In my attempts to understand just how computer algebra systems “do things”, I tried to dig around a bit on Gröbner bases, which are described almost everywhere as “a generalization of the Euclidean algorithm and Gaussian elimination”. I’ve tried to look for examples of Gröbner bases in action, but have been unable to find any (that can be easily understood).
I could go ahead and just ask for an explanation with examples from people, but I’ll go one step further. General plane conics can be represented by the Cartesian equation
One common problem in dealing with conics is finding out if two conics intersect, and if so, where the intersection point(s) are. Usually one can do all this by eliminating variables accordingly.
How would, say, Buchberger’s method, proceed on determining if two given conics intersect, and then find where they intersect?
In order to find the solutions of the system of conics you mention, it suffices to give a procedure to find the projection of the simultaneous vanishing set of the two conics onto some axis, for instance, the y-axis: the coordinates of the projection onto the y-axis are the y-coordinates of the intersection points. Knowing them allows you to substitute back into the equations the values of y and solve a system of equations in a single variable x, thus making the problem simpler. In terms of ideals, suppose that we can find a non-zero element r in the ideal generated by the two conics, that depends only on a single variable, say y. This means that every solution of the system has y-coordinate satisfying the polynomial r. Thus we have severely limited the choices for the y-coordinates of the intersection (namely, they all have to satisfy the polynomial r) and, provided we can actually solve the polynomial r in one variable, we can then substitute the various values of y we found back into the initial equations and solve for x, again using our algorithm for solving polynomials in a single variable. So far, so good, I hope! The question is how to produce the element r. This is where Gröbner bases come in.
In order to do the computation you ask, one would have to choose an appropriate monomial order. I will gloss over this, and simply “do the obvious”. It is an exercise for you to figure out which order to use so that the computation I am going to make is actually a Gröbner bases computation. Scattered throughout the computation there will be also a couple of special cases that I will not deal with: again, you can treat those as exercises for you!
First, I am going to choose a generic basis, so that the first conic has the form
where α and β are polynomials in y only (I am trying to simplify the notation as much as possible; the only “assumption that I have made is that the coefficient of x2 is non-zero, which can be arranged unless the “conic” is defined by a polynomial of degree at most one).
In this basis, the second equation can be assumed to have no x2 term (indeed, eliminating the x2 term using the first equation would be the first step in any reasonable Gröbner basis computation in which the term x2 is the highest term in sight). Thus I am going to write the second conic as
where, as before, γ and δ are polynomials in y only. Again, just to fix on a definite case, I am going to assume that the polynomial γ is non-zero. (If γ were zero, then we would have found a polynomial in the ideal generated by the two conics which only depends on y: this was our goal at the start anyway! Obviously, you should worry about the case γ=δ=0, but I won’t.)
To compute a Gröbner basis, you would now compute S-polynomials: let’s do it here as well. I am going to try to eliminate the x2 term from the first equation, by using the second equation. This is easy: multiply the first equation by γ and the second one by x and take the difference: we are left with the equation
Now we are going to eliminate the x term from this last equation using again the second equation: multiply the second equation by (αγ−δ), the last equation by γ and subtract to obtain
We found an expression independent of x!! We are done… provided this expression is not identically zero. You can figure out what this would mean and what happens in this case. Note also that the final expression is what we would have obtained if, at the very beginning, we had “solved” x=−δγ using the second equation, substituted in the first equation and cleared the denominators.
I hope that this “hybrid” computation explains what is going on: Gröbner bases and Buchberger’s algorithm are a systematic way of “solving” systems of equations. You do not have to do any thinking, once you set up the problem. But you need to set up the problem so that it computes what you want. In this case, you could have used several shortcuts to get to the answer, without following all the steps. In more complicated situations, Buchberger’s algorithm might be the best way of keeping track of all the steps to be taken.
Let me also comment that, except in the case in which you have a computer doing the computations for you, it is highly unlikely that Gröbner bases will help you with a specific question, unless you could have also found simple tricks to solve it right away.