Historically, algebra is the study of solutions of one or several algebraic equations, involving the polynomial functions of one or several variables. The case where all the polynomials have degree one (systems of linear equations) leads to linear algebra. The case of a single equation, in which one studies the roots of one polynomial, leads to field theory and to the so-called Galois theory. The general case of several equations of high degree leads to algebraic geometry, so named because the sets of solutions of such systems are often studied by geometric methods.

Modern algebraists have increasingly abstracted and axiomatized the structures and patterns of argument encountered not only in the theory of equations, but in mathematics generally. Examples of these structures include groups (first witnessed in relation to symmetry properties of the roots of a polynomial and now ubiquitous throughout mathematics), rings (of which the integers, or whole numbers, constitute a basic example), and fields (of which the rational, real, and complex numbers are examples). Some of the concepts of modern algebra have found their way into elementary mathematics education in the so-called new mathematics.

Some important abstractions recently introduced in algebra are the notions of category and functor, which grew out of so-called homological algebra. Arithmetic and number theory, which are concerned with special properties of the integers-e.g., unique factorization, primes, equations with integer coefficients (Diophantine equations), and congruences-are also a part of algebra. Analytic number theory, however, also applies the nonalgebraic methods of analysis to such problems.

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