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Descartes’ Rule of Signs

Introduction
Given a polynomial P (x) = an xn + an−1 xn−1 + · · · + a1 x + a0 with real coeffi-
cients, the Rational Zero Test provides an easy method for isolating the possible
zeros of the polynomial that are rational numbers. Of course, the list of possi-
ble rational zeros can be lengthy. The Rational Zero Test does not give direct
information concerning irrational zeros and complex zeros. The Fundamental
Theorem of Algebra guarantees that every polynomial of degree n has exactly
n complex zeros (which includes all real zeros), counting multiplicities. In ad-
dition, complex zeros occur in conjugate pairs. This provides good information
about the zeros of a polynomial but does not address the question of finding the
zeros. In general, calculating exact zeros is a difficult problem and much effort
is given in computer science to finding efficient algorithms for finding or approx-
imating zeros. Graphing software is useful in isolating zeros when dealing with
relatively well behaved polynomials. For example, a graph of the polynomial
can be used to eliminate possible rational zeros narrowing the search.
The 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Ren´e Descartes is credited
with discovering a test, which is still useful today in mathematics and computer
science, for discovering the maximum number of positive and negative real zeros.
This test provides additional information about the zeros of a polynomial that
is used, for example, in the construction of algorithms for isolating intervals
containing real zeros.

Suppose that P (x) is a polynomial written in descending powers of x. We
say that P (x) has a variation in sign whenever adjacent coefficients are opposite
in sign. For example, the polynomial

4x7 +3x5 − x4 −2x3 + 5x2 +2x − 7
| {z } | {z } | {z }
+to− −to+ +to−
has three variations in sign. The number of sign changes gives an indication of
the number of possible positive zeros.

THEOREM 1 (Descartes’ Rule of Signs) Let P (x) be a polynomial with real
coefficients.
1. The number of positive zeros of P is either equal to the number of
variations in sign of P (x) or less than this by an even number.
2. The number of negative real zeros of P is either equal to the number of
variations in sign of P (−x) or less than this by an even number.

Notice that Descartes’ Rule of Signs gives information about the number of
real zeros, not just about the number of rational zeros.

Since there are no rational zero candidates in either of these two intervals. . three of which are rational. ±3. Figure 1(c) gives a reasonable sketch of the graph. ± . and x = 32 . ±2. and somewhere in the intervals (−3. five. −0. 2] indicates that the positive zero is at x = 23 . But a polynomial of odd degree must have at least one zero that is real. the poly- nomial has exactly one positive real zero. a polynomial of even degree might have only complex zeros. x = −2.5). there are exactly five real zeros. at −3.5. at x = −3. so there are either six. or seven real zeros. The Rational Zero Test tells us that the rational possibilities for zeros are many: divisors of −36 1 3 9 = ±1. divisors of 2 2 2 2 The graph in Figure 1(a) on the interval [0. if not their precise location. ±9. and exactly one of these is positive. To determine the number of possible negative real zeros. and two of which are irrational. Solution Since P (x) has only one variation in sign (between 31x5 and − x4 ). If we add the information from Descartes’ Rule of Signs and the Intermediate Value Theorem.  y y y 200 200 200 100 100 100 24 22 2 x 24 22 2 x 24 22 2 x 2100 2100 2100 2200 2200 2200 Figure 1 Complex Zeros Because complex zeros must occur in conjugate pairs of the same multiplicity. ±12. three. or zero negative real zeros. ± . ±4. as shown in the following example. four. replace x with −x in P (x) to produce P (−x) = 2(−x)7 + 15(−x)6 + 31(−x)5 − (−x)4 − 49(−x)3 − 52(−x)2 − 78(−x) − 36 = −2x7 + 15x6 − 31x5 − x4 + 49x3 − 52x2 + 78x − 36. ± . two. ±18. −3) and (−1. ±36. we can often determine the character of the zeros. Hence the polynomial can have either one. ±6. The graph in Figure 1(b) shows negative zeros at −2. 2 EXAMPLE 1 Use Descartes’ Rule of Signs to determine the number of possible positive and negative real solutions of the equation P (x) = 2x7 + 15x6 + 31x5 − x4 − 49x3 − 52x2 − 78x − 36 = 0. There are six variations of sign in P (−x).

The polynomial Q(−x) = −2x5 − 4x4 − 3x3 + x + 3 has only one sign change. so the number of real zeros must either be 1. 5). Complex zeros occur in conjugate pairs. P (x) = x3 − 5x2 + 2x + 1 b. Since Q(x) has four changes in sign. Descarte’s Rule of Signs implies that there are either 4. we find that P (4) < 0 but P (5) > 0. so the positive zeros lie in the intervals (0. since P (−x) = −x3 − 5x2 − 2x + 1 has only one change in sign. 2 or 0 positive real zeros. the negative root lies in the interval (−1. y y 8 4 5 Q(x) 5 2x5 2 4x4 1 3x3 2 x 1 3 5 x 25 5 x 28 212 P(x) 5 x3 2 5x2 1 2x 1 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 From this analysis we can conclude that there are three possibilities for the . 1) and (4. and consequently two. The degree of the polynomial Q(x) is odd. There are two sign changes for P (x). since Q(−1) < 0 and Q(0) > 0. positive zeros. The graph of y = P (x) is shown in Figure 2. Experimenting further. it cannot be complex—complex zeros come in conjugate pairs—so the remaining zero must be negative. Since P (x) has only one additional zero. Since P (−1) < 0 and P (0) > 0. b. so Descartes’ Rule of Signs implies that there is precisely one negative real zero of Q. or 5. so it must have at least one real zero. 0). In fact. Because P (0) > 0 and P (1) < 0. 3 EXAMPLE 2 Determine possibilities for the zeros of the following polynomials: a. This also follows from Descartes’ Rule of Signs. 0). this zero lies in the interval (−1. Q(x) = 2x5 − 4x4 + 3x3 − x + 3 Solution a. so Descartes’ Rule of Signs implies that there are either 2 or 0 positive zeros. the Intermediate Value Theorem implies that there is at least one. 3.

P (x) = 9x4 − 9x3 − 19x2 + x + 2 3. P (x) = 4x4 − 17x3 + 28x2 − 22x + 4 8.4 zeros of Q(x): 1 negative real zero 4 positive real zeros 0 complex zeros 1 negative real zero 2 positive real zeros 2 complex zeros 1 negative real zero 0 positive real zeros 4 complex zeros The computer generated graph of y = Q(x) in Figure 3 shows that the last possibility is the most likely. 1. use Descartes’ Rule of Signs to determine the maximum num- ber of positive and negative zeros. P (x) = x5 + 2x4 − x − 2 4. P (x) = x5 − 2x4 + 6x3 + 24x2 + 5x + 26 . Then find all zeros. P (x) = x5 − 2x4 − 9x3 + 8x2 − 22x + 24 In Exercises 5–8. P (x) = 6x4 + 5x3 − 14x2 + x + 2 2. 5. P (x) = x5 + 4x4 − 2x3 − 14x2 − 3x − 18 6. and sketch the graph. factor the polynomial completely. use Descartes’ Rule of Signs to determine possibilities for the zeros of the polynomial.  Exercise Set In Exercises 1–4. P (x) = 2x6 − 7x5 + 15x4 − 26x3 + 28x2 − 15x + 3 7.

The possibilities for the zeros of P (x) are: positive real zeros negative real zeros complex zeros 1 4 0 1 2 2 1 0 4 The figure indicates that the second case in the table describes the zeros of the polynomial. so the only possibilities for negative real zeros are 4. Since P (−x) = 6x4 − 5x3 − 14x2 − x + 2 has 2 sign changes the maximum number of negative real zeros is 2. 5. Since P (−x) = −x5 + 4x4 + 2x3 − 14x2 + 3x − 18 has 4 sign changes the maximum number of negative real zeros is 4. and 2. Since P (x) = 6x4 + 5x3 − 14x2 + x + 2 has 2 sign changes the maximum number of positive real zeros is 2. In addition. Since P (x) = x5 + 4x4 − 2x3 − 14x2 − 3x − 18 has 1 sign changes there is 1 positive real zero. In addition. The possibilities for the zeros of P (x) are: . complex zeros occur in conjugate pairs. and 2. Since P (x) = 4x4 − 17x3 + 28x2 − 22x + 4 has 4 sign changes the maximum number of positive real zeros is 4. Since P (−x) = 4x4 +17x3 +28x2 +22x+4 has 0 sign changes there are no negative real zeros. Since P (x) = x5 + 2x4 − x − 2 has 1 sign changes there is exactly 1 positive real zero. 3. complex zeros occur in conjugate pairs. 7. so the only possibilities for positive real zeros are 4. 5 Answers to Exercises 1. Notice that the negative real root has multiplicity 2. 0. 0. Since P (−x) = −x5 + 2x4 + x − 2 has 2 sign changes the maximum number of negative real zeros is 2.

6 positive real zeros negative real zeros complex zeros 4 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 4 The figure indicates that the second case in the table describes the zeros of the polynomial. .