I’m hoping that this isn’t such a basic question that it gets completely laughed off the site, but why would I want to multiply two polynomials together?
I flipped through some algebra books and have googled around a bit, and whenever they introduce polynomial multiplication they just say ‘Suppose you have two polynomials you wish to multiply’, or sometimes it’s just as simple as ‘find the product’. I even looked for some example story problems, hoping that might let me in on the secret, but no dice.
I understand that a polynomial is basically a set of numbers (or, if you’d rather, a mapping of one set of numbers to another), or, in another way of thinking about it, two polynomials are functions, and the product of the two functions is a new function that lets you apply the function once, provided you were planning on applying the original functions to the number and then multiplying the result together.
Elementary multiplication can be described as ‘add X to itself Y times’, where Y is a nice integer number of times. When Y is not a whole number, it doesn’t seem to make as much sense.
You have two questions, the explicit one about why you would want to multiply polynomials, and an implicit one in your final paragraph about what multiplication by a non-integer might mean or why we would care to multiply by a non-integer in the first place.
To address the last one first: once you have multiplication by integers, multiplication by fractions will very quickly rear its head. What does multiplying by “one and a half” mean, if multiplying by 2 means “add to itself”, etc? Well, imagine you have a chocolate bar, those that are made up of smaller squares. You can imagine breaking the bar in half, and then figuring out what three times that half will be; that will be multiplying by “three halves” (a.k.a one and a half). You are really multiplying by an integer, after suitably modifying X.
In general, if you need to multiply X by a fraction, pq, imagine dividing X into q equal parts, and then multiplying such a qth part of X by p in the sense you have above. That is the same as “multiplying by pq“. So multiplying by a fraction is like “abbreviated addition”: it means “break up into q equal parts, and then add a qth part repeatedly p times.”
So at least, multiplying by fractions makes just as much “natural sense” as multiplying by integers does.
Why bother with numbers other than fractions then? Well, in one sense you don’t have to: you can try to stick to fractions and nothing more complicated than that, and you can go very far. But as the Greeks discovered a long time ago, you also run into very big walls very quickly. For instance, if you draw a square which is 1 foot long on each side, and you try to measure how long its diagonal is (say, for construction purposes), then it turns out that the diagonal is not a number that can be expressed as a fraction; it is an irrational number. So very soon you end up having to consider numbers that are not fractions, and if they are lying around sooner or later you are going to have to multiply them to compute stuff.
So you end up having to find some way of multiplying irrationals as well, even though they no longer seem to fit with that same “natural” meaning they had back when we started with integers. One solution is that every irrational can be approximated by a suitable sequence of fractions (think about computing the decimals one at a time; every time you stop, what you have so far as a rational; for example, √2=1.4142…, and you get that 1.4=1410, 1.41=141100, 1.414=14141000, etc.) We know what it means to multiply X by each of those fractions in a sensible way, so we say that multiplying X by √2 is the number you get by doing the successive multiplications, just like √2 is the number you get by doing the successive fractional approximations.
This no longer makes sense as “abbreviated addition”, but it turns out that it is very, very necessary and very, very useful, in order to make sense of things and be able to compute things that we need to be able to compute (areas, productivity, interest, etc).
As for multiplying polynomials…
One answer: multiplying functions lets you construct more complicated functions out of simpler ones. Or more to the point, it lets you express more complicated functions in terms of simpler ones. This is particularly important if you want to perform complex computations, as then you my be able to “get away” with performing much simpler computations and then multiplying the results, rather than do the really complicated expression instead.
For instance, say you have a single polynomial like p(x)=x2−7x+10. If you realize that p(x) is the result of multiplying the simpler polynomial x−2 by the (also simpler) polynomial x−5, then whenever you need to evaluate p(x) at a number, say 17, instead of having to square 17, then multiply it by 7, subtract that form the square you computed, and then adding 10 (three multiplications and two additions/subtractions), you can instead take 17, subtract 2 to get 15; then take 17, subtract 5 to get 12; and then multiply 15 by 12 (one multiplication and two additions/subtractions), because x2−7x+10=(x−2)(x−5), so (17)2−7(17)+10=(17−2)(17−5). Much simpler to do.
Another: it is usually very hard to find a value x for which the result of doing some complex series of operations will be a desired quantity, d. For example, you want to know how much money to put in the bank so that, at the end of five months at a particular interest rate, you will have exactly the amount of money you need to buy that new wide-screen TV. This involves solving equations. Many natural equations can be written down in the form p(x)=c where p(x) is a polynomial expression in the unknown quantity x, and c is the desired value. Solving such equations can be dificult in general. If you don’t know the quadratic formula, then figuring out the values of x for which the polynomial above x2−7x+10 is equal to zero can be pretty difficult. Or think about something like x4+x3−120x2−121x=121.
On the other hand, figuring out when a product is equal to 0 is very easy, because the only way for a product to be zero is if one of the two factors is equal to zero. So if you take the equation above and you write it as x4+x3−120x2−121x−121=0, then you are trying to find when a certain polynomial is equal to 0. If you can write q(x)=x4+x3−120x2−121x−121 as a product, q(x)=p(x)r(x), then you have that q(x)=0 if and only if either p(x)=0 or r(x)=0. With some luck, p and r will be “easier” than q, so you can solve them. (In the above case, q(x)=(x2−121)(x2+x+1)=(x−11)(x+11)(x2+x+1), so the only way you can get q(x)=0 is if x=11 or x=−11).
In fact, this is one way to figure out the quadratic formula (did you ever wonder where it came from?). Why are the solutions to ax2+bx+c=0 given by x=−b±√b2−4ac2a? You can factor out a and get a(x2+Bx+C)=0, with B=ba and C=ca. For this to be zero, you need x2+Bx+C=0. Now, imagine you could write it as a product,
What would r1 and r2 be? If you know how to multiply polynomials, you get that (x−r1)(x−r2)=x2−(r1+r2)x+r1r2, so you need r1r2=C and r1+r2=−B. Squaring the latter you get (r1+r2)2=B2; but
(r1+r2)2=r21+2r1r2+r22. On the other hand,
So (r1−r2)2=B2−4C. Taking square roots, you have that r1−r2=±√B2−4C. And you already know that r1+r2=−B. Adding them you get
and taking the difference between r1+r2=−B and r1−r2=±√B2−4C you get
So you get that r1=−B+√B2−4C2 and r2=−B−√B2−4C2, and plugging in B=ba and C=ca gives the usual quadratic formula. No way to find it without knowing how to multiply polynomials!
When you get to Calculus (added: I’m assuming you will “get to Calculus” because you tagged the question as being (algebra-precalculus), so presumably you are taking a course labeled as ‘precalculus’; but this may not be the case. If you are not going to “get to Calculus”, then this paragraph will not tell you anything useful), you will find that there is a particular operation (differentiation, taking derivatives) which is very useful and very important. It tells you how fast a certain quantity is changing, and it can be used to find all sorts of useful things, like what production level will maximize profit in a factory, how big a dose of medicine and how often you should give to a patient based on how fast they metabolize it, and many other applications. Computing derivatives from first principles with an arbitrary function is pretty labor-intensive; but by reconizing a function as being “made up” (through sums, products, quotients, and compositions) of other, simpler, functions, makes it a very straighforward and easy job.
But in order to be able to recognize that a function is a product of two other functions, you first need to know how to multiply two functions together. Polynomials are one case.
Another situation occurs when the polynomials are measuring different things, and their product is somehow meaningful; maybe one polynomial gives you the length and the other polynomial gives you the width of a certain figure? Their product will be the area, which may be something you need to compute.
And more generally, you can think of polynomials as “abbreviations” for more complicated operations that you are doing with numbers, just like you are thinking of multiplication as “abbreviated addition”. In that case, multiplying the two polynomials represents another complicated operation that you need to express in terms of the two simpler ones (addition and multiplication).