered.

The problem is to find solutions of the general cubic equation images/poly109.png where a, b, and c are complex numbers.

Reduction Step: To understand the first step, recall how we solved quadratic equations. The idea was that they were easy to solve if the linear term was missing. So, the idea was to make the middle term disappear. Starting with images/poly110.png , one could write this as images/poly111.png . The additional term was chosen so that one would get a perfect square, i.e. so that we could factor it to get images/poly112.png . This is just like one of the quadratics without a linear term and so is easy to solve.

In the case of a cubic, we can attempt the same trick. And it does help somewhat. In this case we have a cubic and so, if we cube (x + d) we would get


. Comparing this with our cubic, we see that we can make the quadratic term match by taking d = a/3. This gives:


This looks very complicated, but the idea is that, if we think of x + a/3 as being a new variable, say y, then the polynomial is a cubic in y without any quadratic term. We have shown:

Lemma 2: By making a linear substitution x = y - a/3, the general cubic can be written as a cubic with no quadratic term. So, to solve the general cubic, it is enough to handle the case where the quadratic term is zero.

The above reduction step was well known at the time and does not represent any great achievement. To understand the next step, again consider the case of quadratics. If images/poly115.png has roots images/poly116.png and images/poly117.png , then the Division Theorem tells us that images/poly118.png . Multiplying this out, we get images/poly119.png Comparing these with our original coefficients, we see that

Lemma 3: If images/poly120.png has two roots images/poly121.png and images/poly122.png , then the coefficients of the original equation can be expressed as images/poly123.png and images/poly124.png .

This last lemma was also a well known property of quadratic equations. Now, let's try to solve the cubic images/poly125.png . The real achievement of del Ferro or Tartaglia was to see that the relation between the problem of solving the cubic, Lemma 3, and the formula for cubing a binomial:


If you simply factor 3uv out of the two middle terms, the formula becomes:


Now, thinking of u + v as being the variable, this says that a cubic is equal to a linear, i.e. it is like the equation images/poly128.png where


So, if we could find u and v so that these two equations were satisfied, then x = u + v would be the root of the cubic.

Now, compare these two equations to Lemma 3. It tells us that, in order to make a quadratic with roots images/poly130.png and images/poly131.png , we just let the first degree term be images/poly132.png and the constant term be images/poly133.png . So, the quadratic is images/poly134.png Since we know how to solve every quadratic, we can find the roots of this quadratic. If images/poly135.png and images/poly136.png are the two roots, then u and v are simply the cube roots of these two roots, choosing them so that 3uv = -a. But then x = u + v is a solution to the original cubic and we have found a root of the cubic!

By varying the cube roots, one expects to obtain the various solutions of the equation. But something is wrong here. We know that there are three cube roots and so pairing these up with each other, one expects to get 9 different pairs (u, v). But we know that a cubic has only 3 roots!

The problem is that we have created extraneous solutions. What we did was to find pairs (u, v) so that images/poly137.png . But our actual equation was uv = -a/3. So, it is not enough to choose any pair of cube roots of images/poly138.png and images/poly139.png . We need to choose the pairs so that uv = -a/3.

So, suppose our original pair was chosen so that uv = -a/3. If images/poly140.png is a cube root of unity other than 1. Then the other cube roots of u are images/poly141.png and images/poly142.png , and similarly for v. If we want another solution, we can choose images/poly143.png for the new u. But then we must choose images/poly144.png for the new v in order for the product to give the same value -a/3. Similarly, if we choose images/poly145.png for the new u, we have to choose images/poly146.png for the v. So, we see that there are only three possible solutions and not nine. This completes the solution of the general cubic.

Example 3:Solve the equation images/poly147.png .

Our binomial expansion is images/poly148.png . Matching up with the original equation, we would want images/poly149.png and images/poly150.png . The quadratic that would roots images/poly151.png and images/poly152.png is images/poly153.png .

The quadratic factors as (x + 4)(x - 2) = 0. So the roots of the quadratic are 2 and -4. Let u = images/poly154.png and images/poly155.png where we have chosen the roots so that uv = -2. One root is images/poly156.png . To get the other roots, take a cube root of unity images/poly157.png . Then the other two roots will be images/poly158.png and images/poly159.png .

Example 4:Solve the equation images/poly160.png . Matching up with images/poly161.png , gives 3uv = -1 and images/poly162.png . The quadratic with roots images/poly163.png and images/poly164.png would be images/poly165.png .

The quadratic formula tells us that the roots of the quadratic are images/poly166.png . One of the roots is positive and the second root is negative. So, if you take the positive cube root of the positive one and the negative cube root of the negative one, then their product will be negative; so their sum will be one root. To get the other two roots, first multiply one cube root by images/poly167.png and the other by images/poly168.png . Then multiply the first by images/poly169.png and the second by omega.

3.5 Quartic Equations

Ferrari, a student of Cardan, showed that one could find the roots of the general quartic equation using techniques similar to those used for cubics. The story stops here. According to Abel's Theorem, there is no general formula for expressing the roots of a general polynomial equation of degree five or higher involving only arithmetic operations and roots.

Some fourth degree (quartic) polynomials are easy to solve. For example, consider: images/poly170.png . This can be factored


If the product is zero, then one factor or the other is zero. So, solving for the roots of the quartic is the same as solving two quadratic equations, which is something that one knows how to do. More generally, if we can arrange the equation to be solved into the form: images/poly172.png where p and q are quadratic polynomials, then the roots are the roots of images/poly173.png and images/poly174.png . As it will turn out, every fourth degree polynomial can be put in this form.

Let's start with a general fourth degree polynomial with complex number coefficients. Dividing through by the leading coefficient, one needs to solve an equation of the form images/poly175.png . First, we can assume that a = 0. In fact, if it were not, then one could apply the same trick as we did with cubics. The first two terms look like the first two terms of the expansion of images/poly176.png and so substituting x = y - a/4 converts our polynomial in x into one in y with no cubic term. If one could solve the new polynomial in y, then using x = y - a/4, one would get the roots of the original polynomial.

So, we can assume the form of the equation is: images/poly177.png . We can complete the square using the first two terms: images/poly178.png . We have one square on the left, we just need to make the right side a square - but that is not promising because the right side is only linear in x.

The problem is that we didn't quite choose the right constant term on the left side of the equation -- but how should we choose the right constant term? Since we don't know, we can simply adjust by adding y to the constant term. Our new equation becomes


where we added the last two terms on the right in order to make the two sides equal. Now, we have a square on the left and we need to choose y so that we have a square on the right. But the right side is a quadratic in x and so, we just need to make sure that this quadratic has both roots equal. (If they were both equal to images/poly180.png , then the right side would factor as images/poly181.png as desired.) We need the following result which is an obvious consequence of the quadratic formula:

Lemma 4: A quadratic images/poly182.png has two identical roots precisely when images/poly183.png .

Applying Lemma 4 to the right side of the equation, we see that we need y to satisfy:


But this is just a cubic equation in y. We can use the method of the last section to find a y which satisfies this equation. Then, we can factor the right side -- the roots are images/poly185.png by the quadratic formula. So, our formula is just


Since both sides are squares, we see that we can find the roots of the quartic by solving two quadratics, viz.


This completes the solution of the general fourth degree polynomial equation.

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