Descartes Signature Explorer

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The Descartes signature of a polynomial gives the maximum number of roots in each angular direction of the complex plane. It arises from the Descartes rule of sweeps, which extends the well-known rule of signs to polynomials with non-real coefficients. Whereas the rule of signs counts the sign changes of a polynomial's coefficient sequence, the rule of sweeps considers the polynomial's "angular sweep". This Demonstration provides a laboratory for investigating the relationships among coefficients, their sweeps, and the corresponding Descartes signature.

Contributed by: B. D. S. "Don" McConnell (March 2011)
Open content licensed under CC BY-NC-SA



Background: The Descartes Rule of Sweeps and the Descartes Signature

The Descartes Rule of Signs states, for a polynomial with non-zero real coefficients, that the number of positive roots is no greater than the number of sign changes in the coefficient sequence. The Rule of Sweeps generalizes this result to cover polynomials with non-real coefficients, and it gives rise to the Descartes signature, a function that conveys information about potential roots in any direction of the complex plane.

Imagine a needle with one end anchored at the origin and the other end initially pointing in the direction of the trailing coefficient of a polynomial, , with (non-zero, but not-necessarily-real) complex coefficients. (The trailing coefficient is the coefficient of the term of least degree.) Let the needle sweep—always counter-clockwise—to point in the direction of the second, third, etc. coefficients, "stalling in place" when successive coefficients lie in the same direction, and tracing out a "sweep spiral". The positive sweep of is the total angle swept by the needle; the negative sweep of is the total angle swept by a clockwise-spinning needle (or, equivalently, a counter-clockwise-spinning needle that takes the coefficients in reverse order); these values are usually different, and the sweepis defined to be the smaller of the two. The sweep plays the role of the sign-change tally from the Descartes Rule of Signs, providing a bound on the number of positive roots of :

The Descartes Rule of Sweeps. The maximum number of positive roots of is , or 1 less if a line through the origin meets the leading and trailing coefficients but misses at least one other.

Note that the first part of the rule of sweeps covers the Descartes rule of signs, since each coefficient sign change contributes to a polynomial's sweep.

To study the roots in a particular direction of the complex plane, define an auxiliary polynomial

, where is the degree of the smallest-degree term of whose coefficients are obtained by "fanning out" the coefficients of by multiples of . If is a positive root of , then is a root of ; thus, applying the rule of sweeps to gives a bound on the number of roots of that lie in direction Treating as a parameter ranging from to , the Descartes Signature—is the function that gives that bound, and thus its graph conveys a comprehensive summary of the potential number of roots of in all directions. Writing , , and for the positive, negative, and minimal sweep of gives the following result:

The maximum number of roots of in direction is given by , where

, or 1 less if etc., etc., etc.

Note: Because the Descartes signature depends only on the directions of a polynomial's coefficients, and not on their magnitudes, an infinite family of polynomials share the same signature. For instance, has the same Descartes signature as , for any positive numbers , , and . As a result, a polynomial's signature rarely reveals unambiguous information about its roots; nevertheless, as this Demonstration shows, the signature can be helpful in ruling out entire intervals of values that cannot serve as directions of roots.

For more information: See "The Descartes Rule of Sweeps and the Descartes Signature" [online PDF].

The Demonstration: The Display Modes

sweep spirals mode shows the coefficients defined by the coefficient angles settings, and the positive (blue) and negative (red) sweep spirals joining them. When the auxiliary angle is non-zero, the display illustrates the "fanning out" process that yields the coefficients and spirals of . The top of the display records the color-coded values of the sweep functions, which give the total angles swept out by the spirals (blue and red), and the minimum of these numbers (purple).

sweep graphs mode shows the graphs of (blue) and (red), revealing these to be piecewise linear functions with predictable jumps: the jumps occur when a coefficient of "catches up with" its predecessor as they fan out; the size of the jump is times the number of instances of this catching-up that occur.

Descartes signature mode shows the graph of (purple) and (black and green). The green dots indicate when the "or 1 less …" aspect of the rule of sweeps has come into play. The top of the display records the value of the Descartes signature function at the current auxiliary angle; this value turns green for "or 1 less ..." values. (See Implementation Caveat below.)

The Demonstration: The Controls

sweep spirals / sweep graphs / Descartes signature: This control selects the display mode (see above).

coefficient angles: Define a polynomial by clicking the checkboxes for the powers to include, and setting the sliders for the direction of the coefficients. (As with the rule of signs, the rule of sweeps ignores the size of the coefficients.)

auxiliary angle (): In sweep spirals mode, this value fans out the polynomial coefficients, with the -th power coefficient rotating through the angle . In sweep graphs and Descartes signature modes, the value controls a vertical indicator of the parameter.

The Demonstration: Things to Try

Polynomials of the form . The Descartes signature clearly identifies symmetrically-spaced angles (corresponding to the "-th roots of unity") as the only viable directions for roots.

Polynomials of the form . Such a polynomial's roots are also roots of unity (except 1 is missing). The Descartes signature is less successful at highlighting them than the preceding example, but the graph is interesting.

Implementation Caveat

The conditions defining the various jumps in the graph involve comparing combinations of numbers against π. This requires a certain amount of computational accuracy, which is undermined by the "play" in the sliders controlling the coefficient and auxiliary angles. The user should therefore not be surprised by errors in the displayed value of at points of discontinuity.

Likewise, the user should be encouraged to validate the (non-)appearance of "green dots" in Descartes signature mode. This can be done by moving the auxiliary angle indicator to a suspect location and then to switch back to sweep spirals mode to verify that the coefficients are (or are reasonably close to being) in their proper configuration.

Note that, for the "or 1 less ..." condition to be considered at all, the polynomial sweep must be a multiple of π (an easy situation to spot, as this happens at the endpoints of the steps in the signature graph); generally speaking, this is enough. For the sweep to be a multiple of π and yet for the "or 1 less ..." condition to fail, all of the coefficients must be collinear with the origin—for instance, they could be all real—which is fairly unusual.

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