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In mathematics, an algebraic equation or polynomial equation is an equation of the form

P = Q

where P and Q are polynomials with coefficients in some field, often the field of the rational numbers. For most authors, an algebraic equation is univariate, which means that it involves only one variable. On the other hand, a polynomial equation may involve several variables, in which case it is called multivariate and the term polynomial equation is usually preferred to algebraic equation.

For example,

\( x^5-3x+1=0 \)

is an algebraic equation with integer coefficients and

\( y^4+\frac{xy}{2}=\frac{x^3}{3}-xy^2+y^2-\frac{1}{7} \)

is a multivariate polynomial equation over the rationals.

Some but not all polynomial equations with rational coefficients have a solution that is an algebraic expression with a finite number of operations involving just those coefficients (that is, can be solved algebraically). This can be done for all such equations of degree one, two, three, or four; but for degree five or more it can only be done for some equations but not for all. A large amount of research has been devoted to compute efficiently accurate approximations of the real or complex solutions of an univariate algebraic equation (see Root-finding algorithm) and of the common solutions of several multivariate polynomial equations (see System of polynomial equations).


The study of algebraic equations is probably as old as mathematics: the Babylonian mathematicians, as early as 2000 BC could solve some kind of quadratic equations (displayed on Old Babylonian clay tablets).

The algebraic equations over the rationals with only one variable are also called univariate equations. They have a very long history. Ancient mathematicians wanted the solutions in the form of radical expressions, like \( x=\frac{1+\sqrt{5}}{2} \) for the positive solution of \( x^2-x-1=0 \) . The ancient Egyptians knew how to solve equations of degree 2 in this manner. In the 9th century Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi and other Islamic mathematicians derived the quadratic formula, the general solution of equations of degree 2, and recognized the importance of the discriminant. During the Renaissance in 1545, Gerolamo Cardano found the solution to equations of degree 3 and Lodovico Ferrari solved equations of degree 4. Finally Niels Henrik Abel proved, in 1824, that equations of degree 5 and equations of higher degree are not always solvable using radicals. Galois theory, named after Évariste Galois, was introduced to give criteria deciding if an equation is solvable using radicals.

Areas of study

The algebraic equations are the basis of a number of areas of modern mathematics: Algebraic number theory is the study of (univariate) algebraic equations over the rationals. Galois theory has been introduced by Évariste Galois for getting criteria deciding if an algebraic equation may be solved in terms of radicals. In field theory, an algebraic extension is an extension such that every element is a root of an algebraic equation over the base field. Transcendence theory is the study of the real numbers which are not solutions to an algebraic equation over the rationals. A Diophantine equation is a (usually multivariate) polynomial equation with integer coefficients for which one is interested in the integer solutions. Algebraic geometry is the study of the solutions in an algebraically closed field of multivariate polynomial equations.

Two equations are equivalent if they have the same set of solutions. In particular the equation P = Q is equivalent with P-Q = 0. It follows that the study of algebraic equations is equivalent to the study of polynomials.

A polynomial equation over the rationals can always be converted to an equivalent one in which the coefficients are integers. For example, multiplying through by 42 = 2·3·7 and grouping its terms in the first member, the previously mentioned polynomial equation \( y^4+\frac{xy}{2}=\frac{x^3}{3}-xy^2+y^2-\frac{1}{7} \) becomes

\( 42y^4+21xy-14x^3+42xy^2-42y^2+6=0. \)

Because sine, exponentiation, and 1/T are not polynomial functions,

\( e^T x^2+\frac{1}{T}xy+\sin(T)z -2 =0 \)

is not a polynomial equation in the four variables x, y, z, and T over the rational numbers. However, it is a polynomial equation in the three variables x, y, and z over the field of the elementary functions in the variable T.

As for any equation, the solutions of an equation are the values of the variables for which the equation is true. For univariate algebraic equations these are also called roots, even if, properly speaking, one should say the solutions of the algebraic equation P=0 are the roots of the polynomial P. When solving an equation, it is important to specify in which set the solutions are allowed. For example, for an equation over the rationals one may look for solutions in which all the variables are integers. In this case the equation is a diophantine equation. One may also be interested only in the real solutions. However, for univariate algebraic equations, the number of solutions is finite and all solutions, are contained in any algebraically closed field containing the coefficients, for example, the field of complex numbers in case of equations over the rationals. It follows that without precision "root" and "solution" usually mean "solution in an algebraically closed field".

See also

Algebraic function
Algebraic number
Root finding
Linear equation (degree = 1)
Quadratic equation (degree = 2)
Cubic equation (degree = 3)
Quartic equation (degree = 4)
Quintic equation (degree = 5)
Sextic equation (degree = 6)
Septic equation (degree = 7)
System of linear equations
System of polynomial equations
Linear Diophantine equation
Linear equation over a ring
Cramer's theorem (algebraic curves), on the number of points usually sufficient to determine a bivariate n-th degree curve


Hazewinkel, Michiel, ed. (2001), "Algebraic equation", Encyclopedia of Mathematics, Springer, ISBN 978-1-55608-010-4
Weisstein, Eric W., "Algebraic Equation", MathWorld.

Mathematics Encyclopedia

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