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Factorization of Polynomials

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Recall. A unit or invertible element of a ring R is an element u ∈ R which has an inverse u-1 ∈ R, so that uu-1 = u-1u = 1. An integral domain is a nontrivial commutative ring in which the product of any two nonzero elements is nonzero.

Definition. Let D be an integral domain. An irreducible polynomial is, roughly speaking, a polynomial that cannot be factored into the product of two non-constant polynomials. A non-zero and non-unit polynomial f(x) ∈ D[x] is said to be irreducible if it cannot be written or expressed as the product of two non-units. In other words, whenever f(x) is expressed as a product of two polynomials g(x)h(x) with g(x) and h(x) ∈ D[x], then either g(x) or h(x) is a unit in D[x].

A non-constant polynomial f(x) ∈ F[x], F field, is said to be irreducible if f(x) cannot be expressed a as a product of two polynomials g(x), h(x) ∈ F[x] of lower degree, that is, f(x) = g(x)h(x), deg(g(x)) < deg(f(x)) and deg(h(x)) < deg(f(x)).


Reducibility test for polynomials with degrees two or three. Let F be a field. If f(x) ∈ F[x] and deg(f(x)) = 2 or 3, then f(x) is reducible over F iff f has a zero in F or f(x) is irreducible over F iff f(α) ≠ 0 ∀α ∈ F.


⇒) Suppose that f(x) is reducible ⇒∃g(x), h(x) ∈ F[x] such that f(x) = g(x)h(x). Since deg(f(x)) = deg(g(x)) + deg(h(x)) = 2 or 3 ⇒ At least one of g(x) and h(x) has degree 1 (2 = 1 + 1, 3 = 1 + 2). Without losing generality, we can assume ∃a∈ F, a ≠ 0F such that g(x) = ax + b and f(x) = h(x)(ax +b) ⇒[a ≠ 0F] -a-1b is a zero of both g(x) and f(x).

⇐) Suppose that f has a zero in F, ∃α ∈ F: f(α) = 0 ⇒ [By the Factor theorem, f ∈ F[x], α ∈ F zero or root of f (f(α) = 0) ↭ (x -α)|f(x)] (x -α) is a factor of f(x), and therefore, f(x) is reducible over F ∎



We know that if F is a field, then F[x] is a UFD, a unique factorization domain or factorial ring, that is, an integral domain (a nontrivial commutative ring in which the product of any two non-zero elements is non-zero) in which every non-zero non-unit element can be written as a product of prime or irreducible elements uniquely up to order and units.

An element p of a commutative ring R is said to be prime if it is not the zero element or a unit and whenever p divides ab for some a, b ∈ R ⇒ p divides a or p divides b.

Gauss’ lemma will say that if F is a field of fractions of R, then any polynomial f ∈ R[x] is in the UFD F[x], and so can be written as a product of irreducible factors in an essential unique manner. However, it produces factors of f in Irred(F[x]), but not necessarily in Irred(R[x]), and we only get uniqueness up to associates in F[x], which is a weaker result than uniqueness up to associates in R[x]. It turns out that the way to get around this problem is to consider primitive polynomials.

Definition. Let D be an integral domain. The content of a non-zero polynomial f(x) = anxn + an-1xn-1 + ··· + a0 ∈ D[x] is the greatest common divisor of its coefficients an, an-1, ··· a0. A primitive polynomial is an element of D[x] with content equals to 1, that is, gcd(a0, a1, ···, an) = 1, e.g., 3x2 -6x +9 is not primitive, 3x2 -6x +10 is primitive.

Gauss’s Lemma. Let D be a unique factorization domain. Let f(x), g(x) ∈ D[x]. Then, the content of f(x)g(x) equals the product of the content of f(x) and the content of g(x). In particular, if f(x), g(x) ∈ D[x] are primitive, then f(x)g(x) is also primitive.

In particular, Gauss’s lemma over the integers states that if f(x) is a polynomial with integer coefficients, then F is called primitive if the greatest common divisor of all its coefficients is 1. If f and g are primitive polynomials over the integers, then their product fg is also primitive.


Let f(x) = [We are basically factoring in its content, and everything left behind in f1 is relatively prime] cf1(x) and g(x) = dg1(x) where c and d are the content of f and g, respectively, and f1 and g1 are primitive polynomials.

Thus, f(x)g(x) = (cd)f1(x)g1(x). Therefore, it suffices to prove Gauss Lemma when f and g are primitive, and as a consequence, the content of fg would be equal to c·d·1. and we would have already proved the theorem for the general case.

Let f(x) = anxn + an-1xn-1+ ··· + a0 and g(x) = bmxm + bm-1xm-1 + ··· + b0. Suppose for the sake of contradiction, there’s a prime, say p, dividing all the coefficients of f(x)g(x). Since f and g are primitives, p does not divide all coefficients of f and g, so let r and s be the smallest integers such that p ɫ ar and p ɫ bs.

The coefficient of xr+s in f(x)g(x) is given as,

cr+s = $\sum_{i+j=r+s} a_ib_j = a_0b_{r+s}+a_1b_{r+s-1}+···a_rb_s+···+a_{r+s-1}b_1+a_{r+s}b_0$

Since p divides a0, ···, ar-1 and b0, ···, bs-1 ⇒ p | (cr+s -arbs) ⇒ [By assumption, p divides all coefficients of f(x)g(x), i.e. p | cr+s] p | arbs ⇒ [By Euclid’s lemma] p | ar or p | bs ⊥ (r and s be the smallest integers such that p ɫ ar and p ɫ bs.)

Therefore, the content of f(x)g(x) has no prime divisors in D, that is, the content is a unit.

Corollary. Let D be a UFD and F = Frac(D). Let f(x) ∈ D[x]. If there exists polynomials α, β ∈ F[x] such that f(x) = α(x)·β(x), then there exist polynomials a, b ∈ D[x] such that deg(α) = deg(a), deg(β) = deg(b), and f(x) = e·a(x)·b(x).

Notice that D[x] is in F[x] and f(x) = a(x)b(x) is a D-factorization. In particular, if f(x) ∈ ℤ[x] is reducible over ℚ, then it is reducible over ℤ. Example: f(x) = 2x5 + 5x4 -8x3 -14x2 +6x +9 ∈ ℤ[x], x = 3/2 is a root, therefore f(x) = (x -3/2)(2x4 +8x3 + 4x2 -8x + 6) = (2x -3)(x4 +4x3 + 2x2 -4x + 3), and this last one is a factorization over ℤ[x].


Suppose that there exist polynomials α, β ∈ F[x] such that f(x) = α(x)β(x). Recall. Let D an integral domain ⇒ F the field of quotients of D, S = {(a, b)| a, b ∈ D and b ≠ 0}, (a, b) ~ (c, d) ↭ ad = bc, F = {[(a, b)]: (a, b) ∈ S}.

Let c, d ∈ D such that cα(x), dβ(x) ∈ D[x] where α, β are polynomials over the field of fractions (c and d are the least common multiple between all of the coefficients of the “denominators” of α and β respectively).

Next, we can factor out the greatest common factor of both polynomials, namely cα(x) = c1a(x), cβ(x) = d1b(x), where a(x), b(x) ∈ D[x] are primitive polynomials. We can see clearly that deg(a)=deg(α) and deg(b)=deg(β).

(cd)f(x) =[f(x) = α(x)β(x)] cα(x)·dβ(x) = c1a(x)·d1b(x) and by Gauss’ Lemma the content of c1a(x)·d1b(x) is c1d1 (a(x), b(x) ∈ D[x] are primitive) ⇒ the content of (cd)f(x) is c1d1 ⇒ cd | c1d1 ⇒ say (cd)e = c1d1 ⇒ [(cd)f(x) = (cd)ea(x)b(x), By cancellation] f(x) = ea(x)·b(x) is a factorization in D[x] and deg(a)=deg(α) and deg(b)=deg(β) ∎

Theorem. Let R be a unique factorization domain and F its field of fractions. A non-constant polynomial f in R[x] is irreducible in R[x] if and only if it is both irreducible in F[x] and primitive in R[x]. In particular, a non-constant polynomial in Z[x] is irreducible in Z[x] if and only if it is both irreducible in Q[x] and primitive in Z[x].

2x -4 and 3x + 3 are both irreducibles over ℚ, but 2x -4 = 2(x-2), and 3x + 3 = 3(x +1) are valid factorizations over ℤ (2 and 3 are not units in ℤ because 1/2 ∉ ℤ and 1/3 ∉ ℤ), and therefore 2x -4 and 3x + 3 are not irreducibles over ℤ. The problem is that 2x -4 and 3x + 3 are not primitives.

Theorem. D is a unique factorization domain if and only if D[x] is a unique factorization domain. Examples: ℤ is a UFD (fundamental theorem of arithmetic) ⇒ ℤ[x] is a UFD.


⇐) D[x] is a UFD. All polynomials factors uniquely as a product of prime polynomials. In particular, the constant polynomials factors uniquely, and the constant polynomials are exactly the elements of the base domain D.

⇒) First, we need to prove the property of factorization. Let D be a UFD, then D is an integral domain and let F be its field of fractions. We know that F[x] is a Euclidean Domain, hence a PID, hence a UFD.

∀p(x) ∈ D[x], let’s view it inside F[x] ⇒ We can factor p(x), p(x) = f1(x)··· fn(x) with fi(x) ∈ F[x] irreducible.

Let’s take ai ∈ D such that aifi(x) ∈ D[x] (basically we “clear” the denominators by multiplying these polynomials by their corresponding least common multiples of their denominators).

Next, we take bi ∈ D such that aifi(x) = bigi(x) where gi(x) ∈ D[x] are all both primitives (in a similar fashion as before by factoring out the greatest common factors of these polynomials coefficients) and irreducibles (fi is irreducible and gi is primitive ⇒ gi is irreducible).

A non-constant polynomial f in R[x] is irreducible in R[x] if and only if it is both irreducible in F[x] and primitive in R[x]. aifi(x) = bigi(x) where gi(x) ∈ D[x] are primitives, fi(x) ∈ F[x] irreducibles ⇒ gi(x) ∈ D[x] are irreducibles.

a1···anp(x) = a1f1(x)···anfn(x) = b1g1(x)···bngn(x) = b1···bng1(x)···gn(x) where g1(x)···gn(x) is primitive (g1(x), g2(x),···, gn(x) are all primitives)

Set a = a1···an, b = b1···bn, ap(x) = bg1(x)···gn(x) ⇒[g1(x)···gn(x) is primitive] a | b ⇒ ∃c ∈ D: b = ac ⇒ ap(x) = acg1(x)···gn(x) ⇒[By cancellation law, D is an integral domain] p(x) = cg1(x)···gn(x) ⇒ [D is a UFD, c ∈ D] p(x) = c1···cmg1(x)···gn(x) where gi(x) ∈ D[x] are irreducibles.

It is left to the reader to prove the uniqueness of this factorization.


This content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This post relies heavily on the following resources, specially on NPTEL-NOC IITM, Introduction to Galois Theory, Michael Penn, and Contemporary Abstract Algebra, Joseph, A. Gallian.
  1. NPTEL-NOC IITM, Introduction to Galois Theory.
  2. Algebra, Second Edition, by Michael Artin.
  3. LibreTexts, Abstract and Geometric Algebra, Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications (Judson).
  4. Field and Galois Theory, by Patrick Morandi. Springer.
  5. Michael Penn (Abstract Algebra), and MathMajor.
  6. Contemporary Abstract Algebra, Joseph, A. Gallian.
  7. Andrew Misseldine: College Algebra and Abstract Algebra.
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