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Algebra is a branch of mathematics concerning the study of structure, relation and quantity. The name is derived from the treatise written in Arabic by the Persian mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and geographer, Muhammad bin Mūsā al-Khwārizmī titled Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala (meaning " The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing"), which provided symbolic operations for the systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations.

Together with geometry, analysis, combinatorics, and number theory, algebra is one of the main branches of mathematics. Elementary algebra is often part of the curriculum in secondary education and provides an introduction to the basic ideas of algebra, including effects of adding and multiplying numbers, the concept of variables, definition of polynomials, along with factorization and determining their roots.

Algebra is much broader than elementary algebra and can be generalized. In addition to working directly with numbers, algebra covers working with symbols, variables, and set elements. Addition and multiplication are viewed as general operations, and their precise definitions lead to structures such as groups, rings and fields.


Algebra may be divided roughly into the following categories:

  • Elementary algebra, in which the properties of operations on the real number system are recorded using symbols as "place holders" to denote constants and variables, and the rules governing mathematical expressions and equations involving these symbols are studied (note that this usually includes the subject matter of courses called intermediate algebra and college algebra), also called second year and third year algebra;
  • Abstract algebra, sometimes also called modern algebra, in which algebraic structures such as groups, rings and fields are axiomatically defined and investigated; this includes, among other fields,
  • Linear algebra, in which the specific properties of vector spaces are studied (including matrices);
  • Universal algebra, in which properties common to all algebraic structures are studied.
  • Algebraic number theory, in which the properties of numbers are studied through algebraic systems. Number theory inspired much of the original abstraction in algebra.
  • Algebraic geometry in its algebraic aspect.
  • Algebraic combinatorics, in which abstract algebraic methods are used to study combinatorial questions.

In some directions of advanced study, axiomatic algebraic systems such as groups, rings, fields, and algebras over a field are investigated in the presence of a geometric structure (a metric or a topology) which is compatible with the algebraic structure. The list includes a number of areas of functional analysis:

  • Normed linear spaces
  • Banach spaces
  • Hilbert spaces
  • Banach algebras
  • Normed algebras
  • Topological algebras
  • Topological groups

Elementary algebra

Elementary algebra is the most basic form of algebra. It is taught to students who are presumed to have no knowledge of mathematics beyond the basic principles of arithmetic. In arithmetic, only numbers and their arithmetical operations (such as +, −, ×, ÷) occur. In algebra, numbers are often denoted by symbols (such as a, x, or y). This is useful because:

  • It allows the general formulation of arithmetical laws (such as a + b = b + a for all a and b), and thus is the first step to a systematic exploration of the properties of the real number system.
  • It allows the reference to "unknown" numbers, the formulation of equations and the study of how to solve these (for instance, "Find a number x such that 3x + 1 = 10").
  • It allows the formulation of functional relationships (such as "If you sell x tickets, then your profit will be 3x - 10 dollars, or f(x) = 3x - 10, where f is the function, and x is the number to which the function is applied.").


A polynomial is an expression that is constructed from one or more variables and constants, using only the operations of addition, subtraction, and multiplication (where repeated multiplication of the same variable is standardly denoted as exponentiation with a constant positive whole number exponent). For example, x^2 + 2x -3\, is a polynomial in the single variable x.

An important class of problems in algebra is factorization of polynomials, that is, expressing a given polynomial as a product of other polynomials. The example polynomial above can be factored as (x-1)(x+3)\,\!. A related class of problems is finding algebraic expressions for the roots of a polynomial in a single variable.

Abstract algebra

Abstract algebra extends the familiar concepts found in elementary algebra and arithmetic of numbers to more general concepts.

Sets: Rather than just considering the different types of numbers, abstract algebra deals with the more general concept of sets: a collection of all objects (called elements) selected by property, specific for the set. All collections of the familiar types of numbers are sets. Other examples of sets include the set of all two-by-two matrices, the set of all second-degree polynomials (ax2 + bx + c), the set of all two dimensional vectors in the plane, and the various finite groups such as the cyclic groups which are the group of integers modulo n. Set theory is a branch of logic and not technically a branch of algebra.

Binary operations: The notion of addition (+) is abstracted to give a binary operation, * say. The notion of binary operation is meaningless without the set on which the operation is defined. For two elements a and b in a set S a*b gives another element in the set; this condition is called closure. Addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication (×), and division (÷) can be binary operations when defined on different sets, as is addition and multiplication of matrices, vectors, and polynomials.

Identity elements: The numbers zero and one are abstracted to give the notion of an identity element for an operation. Zero is the identity element for addition and one is the identity element for multiplication. For a general binary operator * the identity element e must satisfy a * e = a and e * a = a. This holds for addition as a + 0 = a and 0 + a = a and multiplication a × 1 = a and 1 × a = a. However, if we take the positive natural numbers and addition, there is no identity element.

Inverse elements: The negative numbers give rise to the concept of inverse elements. For addition, the inverse of a is -a, and for multiplication the inverse is 1/a. A general inverse element a-1 must satisfy the property that a * a-1 = e and a-1 * a = e.

Associativity: Addition of integers has a property called associativity. That is, the grouping of the numbers to be added does not affect the sum. For example: (2+3)+4=2+(3+4). In general, this becomes (a * b) * c = a * (b * c). This property is shared by most binary operations, but not subtraction or division or octonion multiplication.

Commutativity: Addition of integers also has a property called commutativity. That is, the order of the numbers to be added does not affect the sum. For example: 2+3=3+2. In general, this becomes a * b = b * a. Only some binary operations have this property. It holds for the integers with addition and multiplication, but it does not hold for matrix multiplication or quaternion multiplication .

Groups—structures of a set with a single binary operation

Combining the above concepts gives one of the most important structures in mathematics: a group. A group is a combination of a set S and a single binary operation '*', defined in any way you choose, but with the following properties:

  • An identity element e exists, such that for every member a of S, e * a and a * e are both identical to a.
  • Every element has an inverse: for every member a of S, there exists a member a-1 such that a * a-1 and a-1 * a are both identical to the identity element.
  • The operation is associative: if a, b and c are members of S, then (a * b) * c is identical to a * (b * c).

If a group is also commutative - that is, for any two members a and b of S, a * b is identical to b * a – then the group is said to be Abelian.

For example, the set of integers under the operation of addition is a group. In this group, the identity element is 0 and the inverse of any element a is its negation, -a. The associativity requirement is met, because for any integers a, b and c, (a + b) + c = a + (b + c)

The nonzero rational numbers form a group under multiplication. Here, the identity element is 1, since 1 × a = a × 1 = a for any rational number a. The inverse of a is 1/a, since a × 1/a = 1.

The integers under the multiplication operation, however, do not form a group. This is because, in general, the multiplicative inverse of an integer is not an integer. For example, 4 is an integer, but its multiplicative inverse is 1/4, which is not an integer.

The theory of groups is studied in group theory. A major result in this theory is the classification of finite simple groups, mostly published between about 1955 and 1983, which is thought to classify all of the finite simple groups into roughly 30 basic types.

Set: Natural numbers \mathbb{N} Integers \mathbb{Z} Rational numbers \mathbb{Q} (also real \mathbb{R} and complex \mathbb{C} numbers) Integers mod 3: {0,1,2}
Operation + × (w/o zero) + × (w/o zero) + × (w/o zero) ÷ (w/o zero) + × (w/o zero)
Closed Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Identity 0 1 0 1 0 NA 1 NA 0 1
Inverse NA NA -a NA -a NA \begin{matrix} \frac{1}{a} \end{matrix} NA 0,2,1, respectively NA, 1, 2, respectively
Associative Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No Yes Yes
Commutative Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No Yes Yes
Structure monoid monoid Abelian group monoid Abelian group quasigroup Abelian group quasigroup Abelian group Abelian group (\mathbb{Z}_2)

Semigroups, quasigroups, and monoids are structures similar to groups, but more general. They comprise a set and a closed binary operation, but do not necessarily satisfy the other conditions. A semigroup has an associative binary operation, but might not have an identity element. A monoid is a semigroup which does have an identity but might not have an inverse for every element. A quasigroup satisfies a requirement that any element can be turned into any other by a unique pre- or post-operation; however the binary operation might not be associative. All are instance of groupoids, structures with a binary operation upon which no further conditions are imposed.

All groups are monoids, and all monoids are semigroups.

Rings and fields—structures of a set with two particular binary operations, (+) and (×)

Groups just have one binary operation. To fully explain the behaviour of the different types of numbers, structures with two operators need to be studied. The most important of these are rings, and fields.

Distributivity generalised the distributive law for numbers, and specifies the order in which the operators should be applied, (called the precedence). For the integers (a + b) × c = a×c+ b×c and c × (a + b) = c×a + c×b, and × is said to be distributive over +.

A ring has two binary operations (+) and (×), with × distributive over +. Under the first operator (+) it forms an Abelian group. Under the second operator (×) it is associative, but it does not need to have identity, or inverse, so division is not allowed. The additive (+) identity element is written as 0 and the additive inverse of a is written as −a.

The integers are an example of a ring. The integers have additional properties which make it an integral domain.

A field is a ring with the additional property that all the elements excluding 0 form an Abelian group under ×. The multiplicative (×) identity is written as 1 and the multiplicative inverse of a is written as a-1.

The rational numbers, the real numbers and the complex numbers are all examples of fields.

Objects called algebras

The word algebra is also used for various algebraic structures:

  • Algebra over a field or more generally Algebra over a ring
  • Algebra over a set
  • Boolean algebra
  • F-algebra and F-coalgebra in category theory
  • Sigma-algebra


A page from Al-Khwārizmī's al-Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala

The origins of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians, who developed an advanced arithmetical system with which they were able to do calculations in an algebraic fashion. With the use of this system they were able to apply formulas and calculate solutions for unknown values for a class of problems typically solved today by using linear equations, quadratic equations, and indeterminate linear equations. By contrast, most Egyptians of this era, and most Indian, Greek and Chinese mathematicians in the first millennium BC, usually solved such equations by geometric methods, such as those described in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, Sulba Sutras, Euclid's Elements, and The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art. The geometric work of the Greeks, typified in the Elements, provided the framework for generalizing formulae beyond the solution of particular problems into more general systems of stating and solving equations.

Later, the Indian mathematicians developed algebraic methods to a high degree of sophistication. Although Diophantus and the Babylonians used mostly special ad hoc methods to solve equations, Brahmagupta was the first to solve equations using general methods. He solved the linear indeterminate equations, quadratic equations, second order indeterminate equations and equations with multiple variable.

The word "algebra" is named after the Arabic word "al-jabr" from the title of the book al-Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala, meaning The book of Summary Concerning Calculating by Transposition and Reduction, a book written by the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-khwārizmī in 820. The word Al-Jabr means "reunion". The Hellenistic mathematician Diophantus has traditionally been known as "the father of algebra" but debate now exists as to whether or not Al-Khwarizmi should take that title. Those who support Al-Khwarizmi point to the fact that much of his work on reduction is still in use today and that he gave an exhaustive explanation of solving quadratic equations. Those who support Diophantus point to the fact that the algebra found in Al-Jabr is more elementary than the algebra found in Arithmetica and that Arithmetica is syncopated while Al-Jabr is fully rhetorical. Another Persian mathematician, Omar Khayyam, developed algebraic geometry and found the general geometric solution of the cubic equation. The Indian mathematicians Mahavira and Bhaskara II, and the Chinese mathematician Zhu Shijie, solved various cases of cubic, quartic, quintic and higher-order polynomial equations.

Another key event in the further development of algebra was the general algebraic solution of the cubic and quartic equations, developed in the mid-16th century. The idea of a determinant was developed by Japanese mathematician Kowa Seki in the 17th century, followed by Gottfried Leibniz ten years later, for the purpose of solving systems of simultaneous linear equations using matrices. Gabriel Cramer also did some work on matrices and determinants in the 18th century. Abstract algebra was developed in the 19th century, initially focusing on what is now called Galois theory, and on constructibility issues.

The stages of the development of symbolic algebra are roughly as follows:

  • Rhetorical algebra, which was developed by the Babylonians and remained dominant up to the 16th century;
  • Geometric constructive algebra, which was emphasised by the Vedic Indian and classical Greek mathematicians;
  • Syncopated algebra, as developed by Diophantus, Brahmagupta and the Bakhshali Manuscript; and
  • Symbolic algebra, which was initiated by Abū al-Hasan ibn Alī al-Qalasādī and sees its culmination in the work of Gottfried Leibniz.
Cover of the 1621 edition of Diophantus's Arithmetica, translated into Latin by Claude Gaspard Bachet de Méziriac.

A timeline of key algebraic developments are as follows:

  • Circa 1800 BC: The Old Babylonian Strassburg tablet seeks the solution of a quadratic elliptic equation.
  • Circa 1600 BC: The Plimpton 322 tablet gives a table of Pythagorean triples in Babylonian Cuneiform script.
  • Circa 800 BC: Indian mathematician Baudhayana, in his Baudhayana Sulba Sutra, discovers Pythagorean triples algebraically, finds geometric solutions of linear equations and quadratic equations of the forms ax2 = c and ax2 + bx = c, and finds two sets of positive integral solutions to a set of simultaneous Diophantine equations.
  • Circa 600 BC: Indian mathematician Apastamba, in his Apastamba Sulba Sutra, solves the general linear equation and uses simultaneous Diophantine equations with up to five unknowns.
  • Circa 300 BC: In Book II of his Elements, Euclid gives a geometric construction with Euclidean tools for the solution of the quadratic equation for positive real roots. The construction is due to the Pythagorean School of geometry.
  • Circa 300 BC: A geometric construction for the solution of the cubic is sought (doubling the cube problem). It is now well known that the general cubic has no such solution using Euclidean tools.
  • Circa 100 BC: Algebraic equations are treated in the Chinese mathematics book Jiuzhang suanshu (The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art), which contains solutions of linear equations solved using the rule of double false position, geometric solutions of quadratic equations, and the solutions of matrices equivalent to the modern method, to solve systems of simultaneous linear equations.
  • Circa 100 BC: The Bakhshali Manuscript written in ancient India uses a form of algebraic notation using letters of the alphabet and other signs, and contains cubic and quartic equations, algebraic solutions of linear equations with up to five unknowns, the general algebraic formula for the quadratic equation, and solutions of indeterminate quadratic equations and simultaneous equations.
  • Circa 150 AD: Hero of Alexandria treats algebraic equations in three volumes of mathematics.
  • Circa 200: Diophantus, who lived in Egypt and is often considered the "father of algebra", writes his famous Arithmetica, a work featuring solutions of algebraic equations and on the theory of numbers.
  • 499: Indian mathematician Aryabhata, in his treatise Aryabhatiya, obtains whole-number solutions to linear equations by a method equivalent to the modern one, describes the general integral solution of the indeterminate linear equation and gives integral solutions of simultaneous indeterminate linear equations.
  • Circa 625: Chinese mathematician Wang Xiaotong finds numerical solutions of cubic equations.
  • 628: Indian mathematician Brahmagupta, in his treatise Brahma Sputa Siddhanta, invents the chakravala method of solving indeterminate quadratic equations, including Pell's equation, and gives rules for solving linear and quadratic equations.
  • 820: The word algebra is derived from operations described in the treatise written by the Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Ḵwārizmī titled Al-Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala (meaning "The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing") on the systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations. Al-Khwarizmi is often considered as the "father of algebra", much of whose works on reduction was included in the book and added to many methods we have in algebra now.
  • Circa 850: Persian mathematician al-Mahani conceived the idea of reducing geometrical problems such as duplicating the cube to problems in algebra.
  • Circa 850: Indian mathematician Mahavira solves various quadratic, cubic, quartic, quintic and higher-order equations, as well as indeterminate quadratic, cubic and higher-order equations.
  • Circa 990: Persian Abu Bakr al-Karaji, in his treatise al-Fakhri, further develops algebra by extending Al-Khwarizmi's methodology to incorporate integral powers and integral roots of unknown quantities. He replaces geometrical operations of algebra with modern arithmetical operations, and defines the monomials x, x2, x3, ... and 1/x, 1/x2, 1/x3, ... and gives rules for the products of any two of these.
  • Circa 1050: Chinese mathematician Jia Xian finds numerical solutions of polynomial equations.
  • 1072: Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam develops algebraic geometry and, in the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, gives a complete classification of cubic equations with general geometric solutions found by means of intersecting conic sections.
  • 1114: Indian mathematician Bhaskara, in his Bijaganita (Algebra), recognizes that a positive number has both a positive and negative square root, and solves various cubic, quartic and higher-order polynomial equations, as well as the general quadratic indeterminant equation.
  • 1202: Algebra is introduced to Europe largely through the work of Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa in his work Liber Abaci.
  • Circa 1300: Chinese mathematician Zhu Shijie deals with polynomial algebra, solves quadratic equations, simultaneous equations and equations with up to four unknowns, and numerically solves some quartic, quintic and higher-order polynomial equations.
  • Circa 1400: Indian mathematician Madhava of Sangamagramma finds iterative methods for approximate solution of non-linear equations.
  • Circa 1450: Arab mathematician Abū al-Hasan ibn Alī al-Qalasādī took "the first steps toward the introduction of algebraic symbolism." He represented mathematical symbols using characters from the Arabic alphabet.
  • 1535: Nicolo Fontana Tartaglia and others mathematicians in Italy independently solved the general cubic equation.
  • 1545: Girolamo Cardano publishes Ars magna -The great art which gives Fontana's solution to the general quartic equation.
  • 1572: Rafael Bombelli recognizes the complex roots of the cubic and improves current notation.
  • 1591: Francois Viete develops improved symbolic notation for various powers of an unknown and uses vowels for unknowns and consonants for constants in In artem analyticam isagoge.
  • 1631: Thomas Harriot in a posthumous publication uses exponential notation and is the first to use symbols to indicate "less than" and "greater than".
  • 1682: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz develops his notion of symbolic manipulation with formal rules which he calls characteristica generalis.
  • 1680s: Japanese mathematician Kowa Seki, in his Method of solving the dissimulated problems, discovers the determinant, and Bernoulli numbers.
  • 1750: Gabriel Cramer, in his treatise Introduction to the analysis of algebraic curves, states Cramer's rule and studies algebraic curves, matrices and determinants.
  • 1824: Niels Henrik Abel proved that the general quintic equation is insoluble by radicals.
  • 1832: Galois theory is developed by Évariste Galois in his work on abstract algebra.
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