The proof of Sturm's theorem is of less interest than the theorem itself. While the theorem is interesting for its applications (in logic, in some calculations) and for its novelty, the proof is interesting due to the weird and wonderful mixture of algebra and elementary real analysis to get at the desired result. The mixture is almost inevitable, given its echoes in the formulation of the theorem.

This proof uses the concepts and terminology of the theorem; why not read it first?


Let P(x) be a real separable polynomial, and let P0(x)=P(x), P1(x)=P'(x), ... be its Sturm chain and N(x) be the number of sign changes in the chain at point x. To prove that the number of roots in an interval [a,b] with P(a),P(b)≠0 is N(a)-N(b), we need to show that N(x) is constant except at roots of P, and that it decreases by one at each root.

Lemma. For any t, the Sturm chain cannot have two consecutive zeroes at t.

Proof. We prove by induction on i that Pi-1(t) and Pi(t) cannot both be zero.

For i=1:
P0(x)=P(x) and P1(x)=P'(x). By our assumption that P(x) is separable (see Noether's writeup there), P(x) and P'(x) have no common factor. In particular, if P(t)=P'(t)=0 then x-t is a common factor (and therefore t is a root with multiplicity >1 and P(x) is not separable). Thus P0(t) and P1(t) cannot both be 0.
For i>1:
Suppose we had Pi(t)=Pi+1(t)=0. We know that
Pi-1(x) = q(x)⋅Pi(x) - Pi+1(x),      (*)
so then Pi-1(t)=0 too, contrary to the induction hypothesis.

To prove the theorem, imagine a left to right sweep of the real number line. Polynomials are continuous functions, so clearly N(x) cannot change except when passing through a root of one of the Pi(x)'s. We need to show it decreases by 1 for a root of P0(x), and stays constant for a root of Pi(x), i>0.

When P(a)=P0(a)=0:
If P(x) switches from being positive to being negative when passing through a, then it is (locally) decreasing there, and P'(x)<0 in the neighborhood of a (recall that -- by our lemma -- P'(a)≠0). Thus, the chain of signs switches from "+-..." to "--..." when passing through a, so N decreases by 1.

If P(x) switches from being negative to being positive at a, then it is (locally) increasing there, and P'(x)>0 near a. This time the sign of the chain switches from "-+..." to "++...", and again N decreases by 1 when passing through a.

The value of N at a itself is of no interest, as the theorem specifically does not apply there when one of the endpoints is a root.

When Pi(a)=0, i>0:
From (*) we have that
Pi-1(a) = 0 - Pi+1(a),
and from the lemma we know that Pi-1(a), Pi+1(a) ≠ 0. So, passing through a, the chain of signs either switches from "...++-..." to "...+--...", or from "...+--..." to "...++-...", or from "...-++..." to "...--+...", or from "...--+..." to "...-++". Each of these patterns of signs contributes exactly one sign change. So the total number of sign changes remains the same, passing through a.

Even at a, the pattern of signs is "...-0+..." or "...+0-...", and contributes one sign change. So N(x) is constant in the neighborhood of a.

That's it! A little mixture of real analysis and algebra, and Sturm's theorem is proved.

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