In mathematics, if L is a field extension of K, then an element a of L is called an algebraic element over K, or just algebraic over K, if there exists some non-zero polynomial g(x) with coefficients in K such that g(a) = 0. Elements of L which are not algebraic over K are called transcendental over K.
- The square root of 2 is algebraic over Q, since it is the root of the polynomial g(x) = x2 − 2 whose coefficients are rational.
- Pi is transcendental over Q but algebraic over the field of real numbers R: it is the root of g(x) = x − π, whose coefficients (1 and −π) are both real, but not of any polynomial with only rational coefficients. (The definition of the term transcendental number uses C/Q, not C/R.)
The following conditions are equivalent for an element a of L:
- a is algebraic over K,
- the field extension K(a)/K has finite degree, i.e. the dimension of K(a) as a K-vector space is finite (here K(a) denotes the smallest subfield of L containing K and a),
- K[a] = K(a), where K[a] is the set of all elements of L that can be written in the form g(a) with a polynomial g whose coefficients lie in K.
This characterization can be used to show that the sum, difference, product and quotient of algebraic elements over K are again algebraic over K. The set of all elements of L which are algebraic over K is a field that sits in between L and K.
If a is algebraic over K, then there are many nonzero polynomials g(x) with coefficients in K such that g(a) = 0. However, there is a single one with smallest degree and with leading coefficient 1. This is the minimal polynomial of a and it encodes many important properties of a.
Fields that do not allow any algebraic elements over them (except their own elements) are called algebraically closed. The field of complex numbers is an example.