Cardano's method provides a technique for solving the general cubic equation
ax3 + bx2 + cx + d = 0
in terms of radicals. As with the quadratic equation, it involves a "discriminant" whose sign determines the number (1, 2, or 3) of real solutions. However, its implementation requires substantially more technique than does the quadratic formula. For example, in the "irreducible case" of three real solutions, it calls for the evaluation of the cube roots of complex numbers.
In outline, Cardano's methods involves the following steps:
1. "Eliminate the square term" by the substitution y = x + b/3a. Rather than keeping track of such a substitution relative to the original cubic, the method often begins with an equation in the reduced form
x3 + px + q = 0.
2. Letting x = u+v, rewrite the above equation as
u3 + v3 +(u+v)(3uv + p) + q = 0.
3. Setting 3uv + p = 0, the above equation becomes u3 + v3 = -q. In this way, we obtain the system
Since this system specifies both the sum and product of u3 and v3, it enables us to determine a quadratic equation whose roots are u3 and v3. This equation is
u3 + v3 = -q
u3v3 = -p3/27.
t2 + qt -p3/27
In order to find u and v, we are now obligated to find the cube roots of these solutions. In the case
27q2 + 4p3 < 0
this entails finding the cube roots of complex numbers.
Even in the case 27q2 + 4p3 > 0, there are some unexpected wrinkles. These are illustrated by the equation
x3 + x2 - 2 = 0
for which x = 1 is clearly a solution. Although Cardano's method enables one to find this root without confronting cube roots of complex numbers, it displays the solution x = 1 in the rather obscure form
It is against this historical background that Chapter I of IADM develops an iteration-based alternative to Cardano's method at the pre-calculus level, one that is derived from "a Babylonian technique for finding cube roots."
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