It is helpful to compare irreducible polynomials to prime numbers: prime numbers (together with the corresponding negative numbers of equal magnitude) are the irreducible integers. They exhibit many of the general properties of the concept of "irreducibility" that equally apply to irreducible polynomials, such as the essentially unique factorization into prime or irreducible factors. When the coefficient ring is a field or other unique factorization domain, an irreducible polynomial is also called a prime polynomial, because it generates a prime ideal.
If F is a field, a non-constant polynomial is irreducible over F if its coefficients belong to F and it cannot be factored into the product of two non-constant polynomials with coefficients in F.
A polynomial with integer coefficients, or, more generally, with coefficients in a unique factorization domain R, is sometimes said to be irreducible (or irreducible over R) if it is an irreducible element of the polynomial ring, that is, it is not invertible, not zero, and cannot be factored into the product of two non-invertible polynomials with coefficients in R. This definition generalizes the definition given for the case of coefficients in a field, because, over a field, the non-constant polynomials are exactly the polynomials that are non-invertible and non-zero.
Another definition is frequently used, saying that a polynomial is irreducible over R if it is irreducible over the field of fractions of R (the field of rational numbers, if R is the integers). This second definition is not used in this article.
The following six polynomials demonstrate some elementary properties of reducible and irreducible polynomials:
Over the integers, the first three polynomials are reducible (the third one is reducible because the factor 3 is not invertible in the integers); the last two are irreducible. (The fourth, of course, is not a polynomial over the integers.)
Over the rational numbers, the first two and the fourth polynomials are reducible, but the other three polynomials are irreducible (as a polynomial over the rationals, 3 is a unit, and, therefore, does not count as a factor).
Over the complex field, and, more generally, over an algebraically closed field, a univariate polynomial is irreducible if and only if its degree is one. This fact is known as the fundamental theorem of algebra in the case of the complex numbers and, in general, as the condition of being algebraically closed.
It follows that every nonconstant univariate polynomial can be factored as
There are irreducible multivariate polynomials of every degree over the complex numbers. For example, the polynomial
Every polynomial over a field F may be factored into a product of a non-zero constant and a finite number of irreducible (over F) polynomials. This decomposition is unique up to the order of the factors and the multiplication of the factors by non-zero constants whose product is 1.
Over a unique factorization domain the same theorem is true, but is more accurately formulated by using the notion of primitive polynomial. A primitive polynomial is a polynomial over a unique factorization domain, such that 1 is a greatest common divisor of its coefficients.
Let F be a unique factorization domain. A non-constant irreducible polynomial over F is primitive. A primitive polynomial over F is irreducible over F if and only if it is irreducible over the field of fractions of F. Every polynomial over F may be decomposed into the product of a non-zero constant and a finite number of non-constant irreducible primitive polynomials. The non-zero constant may itself be decomposed into the product of a unit of F and a finite number of irreducible elements of F. Both factorizations are unique up to the order of the factors and the multiplication of the factors by a unit of F.
This is this theorem which motivates that the definition of irreducible polynomial over a unique factorization domain often supposes that the polynomial is non-constant.
The relationship between irreducibility over the integers and irreducibility modulo p is deeper than the previous result: to date, all implemented algorithms for factorization and irreducibility over the integers and over the rational numbers use the factorization over finite fields as a subroutine.
The unique factorization property of polynomials does not mean that the factorization of a given polynomial may always be computed. Even the irreducibility of a polynomial may not always be proved by a computation: there are fields over which no algorithm can exist for deciding the irreducibility of arbitrary polynomials.
Algorithms for factoring polynomials and deciding irreducibility are known and implemented in computer algebra systems for polynomials over the integers, the rational numbers, finite fields and finitely generated field extension of these fields. All these algorithms use the algorithms for factorization of polynomials over finite fields.
The notions of irreducible polynomial and of algebraic field extension are strongly related, in the following way.
Let x be an element of an extension L of a field K. This element is said to be algebraic if it is a root of a polynomial with coefficients in K. Among the polynomials of which x is a root, there is exactly one which is monic and of minimal degree, called the minimal polynomial of x. The minimal polynomial of an algebraic element x of L is irreducible, and is the unique monic irreducible polynomial of which x is a root. The minimal polynomial of x divides every polynomial which has x as a root (this is Abel's irreducibility theorem).
If a polynomial P has an irreducible factor Q over K, which has a degree greater than one, one may apply to Q the preceding construction of an algebraic extension, to get an extension in which P has at least one more root than in K. Iterating this construction, one gets eventually a field over which P factors into linear factors. This field, unique up to a field isomorphism, is called the splitting field of P.
If R is an integral domain, an element f of R that is neither zero nor a unit is called irreducible if there are no non-units g and h with f = gh. One can show that every prime element is irreducible; the converse is not true in general but holds in unique factorization domains. The polynomial ring F[x] over a field F (or any unique-factorization domain) is again a unique factorization domain. Inductively, this means that the polynomial ring in n indeterminates (over a ring R) is a unique factorization domain if the same is true for R.