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34185221 the Foundations of Math[1]

34185221 the Foundations of Math[1]

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One line of independent mathematical research that Abel had
been pursuing since 1820 involved the 300-year-old search for the
quintic formula. Mathematicians had developed formulas to solve
polynomial equations whose highest terms had degree 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The simple formula

gave the solution to linear equations

of the form ax + b = 0 and the quadratic formula

provided the solution to all second-degree equations of the form


+ bx + c = 0. Mathematicians had also created formulas to solve
third- and fourth-degree equations whose highest powered terms
were x3

or x4

but had been unable to discover similar formulas for

higher degree equations.
During his final year at the Cathedral School, Abel thought he
had found the quintic formula to find the roots of any fifth-degree
equation. He wrote a preliminary draft of a paper explaining his
method and showed it to Holmboe and Hansteen. They forwarded
his manuscript to Ferdinand Degan, professor of mathematics at
the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, with the request that
the Danish Academy publish their student’s result. After review-
ing Abel’s work, Degan asked him to amplify his explanations and
to illustrate his method with specific examples. While creating
the examples, he discovered an error in his analysis and started to
reconsider the question of whether such a formula was possible.
In December 1823, while at the University of Christiania, Abel
proved that it was impossible to construct a quintic formula that
solved all fifth-degree equations using only a finite number of addi-

tions, subtractions, multiplications, divisions, and extractions of
roots, a method known as solving equations by radicals. At his own
expense he published his proof in a brief pamphlet titled Mémoire
sur les équations algébriques où on démontre l’impossibilité de la résolu-
tion de l’équation générale du cinquième degré
(Memoir on algebraic
equations demonstrating the impossibility of the resolution of the
general equation of the fifth degree). The financial constraints
that forced him to condense his argument to six pages made the
reasoning in his proof difficult to follow. When he sent copies of
the pamphlet to leading mathematicians throughout Europe early
in 1824, the cryptic proof by a young, unknown student generated
no responses. German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, whose
comments Abel was particularly intent on hearing, threw away the
pamphlet without reading it.
Despite the memoir’s failure to generate interest from any mem-
ber of the European mathematical community, Abel continued to
expand his research on the solution of equations by radicals and to
try to get his work on the topic published. In 1826 an expanded
explanation of his discovery titled “Beweis der Unmöglichkeit,
algebraische Gleichungen von höheren Graden als dem vierten
allgemein aufzulösen” (Proof of the impossibility of the general
solution of algebraic equations of degree higher than the fourth)
appeared in the first issue of the German mathematics quarterly
Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik (Journal for pure
and applied mathematics). In this paper he proved the more general
result that it was impossible to construct an algebraic formula to
solve all equations of any degree higher than four using only the
four arithmetic operations and the extraction of roots. In his proof
he developed the concept of an algebraic field extension, a key con-
cept in the developing discipline of abstract algebra.
In the 1828 manuscript Sur la résolution algébraique des equations
(On the algebraic resolution of equations), which was not pub-
lished until after his death, Abel acknowledged the existence of an
obscure 1799 proof by Italian mathematician Paolo Ruffini that
there was no quintic formula. In honor of these two mathemati-
cians, the important result that the general equation of degree n is
not solvable by radicals if n > 4 is now known as the Abel-Ruffini

Niels Henrik Abel 47

48 The Foundations of Mathematics

Abel recorded his final comments on the subject in the 1829
paper “Mémoire sur une classe particulière d’équations résolubles
algébriquement” (Memoir on a particular class of equations that
are algebraically resolvable) that appeared in the same journal as
his 1826 paper. In this work he explained that if the roots of a
polynomial equation satisfied a certain condition then the equation
was solvable by radicals. Building on Abel’s ideas, French math-
ematician Évariste Galois finished the analysis of the topic in 1831,
specifying a complete set of conditions that determined whether or
not an equation was solvable by radicals.

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