My “history” of solving cubic, quartic and quintic equations

When I teach Algebra II or Precalculus (or train my  future high school teachers to teach these subjects), we eventually land on the Rational Root Test and Descartes’ Rule of Signs as an aid for finding the roots of cubic equations or higher. Before I get too deep into this subject, however, I like to give a 10-15 minute pseudohistory about the discovery of how polynomial equations can be solved. Historians of mathematics will certain take issue with some of this “history.” However, the main purpose of the story is not complete accuracy but engaging students with the history of mathematics. I think the story I tell engages students while remaining reasonably accurate… and I always refer students to various resources if they want to get the real history.

To begin, I write down the easiest two equations to solve (in all cases, a \ne 0:

ax + b = 0 \qquad and \qquad ax^2 + bx + c = 0

These are pretty easy to solve, with solutions well known to students:

x = -\displaystyle \frac{b}{a} \qquad and \qquad x = \displaystyle \frac{-b \pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}

In other words, there are formulas that you can just stick in the coefficients and get the answer out without thinking too hard. Sure, there are alternate ways of solving for x that could be easier, like factoring, but the worst-case scenario is just plugging into the formula.

These formulas were known to Babylonian mathematicians around 2000 B.C. (When I teach this in class, I write the date, and all other dates and discoverers, next to the equations for dramatic pedagogical effect.) Though not written in these modern terms, basically every ancient culture on the globe that did mathematics had some version of these formulas: for example, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Mayans.

Naturally, this leads to a simple question: is there a formula for the cubic:

ax^3 + bx^2 + cx + d = 0

Is there some formula that we can just plug a, b, c, and d to just get the answer?  The answer is, Yes, there is a formula. But it’s nasty. The formula was not discovered until 1535 A.D., and it was discovered by a man named Tartaglia. During the 1500s, the study of mathematics was less about the dispassionate pursuit of truth and more about exercising machismo. One mathematician would challenge another: “Here’s my cubic equation; I bet you can’t solve it. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.” Then the second mathematician would solve it and challenge the first: “Here’s my cubic equation; I bet you can’t solve it. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.” And so on. Well, Tartaglia came up with a formula that would solve every cubic equation. By plugging in a, b, c, and d, you get the answer out.

Tartaglia’s discovery was arguably the first triumph of the European Renaissance. The solution of the cubic was perhaps the first thing known to European mathematicians in the Middle Ages that was unknown to the ancient Greeks.

In 1535, Tartaglia was a relatively unknown mathematician, and so he told a more famous mathematician, Cardano, about his formula. Cardano told Tartaglia, why yes, that is very interesting, and then published the formula under his own name, taking credit without mention of Tartaglia. To this day, the formula is called Cardano’s formula.

So there is a formula. But it would take an entire chalkboard to write down the formula. That’s why we typically don’t make students learn this formula in high school; it’s out there, but it’s simply too complicated to expect students to memorize and use.

This leads to the next natural question: what about quartic equations?

ax^4 + bx^3 + cx^2 + dx + e = 0

The solution of the quartic was discovered less than five years later by an Italian mathematician named Ferrari. Ferrari found out that there is a formula that you can just plug in a, b, c, d, and e, turn the crank, and get the answers out. Writing out this formula would take two chalkboards. So there is a formula, but it’s also very, very complicated.

Of course, Ferrari had some famous descendants in the automotive industry.

So now we move onto my favorite equation, the quintic. (If you don’t understand why it’s my favorite, think about my last name.)

ax^5 + bx^4 + cx^3 + dx^2 + ex + f = 0

After solving the cubic and quartic in rapid succession, surely there should also be a formula for the quintic. So they tried, and they tried, and they tried, and they got nowhere fast. Finally, the problem was solved nearly 300 years later, in 1832 (for the sake telling a good story, I don’t mention Abel) by a French kid named Evariste Galois. Galois showed that there is no formula. That takes some real moxie. There is no formula. No matter how hard you try, you will not find a formula that can work for every quintic. Sure, there are some quintics that can be solved, like x^5 = 0. But there is no formula that will work for every single quintic.

Galois made this discovery when he was 19 years old… in other words, approximately the same age as my students. In fact, we know when wrote down his discovery, because it happened the night before he died. You see, he was living in France in 1832. What was going on in France in 1832? I ask my class, have they seen Les Miserables?

France was torn upside-down in 1832 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and young Galois got into a heated argument with someone over politics; Galois was a republican, while the other guy was a royalist. More importantly, both men were competing for the hand of the same young woman. So they decided to settle their differences like honorable Frenchmen, with a duel. So Galois wrote up his mathematical notes one night, and the next day, he fought the duel, he lost the duel, and he died.

Thus giving complete and total proof that tremendous mathematical genius does not prevent somebody from being a complete idiot.

For the present, there are formulas for cubic and quartic equations, but they’re long and impractical. And for quintic equations and higher, there is no formula. So that’s why we teach these indirect methods like the Rational Root Test and Descartes’ Rule of Signs, as they give tools to use to guess at the roots of higher-order polynomials without using something like the quadratic formula.

green lineReal references:

MAA Calculus Study: Persistence through Calculus

I just read a recent post by David Bressoud, former president of the Mathematical Association of America, concerning the percentage of college students in Calculus I who ultimately enroll in Calculus II. Some interesting quotes:

[J]ust because a student needs further mathematics for the intended career and has done well in the last mathematics course is no guarantee that he or she will decide to continue the study of mathematics. This loss between courses is a significant contributor to the disappearance from STEM fields of at least half of the students who enter college with the intention of pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.


Our study offered students who had chosen to switch out a variety of reasons from which they could select any with which they agreed. Just over half reported that they had changed their major to a field that did not require Calculus II. A third of these students, as well as a third of all switchers, identified their experience in Calculus I as responsible for their decision. It also was a third of all switchers who reported that the reason for switching was that they found calculus to require too much time and effort.
This observation was supported by other data from our study that showed that switchers visit their instructors and tutors more often than persisters and spend more time studying calculus. As stated before, these are students who are doing well, but have decided that continuing would require more effort than they can afford.


[W]e do need to find ways of mitigating the shock that hits so many students when they transition from high school to college. We need to do a better job of preparing students for the demands of college, working on both sides of the transition to equip them with the skills they need to make effective use of their time and effort.
Twenty years ago, I surveyed Calculus I students at Penn State and learned that most had no idea what it means to study mathematics. Their efforts seldom extended beyond trying to match the problems at the back of the section to the templates in the book or the examples that had been explained that day. The result was that studying mathematics had been reduced to the memorization of a large body of specific and seemingly unrelated techniques for solving a vast assortment of problems. No wonder students found it so difficult. I fear that this has not changed.

The full post can be found at

Coin problems

Here’s a problem that a friend posed to me a while ago. Apparently this is called the Coin Problem, but I’d never heard of it before.

McNuggets used to come in boxes of 6, 9, or 20. Given that scheme, what is the largest number of nuggets that cannot be ordered exactly?

Here’s a similar problem:

In American football, teams can score points in increments of 3 (field goal) and 7 (touchdown plus extra point). What is the largest number that can’t be a valid football score? (I’ve ignored other possible ways of scoring — 2-point safeties, 6-point touchdowns without the extra point, 8-point touchdowns with a two-point conversion — because the problem is utterly trivial with these extra options.)

I’m not going to give the answers (if you want to cheat, see the above link), but I suggest questions like these as a way of engaging elementary-school students (who have mastered addition and multiplication) with a non-traditional math question.

A Review of WuzzitTrouble: an app for math education


Most apps and computer games that claim to assist with the development of mathematical knowledge only focus on rote memorization. There’s certainly a place for rote memorization, but I’ve been very disappointed with the paucity of games that encourage mathematical creativity beyond, say, immediate recall of the times tables.

Enter WuzzitTrouble, a new app that was developed by Keith Devlin, a professor of mathematics at Stanford and one of the great popularizers of mathematics today. An introduction to WuzzitTrouble can be seen in this promotional video:

One minor complaint about WuzzitTrouble is that the first few levels are so easy that it’s easy for children to low-ball the game… in much the same way that the first few levels of Angry Birds are utterly easy. (My other complaints is that the game only assume one user, so that a parent can’t play the game without affecting a child’s settings.) However, the level of difficulty does eventually increase. Here’s another promotional video showing how to solve Level 1-25:

Here’s a sampling of some of the higher levels. Remember that the wheel has 65 steps along the circumference, as shown in the above picture and videos.

  • Level 2-5: Using cog wheels of size 5 and 9, pick up keys at 23 and 36 and prizes at 27, 45, and 55.
  • Level 2-15: Using cog wheels of size 5, 7, and 9, pick up keys at 11, 16, and 21 and prizes at 32 and 42.
  • Level 2-25: Using cog wheels of size 5, 9, and 16, pick up keys at 24, 48, and 59; prizes at 11 and 37; and avoid a penalty at 64.
  • Level 3-3: Using cog wheels of size 3, 4, and 5, pick up keys at 7, 17, and 27 and prizes at 12 and 22.

In the words of their promotional materials:

At InnerTube Games, we set out to design and build mobile casual video games and puzzles that can attract and engage a large number of players, yet are built on fundamental mathematical concepts and embed sound mathematics learning principles.

We start with one simple, yet powerful observation. A musical instrument won’t teach you about music. But when you pick up an instrument and start playing – badly at first – you cannot fail to learn about music. And the more you play, the more you learn. In fact, using that one instrument, you can go all the way from stumbling beginner to virtuoso concert performances. It’s the music that changes, not the instrument. In modern parlance, the instrument is a platform. And (well designed) platforms are good for learning because they make the learning meaningful and put the learner in charge.

InnerTube Games does not build video games to “teach mathematics.” Rather, we build instruments which you can play, and we design them so that when you play them, you cannot fail to learn about mathematics. Moreover, each single game can be used to deliver mathematical challenges of increasing sophistication.

Our vision for learning design is to build the game around core mathematical concepts and practice so it looks and plays like the familiar casual games on the market. As a result, you won’t be able to see the difference by playing the first few levels, or by watching someone else play. It’s the educational power under the hood that makes our games different.

We’re not making a secret of the fact that our games are math-based. It’s not “stealth learning;” it’s a form of learning through action that the brain finds natural, having much in common with what educational researchers call embodied learning.

Wuzzit Trouble is our first puzzle to reach the market. It is built around the important mathematical concepts of integer partitions–the expression of a whole number as a sum of other whole numbers–and Diophantine equations. At the easiest levels of the puzzle, these provide engaging practice in basic arithmetic, leading to arithmetical fluency.

But that’s just the start. Integer partitions and Diophantine equations are major areas of mathematics, still being worked on today by leading mathematicians.

Freeing the Wuzzits won’t take you into those dizzy realms—at least in the initial release, which comes loaded with puzzles aimed at the Elementary and Middle School levels. But as you progress, you will face challenges that increasingly require higher-order arithmetical thinking, algebraic thinking, strategy design and modification, optimization, and algorithm design, all crucial abilities in today’s world. Getting three stars can require considerable ingenuity.

As you attempt to free each Wuzzit and maximize your score, you will be developing and applying valuable conceptual, analytic thinking skills that sharpen your mind—all without lifting pencil to paper.

As educators and former educators, all of us at InnerTube are very aware of the importance of learners meeting agreed standards. In its initial release version Wuzzit Trouble provides natural learning in the following areas of the US Common Core Curriculum:

  • *Grade 2, Operations & Algebraic Thinking #2
  • *Grade 2, Number & Operations in Base Ten #2, #8
  • *Grade 3, Operations & Algebraic Thinking #1, #4
  • *Grade 4, Operations & Algebraic Thinking #5
  • *Grade 6, Number System #5, #6

But we don’t want anyone to play our game purely to hit those Common Core markers. We want you to play it because it’s fun and challenging. Improvement in those CC areas comes automatically. Just like learning music by playing a musical instrument!

The analogy that I prefer is playing basketball. When young children are first learning to play basketball, there’s a place for learning how to dribble, how to pass, how to shoot free throws, etc. (These are analogous to learning how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.) But children don’t just learn skills: they also go out and play. That’s where the WuzzitTrouble app fits in: it offers children a chance to just play with mathematics and enjoy it.

More references:

Review: Wuzzit Trouble

Graphing a function by plugging in points

I love showing this engaging example to my students to emphasize the importance of the various curve-sketching techniques that are taught in Precalculus and Calculus.

Problem. Sketch the graph of f(x) = x^5 - 5x^3 + 4x + 6.

“Solution”. Let’s plug in some convenient points, graph the points, and then connect the dots to produce the graph.

  • f(-2) = (-32) - 5(-8) + 4(-2) + 6 = 6
  • f(-1) = (-1) - 5(-1) + 4(-1) + 6 = 6
  • f(0) = (0) - 5(0) + 4(0) + 6 = 6
  • f(1) = (1) - 5(1) + 4(1) + 6 = 6
  • f(2) = (32) - 5(8) + 4(2) + 6 = 6

That’s five points (shown in red), and surely that’s good enough for drawing the picture. Therefore, we can obtain the graph by connecting the dots (shown in blue). So we conclude the graph is as follows.

linearquinticgreen line

Of course, the above picture is not the graph of f(x) = x^5 - 5x^3 + 4x + 6, even though the five points in red are correct. I love using this example to illustrate to students that there’s a lot more to sketching a curve accurately than finding a few points and then connecting the dots.