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34185221 the Foundations of Math[1]|Views: 1,240|Likes: 21

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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

ax2

+ 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

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

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

not solvable by radicals if

theorem.

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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