An elementary proof of the insolvability of the quintic

When I was in middle school, I remember my teacher telling me, after I learned the quadratic formula, that there was a general formula for solving cubic and quartic equations, but no such formula existed for solving the quintic. This was also when I first heard the infamous story of young Galois’s death from a duel.

Using my profound middle-school logic, I took this story as a challenge to devise my own formula for solving the quintic. Naturally, my efforts came up short.

When I was in high school, with this obsession still fully intact, I attempted to read through the wonderful monograph Field Theory and Its Classical Problems. Here’s the MAA review of this book:

Hadlock’s book sports one of the best prefaces I’ve ever read in a mathematics book. The rest of the book is even better: in 1984 it won the first MAA Edwin Beckenbach Book Prize for excellence in mathematical exposition.

Hadlock says in the preface that he wrote the book for himself, as a personal path through Galois theory as motivated by the three classical Greek geometric construction problems (doubling the cube, trisecting angles, and squaring the circle — all with just ruler and compass) and the classical problem of solving equations by radicals. Unlike what happens in most books on the subject, all three Greek problems are solved in the first chapter, with just the definition of field as a subfield of the real numbers, but without even defining degree of field extensions, much less proving its multiplicativity (this is done in chapter 2). Doubling the cube is proved to be impossible by proving that the cube root of 2 cannot be an element of a tower of quadratic extensions: if the cube root of 2 is in a quadratic extension, then it is actually in the base field. Repeating the argument, we conclude that it is not constructible because it is not rational. A similar argument works for proving that trisecting a 60 degree angle is impossible. Of course, proving that duplicating the cube is impossible needs a different argument: chapter 1 ends with Niven’s proof of the transcendence of π.

After this successful bare-hands attack at three important problems, Chapter 2 discusses in detail the construction of regular polygons and explains Gauss’s characterization of constructible regular polygons, including the construction of the regular 17-gon. Chapter 3 describes Galois theory and the solution of equations by radicals, including Abel’s theorem on the impossibility of solutions by radicals for equations of degree 5 or higher. Chapter 4, the last one, considers a special case of the inverse Galois problem and proves that there are polynomials with rational coefficients whose Galois group is the symmetric group, a result that is established via Hilbert’s irreducibility theorem.

Many examples, references, exercises, and complete solutions (taking up a third of the book!) are included and make this enjoyable book both an inspiration for teachers and a useful source for independent study or supplementary reading by students.

As I recall, I made it successfully through the first couple of chapters but started to get lost with the Galois theory somewhere in the middle of Chapter 3. Despite not completing the book, this was one of the most rewarding challenges of my young mathematical life. Perhaps one of these days I’ll undertake this challenge again.

Anyway, this year I came across the wonderful article The Abel–Ruffini Theorem: Complex but Not Complicated in the March issue of the American Mathematical Monthly. The article presents a completely different way of approaching the insolvability of the quintic that avoids Galois theory altogether.

The proof is elementary; I’m confident that I could have understood this proof had I seen it when I was in high school. That said, the word “elementary” in mathematics can be a bit loaded — this means that it is based on simple ideas that are perhaps used in a profound and surprising way. Perhaps my favorite quote along these lines was this understated gem from the book Three Pearls of Number Theory after the conclusion of a very complicated proof in Chapter 1:

You see how complicated an entirely elementary construction can sometimes be. And yet this is not an extreme case; in the next chapter you will encounter just as elementary a construction which is considerably more complicated.

I believe that a paid subscription to the Monthly is required to view the above link, but the main ideas of the proof can be found in the video below as well as this short PDF file by Leo Goldmakher.

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