Programs for computing beautiful pictures and animations of zeroes of polynomials.
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Zeroes of polynomials

Here is the code used to create the images from my TEDx talk, with extras. It is all released under the permissive MIT license, so please have fun with it and send me improvements (as a pull requests, please).

The code and the TEDx talk were of course heavily inspired by John Baez's The Beauty of roots, and the work of people mentioned therein.

Here is a short explanation of the relevant files:

  • zeroes.c: a C program for computing & drawing the zeroes of polynomials
  • Makefile: a make file to compile zeroes.c
  • a Python helper for creating an animation from the image computed by zeroes.c
  • Python program to draw the zeroes as disks
  • example of how to make an animation using
  • examples: examples of images created by the above programs

The TEDx movies generated with these programs can be seen in my Vimeo "Zeroes" album, and you can read about the whole thing at my blog post TEDx "Zeroes".



To compile zeroes.c you need the GNU Scientific Library. It is available on most Linux distributions, for instance on a Debian-based Linux you can get it with

sudo apt-get install libgsl0-dev

On OSX you can get it via Homebrew with

brew install gsl

For the Python files to work you need numpy and Pillow (which is a newer version of PIL).

In order to do process the created images you will need ImageMagick and ffmpeg. These are again available through most Linux package managers, and through Homebrew on OSX.

I have no idea how to make this stuff work under Windows. If you do, please provide some instructions.


The Python code needs no compilation, of course.

Before you compile the C code uncomment the correct LIBS definition in the Makefile, then type make.

How to use the programs

The C program

The C program is used as follows:

./zeroes <xmin> <xmax> <ymin> <ymax> <xres> <coeff> ... <coeff> - <degree> ... <degree>

It will output a PPM image to the standard output. A typical invocation would be

./zeroes -2 2 -1.75 1.75 2000 1 -1 - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 > picture.ppm

The meaning of the command-line arguments is as follows:

  • <xmin>, <xmax>, <ymin>, <ymax> define a rectangle in the complex plane that the image will capture
  • xres is the horizontal size of the image in pixels; the vertical size is computed automatically
  • <coeff> ... <coeff> a list of floating-point numbers separated by spaces
  • <degree> ... <degree> a list of integers separated by spaces

The program computes all zeroes of all polynomials of the given degrees with the given coefficients. It outputs a gray-scale image in the PPM format. The gray levels are log-scale frequency counts of how many times each pixel was hit by a zero. Thus whiter regions have a greater density of zeroes.

In order to make a nice picture from the output we need to fiddle with the image colors. ImageMagick is a wonderful tool for doing precisely that. For instance, given the picture.ppm as computed above, we can run

convert -normalize -fill orange -tint 100 picture.ppm picture.png

to produce a better looking version picture.png. For larger images you may need to replace -normalize with a suitable invocatin of -contrast-stretch, and for really good quality you will need some competence with ImageMagick.

If you are planning to generate movies, you can generate a really big picture and then cut out movie frames from it using ImageMagick. Then you can combine the frames into a movie with ffmpeg. The program helps you generate a movie.

The Python program

The Python program generates a different kind of picture in which zeroes are represented as disks of variying radii. The size of the radii decreases exponentially with the degree. Thus the low-degree zeroes are repreented more prominently.

The program has a usage message, so let me just show a typical usage example:

./ --out picture.png --size 1000 --radius 200 --degrees 1-14 --coeffs 1,-1 --xmin -2 --xmax 2 --ymin -2 --ymax 2 --colors 0,0,255:0,128,255:128,255,255

And another one:

./ --out picture.png --size 1000 --radius 100 --degrees 1-10 --coeffs 0,1,2 --xmin -3 --xmax 2 --ymin -2 --ymax 2 --colors 255,255,0:255,128,0:0,255,255

The program uses to generate a sequence of images which can then be composed into a movie. The movie shows what happens when we smoothly change the coefficients.