EQUATION (from Lat. aequatio, aequare, to equalize), an expression or statement of the equality of two quantities. Mathematical equivalence is denoted by the sign =, a symbol invented by Robert Recorde (1510–1558), who considered that nothing could be more equal than two equal and parallel straight lines. An equation states an equality existing between two classes of quantities, distinguished as known and unknown; these correspond to the data of a problem and the thing sought. It is the purpose of the mathematician to state the unknowns separately in terms of the knowns; this is called solving the equation, and the values of the unknowns so obtained are called the roots or solutions. The unknowns are usually denoted by the terminal letters, . . . x, y, z, of the alphabet, and the knowns are either actual numbers or are represented by the literals a, b, c, &c.. . ., i.e. the introductory letters of the alphabet. Any number or literal which expresses what multiple of term occurs in an equation is called the coefficient of that term; and the term which does not contain an unknown is called the absolute term. The degree of an equation is equal to the greatest index of an unknown in the equation, or to the greatest sum of the indices of products of unknowns. If each term has the sum of its indices the same, the equation is said to be homogeneous. These definitions are exemplified in the equations:—
|(1) ax2 + 2bx + c = 0,|
|(2) xy2 + 4a2x = 8a3,|
|(3) ax2 + 2hxy + by2 = 0.|
In (1) the unknown is x, and the knowns a, b, c; the coefficients of x2 and x are a and 2b; the absolute term is c, and the degree is 2. In (2) the unknowns are x and y, and the known a; the degree is 3, i.e. the sum of the indices in the term xy2. (3) is a homogeneous equation of the second degree in x and y. Equations of the first degree are called simple or linear; of the second, quadratic; of the third, cubic; of the fourth, biquadratic; of the fifth, quintic, and so on. Of equations containing only one unknown the number of roots equals the degree of the equation; thus a simple equation has one root, a quadratic two, a cubic three, and so on. If one equation be given containing two unknowns, as for example ax + by = c or ax2 + by2 = c, it is seen that there are an infinite number of roots, for we can give x, say, any value and then determine the corresponding value of y; such an equation is called indeterminate; of the examples chosen the first is a linear and the second a quadratic indeterminate equation. In general, an indeterminate equation results when the number of unknowns exceeds by unity the number of equations. If, on the other hand, we have two equations connecting two unknowns, it is possible to solve the equations separately for one unknown, and then if we equate these values we obtain an equation in one unknown, which is soluble if its degree does not exceed the fourth. By substituting these values the corresponding values of the other unknown are determined. Such equations are called simultaneous; and a simultaneous system is a series of equations equal in number to the number of unknowns. Such a system is not always soluble, for it may happen that one equation is implied by the others; when this occurs the system is called porismatic or poristic. An identity differs from an equation inasmuch as it cannot be solved, the terms mutually cancelling; for example, the expression x2 − a2 = (x − a)(x + a) is an identity, for on reduction it gives 0 = 0. It is usual to employ the sign ≡ to express this relation.
An equation admits of description in two ways:—(1) It may be regarded purely as an algebraic expression, or (2) as a geometrical locus. In the first case there is obviously no limit to the number of unknowns and to the degree of the equation; and, consequently, this aspect is the most general. In the second case the number of unknowns is limited to three, corresponding to the three dimensions of space; the degree is unlimited as before. It must be noticed, however, that by the introduction of appropriate hyperspaces, i.e. of degree equal to the number of unknowns, any equation theoretically admits of geometrical visualization, in other words, every equation may be represented by a geometrical figure and every geometrical figure by an equation. Corresponding to these two aspects, there are two typical methods by which equations can be solved, viz. the algebraic and geometric. The former leads to exact results, or, by methods of approximation, to results correct to any required degree of accuracy. The latter can only yield approximate values: when theoretically exact constructions are available there is a source of error in the draughtsmanship, and when the constructions are only approximate, the accuracy of the results is more problematical. The geometric aspect, however, is of considerable value in discussing the theory of equations.
History.—There is little doubt that the earliest solutions of equations are given, in the Rhind papyrus, a hieratic document written some 2000 years before our era. The problems solved were of an arithmetical nature, assuming such forms as “a mass and its 1th makes 19.” Calling the unknown mass x, we have given x + 1 x = 19, which is a simple equation. Arithmetical problems also gave origin to equations involving two unknowns; the early Greeks were familiar with and solved simultaneous linear equations, but indeterminate equations, such, for instance, as the system given in the “cattle problem” of Archimedes, were not seriously studied until Diophantus solved many particular problems. Quadratic equations arose in the Greek investigations in the doctrine of proportion, and although they were presented and solved in a geometrical form, the methods employed have no relation to the generalized conception of algebraic geometry which represents a curve by an equation and vice versa. The simplest quadratic arose in the construction of a mean proportional (x) between two lines (a, b), or in the construction of a square equal to a given rectangle; for we have the proportion a:x = x:b; i.e. x2 = ab. A more general equation, viz. x2 − ax + a2 = 0, is the algebraic equivalent of the problem to divide a line in medial section; this is solved in Euclid, ii. 11. It is possible that Diophantus was in possession of an algebraic solution of quadratics; he recognized, however, only one root, the interpretation of both being first effected by the Hindu Bhaskara. A simple cubic equation was presented in the problem of finding two mean proportionals, x, y, between two lines, one double the other. We have a:x = x:y = y:2a, which gives x2 = ay and xy = 2a2; eliminating y we obtain x3 = 2a3, a simple cubic. The Greeks could not solve this equation, which also arose in the problems of duplicating a cube and trisecting an angle, by the ruler and compasses, but only by mechanical curves such as the cissoid, conchoid and quadratrix. Such solutions were much improved by the Arabs, who also solved both cubics and biquadratics by means of intersecting conics; at the same time, they developed methods, originated by Diophantus and improved by the Hindus, for finding approximate roots of numerical equations by algebraic processes. The algebraic solution of the general cubic and biquadratic was effected in the 16th century by S. Ferro, N. Tartaglia, H. Cardan and L. Ferrari (see Algebra: History). Many fruitless attempts were made to solve algebraically the quintic equation until P. Ruffini and N. H. Abel proved the problem to be impossible; a solution involving elliptic functions has been given by C. Hermite and L. Kronecker, while F. Klein has given another solution.
In the geometric treatment of equations the Greeks and Arabs based their constructions upon certain empirically deduced properties of the curves and figures employed. Knowing various metrical relations, generally expressed as proportions, it was found possible to solve particular equations, but a general method was wanting. This lacuna was not filled until the 17th century, when Descartes discovered the general theory which explained the nature of such solutions, in particular those wherein conics were employed, and, in addition, established the most important facts that every equation represents a geometrical locus, and conversely. To represent equations containing two unknowns, x, y, he chose two axes of reference mutually perpendicular, and measured x along the horizontal axis and y along the vertical. Then by the methods described in the article Geometry: Analytical, he showed that—(1) a linear equation represents a straight line, and (2) a quadratic represents a conic. If the equation be homogeneous or break up into factors, it represents a number of straight lines in the first case, and the loci corresponding to the factors in the second. The solution of simultaneous equations is easily seen to be the values of x, y corresponding to the intersections of the loci. It follows that there is only one value of x, y which satisfies two linear equations, since two lines intersect in one point only; two values which satisfy a linear and quadratic, since a line intersects a conic in two points; and four values which satisfy two quadratics, since two conics intersect in four points. It may happen that the curves do not actually intersect in the theoretical maximum number of points; the principle of continuity (see Geometrical Continuity) shows us that in such cases some of the roots are imaginary. To represent equations involving three unknowns x, y, z, a third axis is introduced, the z-axis, perpendicular to the plane xy and passing through the intersection of the lines x, y. In this notation a linear equation represents a plane, and two linear simultaneous equations represent a line, i.e. the intersection of two planes; a quadratic equation represents a surface of the second degree. In order to graphically consider equations containing only one unknown, it is convenient to equate the terms to y; i.e. if the equation be ƒ(x) = 0, we take y = ƒ(x) and construct this curve on rectangular Cartesian co-ordinates by determining the values of y which correspond to chosen values of x, and describing a curve through the points so obtained. The intersections of the curve with the axis of x gives the real roots of the equation; imaginary roots are obviously not represented.
In this article we shall treat of: (1) Simultaneous equations, (2) indeterminate equations, (3) cubic equations, (4) biquadratic equations, (5) theory of equations. Simple, linear simultaneous and quadratic equations are treated in the article Algebra; for differential equations see Differential Equations.