I've started to work on a package (written in matlab for now) that among other things must be able to represent and manipulate (compare, add, multiply, differentiate, etc) polynomials in several variables. Up until now my approach has been the following

  • I have a class each object of which represents a polynomial.
  • In each polynomial object, I store the symbols of the variables that appear in the polynomial (say $x$ and $y$), the number of components each of these variables have (say $3$ and $2$ if $x\in\mathbb{R}^3$ and $y\in\mathbb{R}^2$).
  • I also have a fixed way (some function $r$) of generating all multi-indexes of some dimension and some order. For example, I tell this function that the dimension of the underlying space is $2$ and the order of the monomials I'm interested in is $3$ and it returns

$$r(2,3)=\left(\begin{bmatrix}3\\ 0\end{bmatrix},\begin{bmatrix}2\\ 1\end{bmatrix},\begin{bmatrix}1\\ 2\end{bmatrix},\begin{bmatrix}0\\ 3\end{bmatrix}\right)$$

  • Using $r$ I can systematically construct on the go the monomial basis for the space of polynomials of some degree in some variables (just identify the monomial $x_1^3$ with $[3,0]^T$, etc). Furthermore, once I fix how I order the variables (for example, first $x$ then $y$), and the number of components each has, then the order in which $r$ spits out the basis vectors is fixed.

  • I use the order in which $r$ returns out the vectors to represent the polynomial of interest as the vector of coefficients of said polynomial with respect to the monomial basis, in which the $i^{th}$ entry of the vector is the coefficient of the $i^{th}$ polynomial returned by $r$.

For example, to represent


$r$ gives us

$$r(2,0)=\left(\begin{bmatrix}0\\ 0\end{bmatrix}\right),\quad r(2,1) =\left(\begin{bmatrix}1\\ 0\end{bmatrix},\begin{bmatrix}0\\ 1\end{bmatrix}\right),\quad r(2,2) =\left(\begin{bmatrix}2\\ 0\end{bmatrix},\begin{bmatrix}1\\ 1\end{bmatrix},\begin{bmatrix}0\\ 2\end{bmatrix}\right).$$

and thus I end up representing $q$ as

q.symbols = x
q.varnumber = 2
q.coefs = [1,0,-3,2,1]

However, I this seems to me as a poor way of doing things. In particular, I end up having to do a lot of searching through the results returned by $r$. For example, if I'd like to combine a polynomial $p$ in $x$ and another $q$ in $y$ (say add them together), I end up doing something along the lines as

  • Use $r$ to generate a basis of monomials of sufficiently high degree (in the case of adding of degree $\max\{\deg(p),\deg(q)\}$) in both $x\in\mathbb{R}^3$ and $y\in\mathbb{R}^2$.

  • Search and compare the appropriate components of the ($5$-dimensional) basis vectors for $p+q$ with the ($3$-dimensional) basis vectors of $p$ and separately the ($2$-dimensional) ones of $q$. Once I identify which basis vectors of $p+q$ correspond to which of $p$ and to which of $q$, then I know which coefficients to add together and where to store them. Actually, in this example no coefficients get added together because $p$ and $q$ are on different variables, but in general this is not the case...

Now a lot of these issues would be resolved if there was a bijection that was cheap to compute and invert from $\mathbb{N}$ and the set of monomials in several variables. For example, one in which we have an analytic formula for (however, I couldn't think of one, and I'm unsure there is one). I've also looked online and I've seen mentions of different possible ways to order polynomials (lexicographic, graded lexicographic, weighted, etc), with different properties.

However, it is unclear to me which one to use and why (I also know zilch about computational algebra). So my questions are:

  • Any suggestions on how to improve the above, reduce the computational cost mostly, but memory considerations would also be great (I'm open to completely changing the way I've been representing polynomials).
  • How is this usually done in computational algebra packages?
  • And/or any suggestions for references where I can find answers to these questions.

NB: I mostly care about manipulating arbitrary, real, polynomials on $\mathbb{R}^n$, and not those lying some module, ideal, etc. Thus setting up things so I can efficiently compute minimal generating sets of these, Grobner basis, etc, is probably not very important for me (I may be wrong, in which case please correct me). I'm also not too concerned about implementing algorithms for polynomial division and factorisation.

Edit: Thank you all for the replies. They've been useful in improving (a lot) the implementation. In case anyone's curious, a (still very rough, but functioning) version of the code can be found here.

Edit 2: In case anyone's interested, I'm currently storing the polynomials by storing their non-zero coefficients into an array together with their rank in the graded lexicographic order (the array sorted by the order). To multiply and add I go back and forth from the ranks to the monomials using some recursive function I cooked up.

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    $\begingroup$ Why not store the coefficients in an $n$-tensor where $n$ is the number of variables? Note that you are overdoing by distinguishing $x_i$ from $y_i$, just make a new vector $$z = \pmatrix{x\\y}$$ and store the "original" dimensions. This will mean you only need to represent polynomials of one $n$-dimensional variable. $\endgroup$ – AlexR Feb 2 '15 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ Example: $x^2 + y^2 + 2xy \to \pmatrix{0&0&1\\0&2&0\\1&0&0}$ For three dimensions you get a $3$-tensor so no fancy example there ^^ $\endgroup$ – AlexR Feb 2 '15 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexR Thank you for the suggestion, using tensors would get rid of the headache of trying to decide what number corresponds to which monomial. However, without further tweaking, I'd end up using more memory than I need to (in your example you need to store 9 numbers to represent a polynomial with only 3 non-zero coefficients). In general, even if all coefficients are non-zero, to save a polynomial of degree $d$ in $n$ variables I'd need to save $n^d$ numbers while the polynomial only has $n+d$ choose $d$ coefficients. So for the time being I'd like to leave the question open. $\endgroup$ – jkn Feb 5 '15 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ As an aside, the monomial basis is known to have some numerical stability problems. Namely, rounding error in the monomial coefficients can wildly change the function, and evaluating the monomial basis at a point and forming the weighted sum with coefficients can cause arithmetic overflow. Monomial terms can easily overflow for even modest numbers of variables and values of the arguments. Nick Trefethen has some papers/presentations online that mention this; look up some of his work (and Chebfun) for some inspiration. people.maths.ox.ac.uk/trefethen/mythspaper.pdf $\endgroup$ – rajb245 Feb 6 '15 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @RespawnedFluff yes for the examples I've included it really does not matter. However, ideally I'd like to manipulate polynomials in the low tens of variables and degrees in which I've found it really does matter. $\endgroup$ – jkn Feb 10 '15 at 12:44

Note: this answer turned out a bit TLDR; if you just want a direct suggestion (instead of a survey), skip to the last paragraph.

Since the typical use case has now been made clear (in the last comment), I suggest you should go over this 2007 presentation by M. Gastineau, especially slides 8-15. It summarizes the available representation options and also what's used by several CAS. You should then skim over the sequel of that presentation, especially slides 28-30, assuming multiplication is a common use case for you; even if that's not really the case, it is worth looking at this presentation too because it mentions what's used by several other CAS packages as representation that are somehow not mentioned in the first presentation.

Putting these together, there's a fair bit of info, e.g. GIAC and MAGMA use hashmaps, GINAC and Mathematica 5 use trees, Maple 10 uses DAGs, Maxima uses a recursive list, Singular uses monomial sorted lists (which work surprisingly well) etc. [I guess there's no implementation info on newer versions of commercial products.] I suspect some of the more obscure representations, like those used by TRIP (which is Gastineau's own CAS kernel) despite being fast, may be hard to code... Pari/GP appears fast too based on the opening slide of the first presentation, but it doesn't say what representation it uses. Looking at its FAQ it appears that multivariate polynomials are faked using univariate ones, so perhaps that's why the info wasn't there... and I'm guessing that that trick may not be satisfactory in your application. (SAGE which has been discussed by MvG in his answer also uses hashmaps [Python dicts].)

I've looked at Singular's sources a little bit because judging from its idea the implementation promised to be relatively simple. Alas the source code of Singular is rather messy and unevenly commented. One thing I could gather though is that they use bucket sort to keep their monomial lists in order.

Since the benchmarks in those slides are ~8 years old, I would not take them at face value for current version of the systems mentioned. The bottom line is that there are many representation options and you need to experiment to find out what works best for you. If you're implementing this in high-level language like Python, some of the low-level optimizations which rely on structure layout to achieve cache locality might not work unless you use something like NumPy arrays.

There's a more recent (2010) paper on the (new) implementation of "sparse" multivariate polynomials in Maple 14 by M. Monagan and R. Pearce. Interestingly it revives an old idea of packing multiple exponents into a word; besides that, it is just packed, lexicographically sorted monomial array, so the implementation is rather simple. And it claims to have beaten TRIP. The paper also benchmarks the other usual suspects but in newer versions (e.g. Mathematica 7) and on more operations than just multiplication. The reason why I put "sparse" in quotes is that the polynomials used in this paper aren't all that sparse; they are in fact similar to what was used in the 2007 TRIP presentation which doesn't call such polynomials sparse, e.g. this paper is using $(1+x+y+z)^{20}+1$ which has ~1700 terms. So I would suggest using this Maple 14 representation as it seems to be close (if not the) current "state of the art" as far as performance goes and it is reasonably simple to implement.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the detailed reply and the references. This is exactly the type of thing I was looking for. $\endgroup$ – jkn Feb 11 '15 at 18:02

As Alex wrote, I'd stop thinking about multiple variables with multiple components. If you have $x\in\mathbb R^3$ and $y\in\mathbb R^2$, then you have five scalar variables $x_1,x_2,x_3,y_1,y_2$ or equivalently one five-dimensional variable vector. You might want to keep track of the original grouping somewhere, and use that information when constructing polynomials or presenting or interpreting the results, but for the bulk of the operation, this information should simply be carried along, with no impact on how the operations go.

One caveat here is that you should ensure that this information is consistent. If you have one polynomial in $x_1,x_2,x_3$ and another polynomial in $y_1,y_2$ and want to multiply these, you might want to first convert both to a single five-dimensional representation. By declaring all variables you are going to use up front, you can avoid performing such conversions repeatedly during the course of your computation. Sage, PARI and probably others as well require you to declare a polynomial ring, explicitely naming all indeterminates, before you can construct polynomials.

In my experience, multivariate polynomials in practice tend to be pretty sparse. This means that if you fix the total degree, only a tiny fraction of the possible monomials which might fit into that total degree are actually present with non-zero coefficient. Therefore I wouldn't use a vector which stores all coefficients. Instead I'd use a sparse representation, where you essentially have a map from a tuple of powers (i.e. $x_1^2x_3x_4^3$ would be represented as $(2,0,1,3)$) to the corresponding non-zero coefficients.

I know that at least one implementation inside Sage goes one step further, and makes even that exponent tuple sparse, so that variables you don't actually use in your polynomial won't be wasting any space.

Formally speaking, a map from coefficients for $n$ variables to real coefficients would be a function $f:\mathbb N^n\to\mathbb R$. Power vectors which are not explicitely stored would result in $f$ being zero for these. That would correspond to a polynomial in the following way:

$$ p(X_1,\dots,X_n) = \sum_{v\in\mathbb N^n}\left(f(v)\cdot\prod_{i=1}^nX_i^{v_i}\right)$$

It might be beneficial if your map can iterate over all its entries in term order (e.g. first by degree, then reverse lexicographically), instead of arbitrary order. A red-black tree as the backend of the implementation might be better than a hash map, at least for some operations. So how do your basic operations work in this setup?

  • Comparison: Iterate over keys in order, in both polynomials simultaneously. Once you have a key difference, or a coefficient difference for the same key, you know the order.
  • Addition: Make a copy of one argument (unless you know you can modify the input), then iterate over the other argument. For each key during that iteration, check whether that key is already present in the sum. If it is, add the coefficients, otherwise add a new key-value pair to the result. You might want to make sure you drop coefficients which become zero.
  • Multiplication: Use two nested loops, iterating over all pairings, and add resulting coefficients as I described for addition.
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, this is a nice and sound suggestion. As a attempt I've implemented something along these lines. I gave the bounty to Respawned Fluff because of his great references, hope you do not mind to much. $\endgroup$ – jkn Feb 11 '15 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @jkn: I don't mind at all. His post is an excellent answer, and judging from the ratio of old to new reputation, he had a lot more to gain from the bounty. Well deserved. $\endgroup$ – MvG Feb 11 '15 at 18:39

Unless your polynomials are always dense (in which case a tensor would be appropriate but huge), I see two options:

  • keep the list of variables, and for every term keep the coefficient and the list of exponents. For $v$ variables and $t$ terms, you'll store a list of $v$ identifiers, a list of $t$ coefficients and a $t\times v$ array of exponents.

  • keep the list of terms, each represented by a coefficient and a list of variable identifiers with an exponent. For an average of $f$ factors per term, you'll store $t$ coefficients, $t\times f$ identifiers and $t\times f$ exponents. (Essentially, you are storing the raw polynomial expression.)

The storage costs are $vI+tC+tvE$ vs. $tfI+tC+tfE$. The access costs depend on the access patterns.

In both cases, it is probably advisable to keep the terms in a normalized order (variables in sorted order and terms in lexicographical order, $a^2b^3=aabbb$ after $ab^5=abbbbb$).


Why not store the coefficients in an $n$-tensor where $n$ is the number of variables? Note that you are overdoing by distinguishing $x_i$ from $y_i$, just make a new vector $$z = \pmatrix{x\\y}$$ and store the "original" dimensions. This will mean you only need to represent polynomials of one $n$-dimensional variable.

This will waste a bit of memory but will be less prune to programming errors. Also you could use a soarse tensor package to store the tensors as sparse. This should reduce the amount of wasted memory and may even be better in some cases (when the polynomials have sparse coefficients)


It directly depends on your application. For sparse cases, using tensor is not appropriate and it is hard to debug.

I) Instead, use the following pattern:


$$A=\begin{bmatrix}2& 1 & 0 &0 \\0 &1 & 1 & 0\\2 & 1 & -3& 1 \end{bmatrix}$$

Where each column represents a term. The first row stands for power of $x_1$, the second is the power of $x_2$ and the third row is the coefficients of each term. There the row1 and row2 are indexes so they are integer while the third row is double. You may need to use two different matrices.

This method is easy for sum and multiplication too.

II) In very complex cases, instead of row1 and row2 you can have a structure which select custom variables and their power.

III) In applications where you need to interpolate, one might store a few points where the function passes from instead of storing the coefficients. the number of points must be enough to define the function in unique way.

It all depends how you will use the polynomial object.


In Matlab, I would store the indices in an ND-array, at least if there were an upper bound on the order. for a N-variate polynomial : [c1,c2,...,cN] = ndgrid(1:max,1:max,...,1:max);

Then you can vectorize the c:s, with matlab's indexing you can then define whatever operators you want (integration, differentiation, multiplication) very nicely systematic and hierarchical with kronecker products.

Edit: Of course for high orders and many dimensions/variables we would need to be able to use sparse vectors and matrices or the storage requirements would be impractical, but that is OK, since sparse matrices and vectors are supported in Matlab nowadays.

  • $\begingroup$ Unless the polynomials are very dense and mandate it, this scheme is extremely costly in terms of storage and processing time, as it requires to store $m^n$ coefficients, independently of the actual polynomial size. $\endgroup$ – Yves Daoust Feb 7 '15 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ Nothing prevents you from storing it as a sparse matrix. $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Feb 7 '15 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ This is essential. How do you implement a multidimensional sparse array ? $\endgroup$ – Yves Daoust Feb 7 '15 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on how large polynomials you want to represent, but yes it grows very quickly with dimension and order as you mentioned. $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Feb 7 '15 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ Unless this is for a toy program, let us assume degree up to $16$ and maximum $8$ variables (which is quite reasonable). You'll need 16 GB of storage per polynomial using single precision coefficients. $\endgroup$ – Yves Daoust Feb 7 '15 at 19:55

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