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Gabriel Mok

Polynomials and Factoring
Mathematical Theory

A polynomial is defined as a mathematical expression involving a sum of powers in one

or more variables multiplied by coefficients, such that if a0, a1, a2,…,an represent real numbers
and n represents a number on the real number line, the polynomial in x is an expression of the
form anxn + an-1xn-1 + … + a1x + a0, where a does not equal zero.

Example: 4x6 +2x3 + 3

A polynomial has three characteristics: its degree, its leading coefficient, and its constant term.

The degree of a polynomial is the greatest exponent of the polynomial, for example, the
degree of the polynomial, 4x6 +2x3 + 3, is six. This degree is used in the fundamental theorem of
algebra, which states that the every polynomial of degree n has exactly n, not necessarily distinct,
zeros. A zero degree polynomial is called a constant function, a first degree polynomial is called
a linear function, a second degree polynomial is called a quadratic function, a third degree
polynomial is called a cubic function, and so on so forth. The leading coefficient of the
polynomial is the coefficient of the highest degree term, in this case, 4. Finally, a third
characteristic of a polynomial is its constant term. This term has an x exponent of 0, and since
anything raised to the power of zero is one, it is possible to eliminate the x variable in the term,
thus making the coefficient constant.

Adding and subtracting polynomials work in much the same way as adding and
subtracting real numbers. Simply add or subtract like terms (terms that have the same variables to
the same powers) by adding their coefficients. For instance, 3xy2 + xy2 = (3+1) xy2 = 4xy2.

To find the products of two polynomials, use the left and right Distributive Properties, for
binomials, this is often known as the FOIL method where the F is the product of the First terms,
O is the product of the Outer terms, I is the product of the Inner terms, and L is the product of the
last terms.
Ex: (3x-2)(5x+7) = 3x(5x+7)-2(5x+7)
= (3x)(5x) + (3x)(7) - (2)(5x) – (2)(7)
= 15x2 +21x –10x – 14 (F + O + I + L)
= 15x2 +11x – 14

Factoring, or factorization, is the decomposition of a polynomial into products that

multiply to give the polynomial. The simplest type of factoring involves a polynomial that can be
written as the product of a monomial (a polynomial with only one term) and another monomial.
The technique used here is the Distributive Property a(b+c) = ab + ac.

ab + ac = a(b +c) where a is a common factor.

Removing a common factor is the first step in completely factoring a polynomial.

Some polynomials have special forms that occur frequently in math. These forms
included the difference of two squares, the perfect square trinomials, and the sum or difference
of two cubes.
Factoring Special Polynomial Forms:

Difference of Two Squares:

u2 – v2 = (u + v)(u – v)

Perfect Square Trinomial:

u2 + 2uv + v2 = (u + v)2

u2 – 2uv + v2 = (u – v)2

Sum or Difference of Two cubes:

u3 + v3 = (u +v)( u2 – uv + v2)

u3 – v3 = (u +v)( u2 + uv + v2)

To factor a trinomial of the form ax2 + bx + c, use the following pattern:

ax2 + bx + c = ( ux + v) ( dx + e), where u and d are factors of a and v and e are

factors of c

The goal is to find a combination of factors of a and c such that the outer and inner
products add up to the middle term bx. (See problem #120)

When factoring a polynomial, always check for a common factor and remove it. Once the
common factor is removed, it is often possible to recognize patterns that were not immediately
obvious. To remove a common factor, use the Distributive property in reverse. To remove a
factor that has a power, move the lowest power out and replace it with a zero power, then replace
the higher power with the difference of the higher and the lower power.

Ex: (x4+ 3x2)

= x2 (x(4-2) +3x0) x0 = 1
= x2 (x2 +3(1))
= x2 (x2 +3)


The history of polynomials is very much the same as the history of algebra, which began
in ancient Babylon and Egypt, where people learned to solve linear equations (equations
involving polynomials in the first degree) and quadratic equations (equations involving
polynomials in the second degree), along with a few indeterminate equations (equations
involving several unknowns, much like polynomials with several variables).
The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians were then followed by the Alexandrian
mathematicians, Hero of Alexandria and Diophantus, who continued the traditions of Babylon.
However, Diophantus’ book, Arithmetica encompasses a higher level of math and gives many
surprising solutions to difficult indeterminate equations. Soon after the downfall of Alexander’s
Empire, this ancient knowledge of solutions found a home in the Islamic world, where it was
known as the “science of restoration and balancing.” (The Arabic word for restoration, al-jabru,
is the root word for algebra).

By medieval times, Islamic mathematicians were able to discuss arbitrarily high powers
of x and work out the basic algebra of polynomials. This included the ability to multiply, divide,
and find square roots of polynomials as well as a basic knowledge of the binomial theorem. The
Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyam showed how to express roots of
cubic equations by line segments obtained by intersecting conic sections, however, he could not
find a formula for the roots. In the early 13th century, the great Italian mathematician Leonardo
Fibonacci achieved a close approximation to the solution of the cubic equation x3 + 2x2 + cx = d.

Early in the 16th century, the Italian mathematicians Scipione del Ferro, Niccolò
Tartaglia, and Gerolamo Cardano solved the general cubic equation in terms of the constants
appearing in the equation. Cardano's pupil, Ludovico Ferrari, soon found an exact solution to
equations of the fourth degree, and as a result, mathematicians for the next several centuries tried
to find a formula for the roots of equations of degree five, or higher. Early in the 19th century,
however, the Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel and the French mathematician Évariste
Galois proved that no such formula exists.

Also occurring in the 16th century was the first introduction of symbols for the unknown
and for the algebraic powers and operations. As a result of this new development, the third book
in Rene Descartes La geometrie (1637) looked more like an algebra book than one of geometry.
Descartes most significant contribution was probably his discovery of a knew school of thought,
analytical geometry, which reduces the solutions of geometric problems to the solution of
algebraic ones. His geometry text also contained the essentials of a course on the theory of
equations, including his so-called rule of signs for counting the number of what Descartes called
the "true" (positive) and "false" (negative) roots of an equation. Work continued through the 18th
century on the theory of equations, but not until 1799 was the proof published, by the German
mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, showing that every polynomial equation has at least one
root in the complex plane.