Learning to Love Complex Numbers

This post is intended for people with a little bit of programming experience and no prior mathematical background.

Numbers are curious things. On one hand, they represent one of the most natural things known to humans, which is quantity. It’s so natural to humans that even newborn babies are in tune with the difference between quantities of objects between 1 and 3, in that they notice when quantity changes much more vividly than other features like color or shape.

But our familiarity with quantity doesn’t change the fact that numbers themselves (as an idea) are a human invention. And they’re not like most human inventions, the kinds where you have to tinker with gears or circuits to get a machine that makes your cappuccino. No, these are mathematical inventions. These inventions exist only in our minds.

Numbers didn’t always exist. A long time ago, back when the Greeks philosophers were doing their philosophizing, negative numbers didn’t exist! In fact, it wasn’t until 1200 AD that the number zero was first considered in Europe. Zero, along with negative numbers and fractions and square roots and all the rest, were invented primarily to help people solve more problems than they could with the numbers they had available. That is, numbers were invented primarily as a way for people to describe their ideas in a useful way. People simply  wondered “is there a number whose square gives you 2?” And after a while they just decided there was and called it $\sqrt{2}$ because they didn’t have a better name for it.

But with these new solutions came a host of new problems. You see, although I said mathematical inventions only exist in our minds, once they’re invented they gain a life of their own. You start to notice patterns in your mathematical objects and you have to figure out why they do the things they do. And numbers are a perfectly good example of this: once I notice that I can multiply a number by itself, I can ask how often these “perfect squares” occur. That is, what’s the pattern in the numbers $1^2, 2^2, 3^2, 4^2, \dots$? If you think about it for a while, you’ll find that square numbers have a very special relationship with odd numbers.

Other times, however, the things you invent turn out to make no sense at all, and you can prove they never existed in the first place! It’s an odd state of affairs, but we’re going to approach the subject of complex numbers from this mindset. We’re going to come up with a simple idea, the idea that negative numbers can be perfect squares, and explore the world of patterns it opens up. Along the way we’ll do a little bit of programming to help explore, give some simple proofs to solidify our intuition, and by the end we’ll see how these ideas can cause wonderful patterns like this one:

The number i

Let’s bring the story back around to squares. One fact we all remember about numbers is that squaring a number gives you something non-negative. $7^2 = 49, (-2)^2 = 4, 0^2 = 0$, and so on. But it certainly doesn’t have to be this way. What if we got sick of that stupid fact and decided to invent a new number whose square was negative? Which negative, you ask? Well it doesn’t really matter, because I can always stretch it larger or smaller so that it’s square is -1.

Let’s see how: if you say that your made-up number $x$ makes $x^2 = -7$, then I can just use $\frac{x}{\sqrt{7}}$ to get a number whose square is -1. If you’re going to invent a number that’s supposed to interact with our usual numbers, then you have to be allowed to add, subtract, and multiply $x$ with regular old real numbers, and the usual properties would have to still work. So it would have to be true that $(x / \sqrt{7})^2 = x^2 / \sqrt{7}^2 = -7/7 = -1$.

So because it makes no difference (this is what mathematicians mean by, “without loss of generality”) we can assume that the number we’re inventing will have a square of negative one. Just to line up with history, let’s call the new number $i$. So there it is: $i$ exists and $i^2 = -1$. And now that we are “asserting” that $i$ plays nicely with real numbers, we get these natural rules for adding and subtracting and multiplying and dividing. For example

• $1 + i$ is a new number, which we’ll just call $1+i$. And if we added two of these together, $(1+ i) + (1+i)$, we can combine the real parts and the $i$ parts to get $2 + 2i$. Same goes for subtraction. In general a complex number looks like $a + bi$, because as we’ll see in the other points you can simplify every simple arithmetic expression down to just one “real number” part and one “real number times $i$” part.
• We can multiply $3 \cdot i$, and we’ll just call it $3i$, and we require that multiplication distributes across addition (that the FOIL rule works). So that, for example, $(2 - i)(1 + 3i) = (2 + 6i - i - 3i^2) = (2 + 3) + (6i - i) = (5 + 5i)$.
• Dividing is a significantly more annoying. Say we want to figure out what $1 / (1+i)$ is (in fact, it’s not even obvious that this should look like a regular number! But it does). The $1 / a$ notation just means we’re looking for a number which, when we multiply by the denominator $a$, we get back to 1. So we’re looking to find out when $(a + bi)(1 + i) = 1 + 0i$ where $a$ and $b$ are variables we’re trying to solve for. If we multiply it out we get $(a-b) + (a + b)i = 1 + 0i$, and since the real part and the $i$ part have to match up, we know that $a - b = 1$ and $a + b = 0$. If we solve these two equations, we find that $a = 1/2, b = -1/2$ works great. If we want to figure out something like $(2 + 3i) / (1 - i)$, we just find out what $1 / (1- i)$ is first, and then multiply the result by $(2+3i)$.

So that was tedious and extremely boring, and we imagine you didn’t even read it (that’s okay, it really is boring!). All we’re doing is establishing ground rules for the game, so if you come across some arithmetic that doesn’t make sense, you can refer back to this list to see what’s going on. And once again, for the purpose of this post, we’re asserting that all these laws hold. Maybe some laws follow from others, but as long as we don’t come up with any nasty self-contradictions we’ll be fine.

And now we turn to the real questions: is $i$ the only square root of -1? Does $i$ itself have a square root? If it didn’t, we’d be back to where we started, with some numbers (the non-$i$ numbers) having square roots while others don’t. And so we’d feel the need to make all the $i$ numbers happy by making up more numbers to be their square roots, and then worrying what if these new numbers don’t have square roots and…gah!

I’ll just let you in on the secret to save us from this crisis. It turns out that $i$ does have a square root in terms of other $i$ numbers, but in order to find it we’ll need to understand $i$ from a different angle, and that angle turns out to be geometry.

Geometry? How is geometry going to help me understand numbers!?

It’s a valid question and part of why complex numbers are so fascinating. And I don’t mean geometry like triangles and circles and parallel lines (though there will be much talk of angles), I mean transformations in the sense that we’ll be “stretching,” “squishing,” and “rotating” numbers. Maybe another time I can tell you why for me “geometry” means stretching and rotating; it’s a long but very fun story.

The clever insight is that you can represent complex numbers as geometric objects in the first place. To do it, you just think of $a + bi$ as a pair of numbers $(a,b)$, (the pair of real part and $i$ part), and then plot that point on a plane. For us, the $x$-axis will be the “real” axis, and the $y$-axis will be the $i$-axis. So the number $(3 - 4i)$ is plotted 3 units in the positive $x$ direction and 4 units in the negative $y$ direction. Like this:

The “j” instead of “i” is not a typo, but a disappointing fact about the programming language we used to make this image. We’ll talk more about why later.

We draw it as an arrow for a good reason. Stretching, squishing, rotating, and reflecting will all be applied to the arrow, keeping its tail fixed at the center of the axes. Sometimes the arrow is called a “vector,” but we won’t use that word because here it’s synonymous with “complex number.”

So let’s get started squishing stuff.

Stretching, Squishing, Rotating

Before we continue I should clear up some names. We call a number that has an $i$ in it a complex number, and we call the part without the $i$ the real part (like 2 in $2-i$) and the part with $i$ the complex part.

Python is going to be a great asset for us in exploring complex numbers, so let’s jump right into it. It turns out that Python natively supports complex numbers, and I wrote a program for drawing complex numbers. I used it to make the plot above. The program depends on a library I hate called matplotlib, and so the point of the program is to shield you from as much pain as possible and focus on complex numbers. You can use the program by downloading it from this blog’s Github page, along with everything else I made in writing this post. All you need to know how to do is call a function, and I’ve done a bit of window dressing removal to simplify things (I really hate matplotlib).

# plotComplexNumbers : [complex] -> None
# display a plot of the given list of complex numbers
def plotComplexNumbers(numbers):
...


Before we show some examples of how to use it, we have to understand how to use complex numbers in Python. It’s pretty simple, except that Python was written by people who hate math, and so they decided the complex number would be represented by $j$ instead of $i$ (people who hate math are sometimes called “engineers,” and they use $j$ out of spite. Not really, though).

So in Python it’s just like any other computation. For example:

>>> (1 + 1j)*(4 - 2j) == (6+2j)
True
>>> 1 / (1+1j)
(0.5-0.5j)

And so calling the plotting function with a given list of complex numbers is as simple as importing the module and calling the function

from plotcomplex import plot
plot.plotComplexNumbers([(-1+1j), (1+2j), (-1.5 - 0.5j), (.6 - 1.8j)])


Here’s the result

So let’s use plots like this one to explore what “multiplication by $i$” does to a complex number. It might not seem exciting at first, but I promise there’s a neat punchline.

Even without plotting it’s pretty easy to tell what multiplying by $i$ does to some numbers. It takes 1 to $i$, moves $i$ to $i^2 = -1$, it takes -1 to $-i$, and $-i$ to $-i \cdot i = 1$.

What’s the pattern in these? well if we plot all these numbers, they’re all at right angles in counter-clockwise order. So this might suggest that multiplication by $i$ does some kind of rotation. Is that always the case? Well lets try it with some other more complicated numbers. Click the plots below to enlarge.

Well, it looks close but it’s hard to tell. Some of the axes are squished and stretched, so it might be that our images don’t accurately represent the numbers (the real world can be such a pain). Well when visual techniques fail, we can attempt to prove it.

Clearly multiplying by $i$ does some kind of rotation, maybe with other stuff too, and it shouldn’t be so hard to see that multiplying by $i$ does the same thing no matter which number you use (okay, the skeptical readers will say that’s totally hard to see, but we’ll prove it super rigorously in a minute). So if we take any number and multiply it by $i$ once, then twice, then three times, then four, and if we only get back to where we started at four multiplications, then each rotation had to be a quarter turn.

Indeed,

$\displaystyle (a + bi) i^4 = (ai - b) i^3 = (-a - bi) i^2 = (-ai + b) i = a + bi$

This still isn’t all that convincing, and we want to be 100% sure we’re right. What we really need is a way to arithmetically compute the angle between two complex numbers in their plotted forms. What we’ll do is find a way to measure the angle of one complex number with the $x$-axis, and then by subtraction we can get angles between arbitrary points. For example, in the figure below $\theta = \theta_1 - \theta_2$.

One way to do this is with trigonometry: the geometric drawing of $a + bi$ is the hypotenuse of a right triangle with the $x$-axis.

And so if $r$ is the length of the arrow, then by the definition of sine and cosine, $\cos(\theta) = a/r, \sin(\theta) = b/r$. If we have $r, \theta$, and $r > 0$, we can solve for a unique $a$ and $b$, so instead of representing a complex number in terms of the pair of numbers $(a,b)$, we can represent it with the pair of numbers $(r, \theta)$. And the conversion between the two is just

$a + bi = r \cos(\theta) + (r \sin(\theta)) i$

The $(r, \theta)$ representation is called the polar representation, while the $(a,b)$ representation is called the rectangular representation or the Cartesian representation. Converting between polar and Cartesian coordinates fills the pages of many awful pre-calculus textbooks (despite the fact that complex numbers don’t exist in classical calculus). Luckily for us Python has built-in functions to convert between the two representations for us.

>>> import cmath
>>> cmath.polar(1 + 1j)
(1.4142135623730951, 0.7853981633974483)
>>> z = cmath.polar(1 + 1j)
>>> cmath.rect(z[0], z[1])
(1.0000000000000002+1j)


It’s a little bit inaccurate on the rounding, but it’s fine for our purposes.

So how do we compute the angle between two complex numbers? Just convert each to the polar form, and subtract the second coordinates. So if we get back to our true goal, to figure out what multiplication by $i$ does, we can just do everything in polar form. Here’s a program that computes the angle between two complex numbers.

def angleBetween(z, w):
zPolar, wPolar = cmath.polar(z), cmath.polar(w)
return wPolar[1] - zPolar[1]

print(angleBetween(1 + 1j, (1 + 1j) * 1j))
print(angleBetween(2 - 3j, (2 - 3j) * 1j))
print(angleBetween(-0.5 + 7j, (-0.5 + 7j) * 1j))


Running it gives

1.5707963267948966
1.5707963267948966
-4.71238898038469


Note that the decimal form of $\pi/2$ is 1.57079…, and that the negative angle is equivalent to $\pi/2$ if you add a full turn of $2\pi$ to it. So programmatically we can see that for every input we try multiplying by $i$ rotates 90 degrees.

But we still haven’t proved it works. So let’s do that now. To say what the angle is between $r \cos (\theta) + ri \sin (\theta)$ and $i \cdot [r \cos (\theta) + ri \sin(\theta)] = -r \sin (\theta) + ri \cos(\theta)$, we need to transform the second number into the usual polar form (where the $i$ is on the sine part and not the cosine part). But we know, or I’m telling you now, this nice fact about sine and cosine:

$\displaystyle \sin(\theta + \pi/2) = cos(\theta)$
$\displaystyle \cos(\theta + \pi / 2) = -\sin(\theta)$

This fact is maybe awkward to write out algebraically, but it’s just saying that if you shift the whole sine curve a little bit you get the cosine curve, and if you keep shifting it you get the opposite of the sine curve (and if you kept shifting it even more you’d eventually get back to the sine curve; they’re called periodic for this reason).

So immediately we can rewrite the second number as $r \cos(\theta + \pi/2) + i r \sin (\theta + \pi/2)$. The angle is the same as the original angle plus a right angle of $\pi/2$. Neat!

Applying this same idea to $(a + bi) \cdot (c + di)$, it’s not much harder to prove that multiplying two complex numbers in general multiplies their lengths and adds their angles. So if a complex number $z$ has its magnitude $r$ smaller than 1, multiplying by $z$ squishes and rotates whatever is being multiplied. And if the magnitude is greater than 1, it stretches and rotates. So we have a super simple geometric understanding of how arithmetic with complex numbers works. And as we’re about to see, all this stretching and rotating results in some really weird (and beautifully mysterious!) mathematics and programs.

But before we do that we still have one question to address, the question that started this whole geometric train of thought: does $i$ have a square root? Indeed, I’m just looking for a number such that, when I square its length and double its angle, I get $i = \cos(\pi/2) + i \sin(\pi/2)$. Indeed, the angle we want is $\pi/4$, and the length we want is $r = 1$, which means $\sqrt{i} = \cos(\pi/4) + i \sin(\pi/4)$. Sweet! There is another root if you play with the signs, see if you can figure it out.

In fact it’s a very deeper and more beautiful theorem (“theorem” means “really important fact”) called the fundamental theorem of algebra. And essentially it says that the complex numbers are complete. That is, we can always find square roots, cube roots, or anything roots of numbers involving $i$. It actually says a lot more, but it’s easier to appreciate the rest of it after you do more math than we’re going to do in this post.

On to pretty patterns!

The Fractal

So here’s a little experiment. Since every point in the plane is the end of some arrow representing a complex number, we can imagine transforming the entire complex plane by transforming each number by the same rule. The most interesting simple rule we can think of: squaring! So though it might strain your capacity for imagination, try to visualize the idea like this. Squaring a complex number is the same as squaring it’s length and doubling its angle. So imagine: any numbers whose arrows are longer than 1 will grow much bigger, arrows shorter than 1 will shrink, and arrows of length exactly one will stay the same length (arrows close to length 1 will grow/shrink much more slowly than those far away from 1). And complex numbers with small positive angles will increase their angle, but only a bit, while larger angles will grow faster.

Here’s an animation made by Douglas Arnold showing what happens to the set of complex numbers $a + bi$ with $0 \leq a, b \leq 1$ or $-1 < a,b < 0$. Again, imagine every point is the end of a different arrow for the corresponding complex number. The animation is for a single squaring, and the points move along the arc they would travel if one rotated/stretched them smoothly.

So that’s pretty, but this is by all accounts a well-behaved transformation. It’s “predictable,” because for example we can always tell which complex numbers will get bigger and bigger (in length) and which will get smaller.

What if, just for the sake of tinkering, we changed the transformation a little bit? That is, instead of sending $z = a+bi$ to $z^2$ (I’ll often write this $z \mapsto z^2$), what if we sent

$\displaystyle z \mapsto z^2 + 1$

Now it’s not so obvious: which vectors will grow and which will shrink? Notice that it’s odd because adding 1 only changes the real part of the number. So a number whose length is greater than 1 can become small under this transformation. For example, $i$ is sent to $0$, so something slightly larger would also be close to zero. Indeed, $5i/4 \mapsto -9/16$.

So here’s an interesting question: are there any complex numbers that will stay small even if I keep transforming like this forever? Specifically, if I call $f(z) = z^2$, $f^2(z) = f(f(z))$, and likewise $f^k(z)$ for $k$ repeated transformations of $z$, is there a number $z$ so that for every $k$ $f^k(z) < 2$? “Obvious” choices like $z=0$ don’t work, and neither do random guesses like $z=i$ or $z=1$. So should we guess the answer is no?

Before we jump to conclusions let’s write a program to see what happens for more than our random guesses. The program is simple: we’ll define the “square plus one” function, and then repeatedly apply that function to a number for some long number of times (say, 250 times). If the length of the number stays under 2 after so many tries, we’ll call it “small forever,” and otherwise we’ll call it “not small forever.”

def squarePlusOne(z):
return z*z + 1

def isSmallForever(z, f):
k = 0

while abs(z) < 2:
z = f(z)
k += 1

if k > 250:
return True

return False


This isSmallForever function is generic: you can give it any function $f$ and it will repeatedly call $f$ on $z$ until the result grows bigger than 2 in length. Note that the abs function is a built-in Python function for computing the length of a complex number.

Then I wrote a classify function, which you can give a window and a small increment, and it will produce a grid of zeros and ones marking the results of isSmallForever. The details of the function are not that important. I also wrote a function that turns the grid into a picture. So here’s an example of how we’d use it:

from plotcomplex.plot import gridToImage

def classifySquarePlusOne(z):
return isSmallForever(z, squarePlusOne)

grid = classify(classifySquarePlusOne) # the other arguments are defaulted to [-2,2], [-2,2], 0.1
gridToImage(grid)


And here’s the result. Points colored black grow beyond 2, and white points stay small for the whole test.

Looks like they’ll always grow big.

So it looks like repeated squaring plus one will always make complex numbers grow big. That’s not too exciting, but we can always make it more exciting. What happens if we replace the 1 in $z^2 + 1$ with a different complex number? For example, if we do $z^2 - 1$ then will things always grow big?

You can randomly guess and see that 0 will never grow big, because $0^2 - 1 = -1$ and $(-1)^2 - 1 = 0$. It will just oscillate forever. So with -1 some numbers will grow and some will not! Let’s use the same routine above to see which:

def classifySquareMinusOne(z):
return isSmallForever(z, squareMinusOne)

grid = classify(classifySquareMinusOne)
gridToImage(grid)


And the result:

Now that’s a more interesting picture! Let’s ramp up the resolution

grid = classify(classifySquareMinusOne, step=0.001)
gridToImage(grid)


Gorgeous. If you try this at home you’ll notice, however, that this took a hell of a long time to run. Speeding up our programs is very possible, but it’s a long story for another time. For now we can just be patient.

Indeed, this image has a ton of interesting details! It looks almost circular in the middle, but if we zoom in we can see that it’s more like a rippling wave

It’s pretty incredible, and a huge question is jumping out at me: what the heck is causing this pattern to occur? What secret does -1 know that +1 doesn’t that makes the resulting pattern so intricate?

But an even bigger question is this. We just discovered that some values of $c$ make $z \mapsto z^2 + c$ result in interesting patterns, and which values do not? Even if we just, say, fix the starting point to zero: what is the pattern in the complex numbers that would tell me when this transformation makes zero blow up, and when it keeps zero small?

Sounds like a job for another program. This time we’ll use a nice little Python feature called a closure, which we define a function that saves the information that exists when it’s created for later. It will let us write a function that takes in $c$ and produces a function that transforms according to $z \mapsto z^2+c$.

def squarePlusC(c):
def f(z):
return z*z + c

return f


And we can use the very same classification/graphing function from before to do this.

def classifySquarePlusC(c):
return isSmallForever(0, squarePlusC(c))

grid = classify(classifySquarePlusC, xRange=(-2, 1), yRange=(-1, 1), step=0.005)
gridToImage(grid)


And the result:

Stunning. This wonderful pattern, which is still largely not understood today, is known as the Mandelbrot set. That is, the white points are the points in the Mandlebrot set, and the black points are not in it. The detail on the border of this thing is infinitely intricate. For example, we can change the window in our little program to zoom in on a particular region.

And if you keep zooming in you keep getting more and more detail. This was true of the specific case of $z^2 - 1$, but somehow the patterns in the Mandelbrot set are much more varied and interesting. And if you keep going down eventually you’ll see patterns that look like the original Mandelbrot set. We can already kind of see that happening above. The name for this idea is a fractal, and the $z^2 - 1$ image has it too. Fractals are a fascinating and mysterious subject studied in a field called discrete dynamical systems. Many people dedicate their entire lives to studying these things, and it’s for good reason. There’s a lot to learn and even more that’s unknown!

So this is the end of our journey for now. I’ve posted all of the code we used in the making of this post so you can continue to play, but here are some interesting ideas.

• The Mandelbrot set (and most fractals) are usually colored. The way they’re colored is as follows. Rather than just say true or false when zero blows up beyond 2 in length, you return the number of iterations $k$ that happened. Then you pick a color based on how big $k$ is. There’s a link below that lets you play with this. In fact, adding colors shows that there is even more intricate detail happening outside the Mandelbrot set that’s too faint to see in our pictures above. Such as this.
• Some very simple questions about fractals are very hard to answer. For example, is the Mandelbrot set connected? That is, is it possible to “walk” from every point in the Mandelbrot set to every other point without leaving the set? Despite the scattering of points in the zoomed in picture above that suggest the answer is no, the answer is actually yes! This is a really difficult thing to prove, however.
• The patterns in many fractals are often used to generate realistic looking landscapes and generate pseudo randomness. So fractals are not just mathematical curiosities.
• You should definitely be experimenting with this stuff! What happens if you change the length threshold from 2 to some bigger number? What about a smaller number? What if you do powers different than $2$? There’s so much to explore!
• The big picture thing to take away from this is that it’s not the numbers themselves that are particularly interesting, it’s the transformations of the numbers that generate these patterns! The interesting questions are what kinds of things are the same under these transformations, and what things are different. This is a very general idea in mathematics, and the more math you do the more you’ll find yourself wondering about useful and bizarre transformations.

For the chance to keep playing with the Mandelbrot set, check out this Mandelbrot grapher that works in your browser. It lets you drag rectangles to zoom further in on regions of interest. It’s really fun.

Until next time!

Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman

So far in this series we’ve seen elliptic curves from many perspectives, including the elementary, algebraic, and programmatic ones. We implemented finite field arithmetic and connected it to our elliptic curve code. So we’re in a perfect position to feast on the main course: how do we use elliptic curves to actually do cryptography?

History

As the reader has heard countless times in this series, an elliptic curve is a geometric object whose points have a surprising and well-defined notion of addition. That you can add some points on some elliptic curves was a well-known technique since antiquity, discovered by Diophantus. It was not until the mid 19th century that the general question of whether addition always makes sense was answered by Karl Weierstrass. In 1908 Henri Poincaré asked about how one might go about classifying the structure of elliptic curves, and it was not until 1922 that Louis Mordell proved the fundamental theorem of elliptic curves, classifying their algebraic structure for most important fields.

While mathematicians have always been interested in elliptic curves (there is currently a million dollar prize out for a solution to one problem about them), its use in cryptography was not suggested until 1985. Two prominent researchers independently proposed it: Neal Koblitz at the University of Washington, and Victor Miller who was at IBM Research at the time. Their proposal was solid from the start, but elliptic curves didn’t gain traction in practice until around 2005. More recently, the NSA was revealed to have planted vulnerable national standards for elliptic curve cryptography so they could have backdoor access. You can see a proof and implementation of the backdoor at Aris Adamantiadis’s blog. For now we’ll focus on the cryptographic protocols themselves.

The Discrete Logarithm Problem

Koblitz and Miller had insights aplenty, but the central observation in all of this is the following.

What I mean by this is usually called the discrete logarithm problem. Here’s a formal definition. Recall that an additive group is just a set of things that have a well-defined addition operation, and the that notation $ny$ means $y + y + \dots + y$ ($n$ times).

Definition: Let $G$ be an additive group, and let $x, y$ be elements of $G$ so that $x = ny$ for some integer $n$. The discrete logarithm problem asks one to find $n$ when given $x$ and $y$.

I like to give super formal definitions first, so let’s do a comparison. For integers this problem is very easy. If you give me 12 and 4185072, I can take a few seconds and compute that $4185072 = (348756) 12$ using the elementary-school division algorithm (in the above notation, $y=12, x=4185072$, and $n = 348756$). The division algorithm for integers is efficient, and so it gives us a nice solution to the discrete logarithm problem for the additive group of integers $\mathbb{Z}$.

The reason we use the word “logarithm” is because if your group operation is multiplication instead of addition, you’re tasked with solving the equation $x = y^n$ for $n$. With real numbers you’d take a logarithm of both sides, hence the name. Just in case you were wondering, we can also solve the multiplicative logarithm problem efficiently for rational numbers (and hence for integers) using the square-and-multiply algorithm. Just square $y$ until doing so would make you bigger than $x$, then multiply by $y$ until you hit $x$.

But integers are way nicer than they need to be. They are selflessly well-ordered. They give us division for free. It’s a computational charity! What happens when we move to settings where we don’t have a division algorithm? In mathematical lingo: we’re really interested in the case when $G$ is just a group, and doesn’t have additional structure. The less structure we have, the harder it should be to solve problems like the discrete logarithm. Elliptic curves are an excellent example of such a group. There is no sensible ordering for points on an elliptic curve, and we don’t know how to do division efficiently. The best we can do is add $y$ to itself over and over until we hit $x$, and it could easily happen that $n$ (as a number) is exponentially larger than the number of bits in $x$ and $y$.

What we really want is a polynomial time algorithm for solving discrete logarithms. Since we can take multiples of a point very fast using the double-and-add algorithm from our previous post, if there is no polynomial time algorithm for the discrete logarithm problem then “taking multiples” fills the role of a theoretical one-way function, and as we’ll see this opens the door for secure communication.

Here’s the formal statement of the discrete logarithm problem for elliptic curves.

Problem: Let $E$ be an elliptic curve over a finite field $k$. Let $P, Q$ be points on $E$ such that $P = nQ$ for some integer $n$. Let $|P|$ denote the number of bits needed to describe the point $P$. We wish to find an algorithm which determines $n$ and has runtime polynomial in $|P| + |Q|$. If we want to allow randomness, we can require the algorithm to find the correct $n$ with probability at least 2/3.

So this problem seems hard. And when mathematicians and computer scientists try to solve a problem for many years and they can’t, the cryptographers get excited. They start to wonder: under the assumption that the problem has no efficient solution, can we use that as the foundation for a secure communication protocol?

The Diffie-Hellman Protocol and Problem

Let’s spend the rest of this post on the simplest example of a cryptographic protocol based on elliptic curves: the Diffie-Hellman key exchange.

A lot of cryptographic techniques are based on two individuals sharing a secret string, and using that string as the key to encrypt and decrypt their messages. In fact, if you have enough secret shared information, and you only use it once, you can have provably unbreakable encryption! We’ll cover this idea in a future series on the theory of cryptography (it’s called a one-time pad, and it’s not all that complicated). All we need now is motivation to get a shared secret.

Because what if your two individuals have never met before and they want to generate such a shared secret? Worse, what if their only method of communication is being monitored by nefarious foes? Can they possibly exchange public information and use it to construct a shared piece of secret information? Miraculously, the answer is yes, and one way to do it is with the Diffie-Hellman protocol. Rather than explain it abstractly let’s just jump right in and implement it with elliptic curves.

As hinted by the discrete logarithm problem, we only really have one tool here: taking multiples of a point. So say we’ve chosen a curve $C$ and a point on that curve $Q$. Then we can take some secret integer $n$, and publish $Q$ and $nQ$ for the world to see. If the discrete logarithm problem is truly hard, then we can rest assured that nobody will be able to discover $n$.

How can we use this to established a shared secret? This is where Diffie-Hellman comes in. Take our two would-be communicators, Alice and Bob. Alice and Bob each pick a binary string called a secret key, which in interpreted as a number in this protocol. Let’s call Alice’s secret key $s_A$ and Bob’s $s_B$, and note that they don’t have to be the same. As the name “secret key” suggests, the secret keys are held secret. Moreover, we’ll assume that everything else in this protocol, including all data sent between the two parties, is public.

So Alice and Bob agree ahead of time on a public elliptic curve $C$ and a public point $Q$ on $C$. We’ll sometimes call this point the base point for the protocol.

Bob can cunningly do the following trick: take his secret key $s_B$ and send $s_B Q$ to Alice. Equally slick Alice computes $s_A Q$ and sends that to Bob. Now Alice, having $s_B Q$, computes $s_A s_B Q$. And Bob, since he has $s_A Q$, can compute $s_B s_A Q$. But since addition is commutative in elliptic curve groups, we know $s_A s_B Q = s_B s_A Q$. The secret piece of shared information can be anything derived from this new point, for example its $x$-coordinate.

If we want to talk about security, we have to describe what is public and what the attacker is trying to determine. In this case the public information consists of the points $Q, s_AQ, s_BQ$. What is the attacker trying to figure out? Well she really wants to eavesdrop on their subsequent conversation, that is, the stuff that encrypt with their new shared secret $s_As_BQ$. So the attacker wants find out $s_As_BQ$. And we’ll call this the Diffie-Hellman problem.

Diffie-Hellman Problem: Suppose you fix an elliptic curve $E$ over a finite field $k$, and you’re given four points $Q, aQ, bQ$ and $P$ for some unknown integers $a, b$. Determine if $P = abQ$ in polynomial time (in the lengths of $Q, aQ, bQ, P$).

On one hand, if we had an efficient solution to the discrete logarithm problem, we could easily use that to solve the Diffie-Hellman problem because we could compute $a,b$ and them quickly compute $abQ$ and check if it’s $P$. In other words discrete log is at least as hard as this problem. On the other hand nobody knows if you can do this without solving the discrete logarithm problem. Moreover, we’re making this problem as easy as we reasonably can because we don’t require you to be able to compute $abQ$. Even if some prankster gave you a candidate for $abQ$, all you have to do is check if it’s correct. One could imagine some test that rules out all fakes but still doesn’t allow us to compute the true point, which would be one way to solve this problem without being able to solve discrete log.

So this is our hardness assumption: assuming this problem has no efficient solution then no attacker, even with really lucky guesses, can feasibly determine Alice and Bob’s shared secret.

Python Implementation

The Diffie-Hellman protocol is just as easy to implement as you would expect. Here’s some Python code that does the trick. Note that all the code produced in the making of this post is available on this blog’s Github page.

def sendDH(privateKey, generator, sendFunction):
return sendFunction(privateKey * generator)



And using our code from the previous posts in this series we can run it on a small test.

import os

def generateSecretKey(numBits):
return int.from_bytes(os.urandom(numBits // 8), byteorder='big')

if __name__ == "__main__":
F = FiniteField(3851, 1)
curve = EllipticCurve(a=F(324), b=F(1287))
basePoint = Point(curve, F(920), F(303))

aliceSecretKey = generateSecretKey(8)
bobSecretKey = generateSecretKey(8)

alicePublicKey = sendDH(aliceSecretKey, basePoint, lambda x:x)
bobPublicKey = sendDH(bobSecretKey, basePoint, lambda x:x)

print('Shared secret is %s == %s' % (sharedSecret1, sharedSecret2))


Pythons os module allows us to access the operating system’s random number generator (which is supposed to be cryptographically secure) via the function urandom, which accepts as input the number of bytes you wish to generate, and produces as output a Python bytestring object that we then convert to an integer. Our simplistic (and totally insecure!) protocol uses the elliptic curve $C$ defined by $y^2 = x^3 + 324 x + 1287$ over the finite field $\mathbb{Z}/3851$. We pick the base point $Q = (920, 303)$, and call the relevant functions with placeholders for actual network transmission functions.

There is one issue we have to note. Say we fix our base point $Q$. Since an elliptic curve over a finite field can only have finitely many points (since the field only has finitely many possible pairs of numbers), it will eventually happen that $nQ = 0$ is the ideal point. Recall that the smallest value of $n$ for which $nQ = 0$ is called the order of $Q$. And so when we’re generating secret keys, we have to pick them to be smaller than the order of the base point. Viewed from the other angle, we want to pick $Q$ to have large order, so that we can pick large and difficult-to-guess secret keys. In fact, no matter what integer you use for the secret key it will be equivalent to some secret key that’s less than the order of $Q$. So if an attacker could guess the smaller secret key he wouldn’t need to know your larger key.

The base point we picked in the example above happens to have order 1964, so an 8-bit key is well within the bounds. A real industry-strength elliptic curve (say, Curve25519 or the curves used in the NIST standards*) is designed to avoid these problems. The order of the base point used in the Diffie-Hellman protocol for Curve25519 has gargantuan order (like $2^{256}$). So 256-bit keys can easily be used. I’m brushing some important details under the rug, because the key as an actual string is derived from 256 pseudorandom bits in a highly nontrivial way.

So there we have it: a simple cryptographic protocol based on elliptic curves. While we didn’t experiment with a truly secure elliptic curve in this example, we’ll eventually extend our work to include Curve25519. But before we do that we want to explore some of the other algorithms based on elliptic curves, including random number generation and factoring.

Why do we use elliptic curves for this? Why not do something like RSA and do multiplication (and exponentiation) modulo some large prime?

Well, it turns out that algorithmic techniques are getting better and better at solving the discrete logarithm problem for integers mod $p$, leading some to claim that RSA is dead. But even if we will never find a genuinely efficient algorithm (polynomial time is good, but might not be good enough), these techniques have made it clear that the key size required to maintain high security in RSA-type protocols needs to be really big. Like 4096 bits. But for elliptic curves we can get away with 256-bit keys. The reason for this is essentially mathematical: addition on elliptic curves is not as well understood as multiplication is for integers, and the more complex structure of the group makes it seem inherently more difficult. So until some powerful general attacks are found, it seems that we can get away with higher security on elliptic curves with smaller key sizes.

I mentioned that the particular elliptic curve we chose was insecure, and this raises the natural question: what makes an elliptic curve/field/basepoint combination secure or insecure? There are a few mathematical pitfalls (including certain attacks we won’t address), but one major non-mathematical problem is called a side-channel attack. A side channel attack against a cryptographic protocol is one that gains additional information about users’ secret information by monitoring side-effects of the physical implementation of the algorithm.

The problem is that different operations, doubling a point and adding two different points, have very different algorithms. As a result, they take different amounts of time to complete and they require differing amounts of power. Both of these can be used to reveal information about the secret keys. Despite the different algorithms for arithmetic on Weierstrass normal form curves, one can still implement them to be secure. Naively, one might pad the two subroutines with additional (useless) operations so that they have more similar time/power signatures, but I imagine there are better methods available.

But much of what makes a curve’s domain parameters mathematically secure or insecure is still unknown. There are a handful of known attacks against very specific families of parameters, and so cryptography experts simply avoid these as they are discovered. Here is a short list of pitfalls, and links to overviews:

1. Make sure the order of your basepoint has a short facorization (e.g., is $2p, 3p,$ or $4p$ for some prime $p$). Otherwise you risk attacks based on the Chinese Remainder Theorem, the most prominent of which is called Pohlig-Hellman.
2. Make sure your curve is not supersingular. If it is you can reduce the discrete logarithm problem to one in a different and much simpler group.
3. If your curve $C$ is defined over $\mathbb{Z}/p$, make sure the number of points on $C$ is not equal to $p$. Such a curve is called prime-field anomalous, and its discrete logarithm problem can be reduced to the (additive) version on integers.
4. Don’t pick a small underlying field like $\mathbb{F}_{2^m}$ for small $m$General-purpose attacks can be sped up significantly against such fields.
5. If you use the field $\mathbb{F}_{2^m}$, ensure that $m$ is prime. Many believe that if $m$ has small divisors, attacks based on some very complicated algebraic geometry can be used to solve the discrete logarithm problem more efficiently than any general-purpose method. This gives evidence that $m$ being composite at all is dangerous, so we might as well make it prime.

This is a sublist of the list provided on page 28 of this white paper.

The interesting thing is that there is little about the algorithm and protocol that is vulnerable. Almost all of the vulnerabilities come from using bad curves, bad fields, or a bad basepoint. Since the known attacks work on a pretty small subset of parameters, one potentially secure technique is to just generate a random curve and a random point on that curve! But apparently all respected national agencies will refuse to call your algorithm “standards compliant” if you do this.

Next time we’ll continue implementing cryptographic protocols, including the more general public-key message sending and signing protocols.

Until then!

Connecting Elliptic Curves with Finite Fields

So here we are. We’ve studied the general properties of elliptic curves, written a program for elliptic curve arithmetic over the rational numbers, and taken a long detour to get some familiarity with finite fields (the mathematical background and a program that implements arbitrary finite field arithmetic).

And now we want to get back on track and hook our elliptic curve program up with our finite field program to make everything work. And indeed, for most cases it’s just that simple! For example, take the point $P = (2,1)$ on the elliptic curve $y = x^3 + x + 1$ with coefficients in $\mathbb{Z}/5$. Using purely code produced in previous posts, we can do arithmetic:

>>> F5 = FiniteField(5, 1)
>>> C = EllipticCurve(a=F5(1), b=F5(1))
>>> P = Point(C, F5(2), F5(1))
>>> P
(2 (mod 5), 1 (mod 5))
>>> 2*P
(2 (mod 5), 4 (mod 5))
>>> 3*P
Ideal


Here’s an example of the same curve $y^2 = x^3 + x + 1$ with coefficients over the finite field of order 25 $\mathbb{F}_{5^2}$.

>>> F25 = FiniteField(5,2)
>>> F25.idealGenerator
3 + 0 t^1 + 1 t^2
>>> curve = EllipticCurve(a=F25([1]), b=F25([1]))
>>> x = F25([2,1])
>>> y = F25([0,2])
>>> y*y - x*x*x - x - 1
0 ∈ F_{5^2}
>>> curve.testPoint(x,y)
True
>>> P = Point(curve, x, y)
>>> -P
(2 + 1 t^1, 0 + 3 t^1)
>>> P+P
(3 + 1 t^1, 2)
>>> 4*P
(3 + 2 t^1, 4 + 4 t^1)
>>> 9*P
Ideal


There are some subtle issues, though, in that we shouldn’t use the code we have to work over any finite field. But we’ve come very far and covered a lot of technical details, so let’s briefly remember how we got here.

Taking a Step Back

At the beginning there was only $\mathbb{Q}$, the field of rational numbers. We had a really nice geometric picture of elliptic curves over this field, and using that picture we developed an algorithm for (geometrically) adding points.

If we assume the equation of the elliptic curve had this nice form (the so-called Weierstrass normal form, $y^2 = x^3 + ax + b$), then we were able to translate the geometric algorithm into an algebraic one. This made it possible to write a program to perform the additions, and this was our first programmatic milestone. Along the way, we learned about groups and projective geometry, which I explained was the proper mathematical setting for elliptic curves. In that setting, we saw that for most fields, every elliptic curve could be modified into one in Weierstrass normal form without changing the algebraic structure of the set of solutions. Moreover, we saw that you can replace the field $\mathbb{Q}$ with the field of your choice. The set of solutions to an elliptic curve still forms a group and the same algebraic point-adding algorithm works. It’s just an interesting quirk of mathematics that one way to represent elements of finite fields are as polynomial remainders when dividing by a “prime” polynomial (analogous to modular arithmetic with integers). So we spent a while actually implementing finite fields in terms of this representation.

The reader has probably heard of this, but in practice one uses a (very large) finite field for the coefficients of their elliptic curve. Often this is $\mathbb{Z}/p$ for some really large prime $p$, or the field of $2^m$ elements for some large integer $m$. But one would naturally complain: there are so many (infinitely many!) finite fields to choose from! Which one should we use, and how did they choose these?

As with most engineering problems the answer is a trade-off, in this case between efficiency and security. Arithmetic is faster in fields of characteristic 2 (and easy to implement at the hardware level!) but a lot is known about the finite field of $2^m$ elements. In fact, if you are sloppy in picking $m$ you’ll get no security at all! One prominent example is the so-called Weil descent attack, which breaks security assumptions for elliptic curve cryptography when $m$ is not prime. These attacks use some sophisticated machinery, but this is how it goes. An abstract mathematical breakthrough can immediately invalidate cryptography based on certain elliptic curves.

But before we get neck-deep in cryptography we have an even bigger problem: for some finite fields, not every elliptic curve has a Weierstrass normal form! So our program isn’t expressive enough to represent all elliptic curves we might want to. We could avoid these curves in our applications, but that would be unnecessarily limiting. With a bit more careful work, we can devise a more general algorithm (and a different normal form) that works for all fields. But let’s understand the problem first.

In general, you can have an elliptic curve of the form $\sum_{i+j=3} a_{i,j}x^iy^j = 0$. That is, it’s just a really general degree 3 polynomial in two variables. If we assume the discriminant of this polynomial is nonzero, we’ll get a smooth curve. And then to get to the Weierstrass normal form involves a bunch of changes of variables. The problem is that the algebraic manipulations you do require you to multiply and divide by 2 and 3. In a field of either characteristic, these operations are either destructive (multiplying by zero) or totally illegal (dividing by zero), and they ruin Weierstrass’s day.

So what can we do?

Well it turns out that there is a more general Weierstrass normal form, unsurprisingly called the generalized Weierstrass normal form. It looks like this

$\displaystyle y^2 + a_1 xy + a_3y = x^3 + a_2x^2 + a_4x + a_6$

The same geometric idea of drawing lines works for this curve as well. It’s just that now the formula is way more complicated. It involves computing a bunch of helper constants and computing far more arithmetic. My colleague Daniel Ngheim was kind enough to code up the algorithm, and here it is

    def __add__(self, Q):
if isinstance(Q, Ideal):
return Point(self.curve, self.x, self.y)

a1,a2,a3,a4,a6 = (self.curve.a1, self.curve.a2, self.curve.a3, self.curve.a4, self.curve.a6)

if self.x == Q.x:
x = self.x
if self.y + Q.y + a1*x + a3 == 0:
return Ideal(self.curve)
else:
c = ((3*x*x + 2*a2*x + a4 - a1*self.y) / (2*self.y + a1*x + a3))
d = (-(x*x*x) + a4*x + 2*a6 - a3*self.y) / (2*self.y + a1*x + a3)
Sum_x = c*c + a1*c - a2 - 2*self.x
Sum_y = -(c + a1) * Sum_x - d - a3
return Point(self.curve, Sum_x, Sum_y)
else:
c =  (Q.y - self.y) / (Q.x - self.x)
d =  (self.y*Q.x - Q.y*self.x) / (Q.x - self.x)
Sum_x = c*c + a1*c - a2 - self.x - Q.x
Sum_y = -(c + a1)*Sum_x - d - a3
return Point(self.curve, Sum_x, Sum_y)

def __neg__(self):
return Point(self.curve, self.x, -self.y - self.curve.a1*self.x - self.curve.a3)


I trust that the devoted reader could derive this algorithm by hand, but for a more detailed derivation see the book of Silverman (it’s a graduate level text, but the point is that if you’re not really serious about implementing elliptic curve cryptography then you shouldn’t worry about this more general algorithm).

One might start to wonder: are there still other forms of elliptic curves that we could use to get around some of the difficulties of the Weierstrass normal form? The answer is yes, but we’ll defer their discussion to a future post. The brief explanation is that through a different choice of variable changes you can get to a different form of curve, and the algorithms you get from writing out the algebraic equations for adding points are slightly more efficient.

For the remainder of this series we’ll just work with one family of finite fields, those fields of the form $\mathbb{Z}/p$ for some large $p$. There is one particularly famous elliptic curve over this field that is used in some of the most secure applications in existence, and this will roughly be our target. In either case, we have provided the combined elliptic curve and finite field code (and the generalized elliptic curve class) on this blog’s Github page.

So in the next post we’ll actually start talking about cryptography and how to use elliptic curves to do things like generate a shared secret key.

Until then!

Programming with Finite Fields

Back when I was first exposed to programming language design, I decided it would be really cool if there were a language that let you define your own number types and then do all your programming within those number types. And since I get excited about math, I think of really exotic number types (Boolean rings, Gaussian integers, Octonions, oh my!). I imagined it would be a language feature, so I could do something like this:

use gaussianintegers as numbers

x = 1 + i
y = 2 - 3i
print(x*y)

z = 2 + 3.5i     # error


I’m not sure why I thought this would be so cool. Perhaps I felt like I would be teaching a computer math. Or maybe the next level of abstraction in playing god by writing programs is to play god by designing languages (and I secretly satisfy a massive god complex by dictating the actions of my computer).

But despite not writing a language of my own, programming with weird number systems still has a special place in my heart. It just so happens that we’re in the middle of a long series on elliptic curves, and in the next post we’ll actually implement elliptic curve arithmetic over a special kind of number type (the finite field). In this post, we’ll lay the groundwork by implementing number types in Python that allow us to work over any finite field. This is actually a pretty convoluted journey, and to be totally rigorous we’d need to prove a bunch of lemmas, develop a bunch of ring theory, and prove the correctness of a few algorithms involving polynomials.

Instead of taking the long and winding road, we’ll just state the important facts with links to proofs, prove the easy stuff, and focus more heavily than usual on the particular Python implementation details. As usual, all of the code used in this post is available on this blog’s Github page.

Integers Modulo Primes

The simples kind of finite field is the set of integers modulo a prime. We’ve dealt with this number field extensively on this blog (in groups, rings, fields, with RSA, etc.), but let’s recall what it is. The modulo operator $\mod$ (in programming it’s often denoted %) is a binary operation on integers such that $x \mod y$ is the unique positive remainder of $x$ when divided by $y$.

Definition: Let $p$ be a prime number. The set $\mathbb{Z}/p$ consists of the numbers $\left \{ 0, 1, \dots, p-1 \right \}$. If you endow it with the operations of addition (mod $p$) and multiplication (mod $p$), it forms a field.

To say it’s a field is just to say that arithmetic more or less behaves the way we expect it to, and in particular that every nonzero element has a (unique) multiplicative inverse. Making a number type for $\mathbb{Z}/p$ in Python is quite simple.

def IntegersModP(p):
class IntegerModP(FieldElement):
def __init__(self, n):
self.n = n % p
self.field = IntegerModP

def __add__(self, other): return IntegerModP(self.n + other.n)
def __sub__(self, other): return IntegerModP(self.n - other.n)
def __mul__(self, other): return IntegerModP(self.n * other.n)
def __truediv__(self, other): return self * other.inverse()
def __div__(self, other): return self * other.inverse()
def __neg__(self): return IntegerModP(-self.n)
def __eq__(self, other): return isinstance(other, IntegerModP) and self.n == other.n
def __abs__(self): return abs(self.n)
def __str__(self): return str(self.n)
def __repr__(self): return '%d (mod %d)' % (self.n, self.p)

def __divmod__(self, divisor):
q,r = divmod(self.n, divisor.n)
return (IntegerModP(q), IntegerModP(r))

def inverse(self):
...?

IntegerModP.p = p
IntegerModP.__name__ = 'Z/%d' % (p)
return IntegerModP


We’ve done a couple of things worth note here. First, all of the double-underscore methods are operator overloads, so they are called when one tries to, e.g., add two instances of this class together. We’ve also implemented a division algorithm via __divmod__ which computes a (quotient, remainder) pair for the appropriate division. The built in Python function divmod function does this for integers, and we can overload it for a custom type. We’ll write a more complicated division algorithm later in this post. Finally, we’re dynamically creating our class so that different primes will correspond to different types. We’ll come back to why this encapsulation is a good idea later, but it’s crucial to make our next few functions reusable and elegant.

Here’s an example of the class in use:

>>> mod7 = IntegersModP(7)
>>> mod7(3) + mod7(6)
2 (mod 7)


The last (undefined) function in the IntegersModP class, the inverse function, is our only mathematical hurdle. Luckily, we can compute inverses in a generic way, using an algorithm called the extended Euclidean algorithm. Here’s the mathematics.

Definition: An element $d$ is called a greatest common divisor (gcd) of $a,b$ if it divides both $a$ and $b$, and for every other $z$ dividing both $a$ and $b$, $z$ divides $d$. For $\mathbb{Z}/p$ gcd’s and we denote it as $\gcd(a,b)$. [1]

Note that we called it ‘a’ greatest common divisor. In general gcd’s need not be unique, though for integers one often picks the positive gcd. We’ll actually see this cause a tiny programmatic bug later in this post, but let’s push on for now.

Theorem: For any two integers $a,b \in \mathbb{Z}$ there exist unique $x,y \in \mathbb{Z}$ such that $ax + by = \gcd(a,b)$.

We could beat around the bush and try to prove these things in various ways, but when it comes down to it there’s one algorithm of central importance that both computes the gcd and produces the needed linear combination $x,y$. The algorithm is called the Euclidean algorithm. Here is a simple version that just gives the gcd.

def gcd(a, b):
if abs(a) < abs(b):
return gcd(b, a)

while abs(b) > 0:
q,r = divmod(a,b)
a,b = b,r

return a


This works by the simple observation that $\gcd(a, aq+r) = \gcd(a,r)$ (this is an easy exercise to prove directly). So the Euclidean algorithm just keeps applying this rule over and over again: take the remainder when dividing the bigger argument by the smaller argument until the remainder becomes zero. Then the $\gcd(x,0) = x$ because everything divides zero.

Now the so-called ‘extended’ Euclidean algorithm just keeps track of some additional data as it goes (the partial quotients and remainders). Here’s the algorithm.

def extendedEuclideanAlgorithm(a, b):
if abs(b) > abs(a):
(x,y,d) = extendedEuclideanAlgorithm(b, a)
return (y,x,d)

if abs(b) == 0:
return (1, 0, a)

x1, x2, y1, y2 = 0, 1, 1, 0
while abs(b) > 0:
q, r = divmod(a,b)
x = x2 - q*x1
y = y2 - q*y1
a, b, x2, x1, y2, y1 = b, r, x1, x, y1, y

return (x2, y2, a)


Indeed, the reader who hasn’t seen this stuff before is encouraged to trace out a run for the numbers 4864, 3458. Their gcd is 38 and the two integers are 32 and -45, respectively.

How does this help us compute inverses? Well, if we want to find the inverse of $a$ modulo $p$, we know that their gcd is 1. So compute the $x,y$ such that $ax + py = 1$, and then reduce both sides mod $p$. You get $ax + 0 = 1 \mod p$, which means that $x \mod p$ is the inverse of $a$. So once we have the extended Euclidean algorithm our inverse function is trivial to write!

def inverse(self):
x,y,d = extendedEuclideanAlgorithm(self.n, self.p)
return IntegerModP(x)


And indeed it works as expected:

>>> mod23 = IntegersModP(23)
>>> mod23(7).inverse()
10 (mod 23)
>>> mod23(7).inverse() * mod23(7)
1 (mod 23)


Now one very cool thing, and something that makes some basic ring theory worth understanding, is that we can compute the gcd of any number type using the exact same code for the Euclidean algorithm, provided we implement an abs function and a division algorithm. Via a chain of relatively easy-to-prove lemmas, if your number type has enough structure (in particular, if it has a division algorithm that satisfies some properties), then greatest common divisors are well-defined, and the Euclidean algorithm gives us that special linear combination. And using the same trick above in finite fields, we can use the Euclidean algorithm to compute inverses.

But in order to make things work programmatically we need to be able to deal with the literal ints 0 and 1 in the algorithm. That is, we need to be able to silently typecast integers up to whatever number type we’re working with. This makes sense because all rings have 0 and 1, but it requires a bit of scaffolding to implement. In particular, typecasting things sensibly is really difficult if you aren’t careful. And the problems are compounded in a language like Python that blatantly ignores types whenever possible. [2]

So let’s take a quick break to implement a tiny type system with implicit typecasting.

[1] The reader familiar with our series on category theory will recognize this as the product of two integers in a category whose arrows represent divisibility. So by abstract nonsense, this proves that gcd’s are unique up to multiplication by a unit in any ring.
[2] In the process of writing the code for this post, I was sorely missing the stronger type systems of Java and Haskell. Never thought I’d say that, but it’s true.

A Tiny Generic Type System

The main driving force behind our type system will be a decorator called @typecheck. We covered decorators toward the end of our primer on dynamic programming, but in short a decorator is a Python syntax shortcut that allows some pre- or post-processing to happen to a function in a reusable way. All you need to do to apply the pre/post-processing is prefix the function definition with the name of the decorator.

Our decorator will be called typecheck, and it will decorate binary operations on our number types. In its basic form, our type checker will work as follows: if the types of the two operands are the same, then the decorator will just pass them on through to the operator. Otherwise, it will try to do some typecasting, and if that fails it will raise exceptions with reckless abandon.

def typecheck(f):
def newF(self, other):
if type(self) is not type(other):
try:
other = self.__class__(other)
except TypeError:
message = 'Not able to typecast %s of type %s to type %s in function %s'
raise TypeError(message % (other, type(other).__name__, type(self).__name__, f.__name__))
except Exception as e:
message = 'Type error on arguments %r, %r for functon %s. Reason:%s'
raise TypeError(message % (self, other, f.__name__, type(other).__name__, type(self).__name__, e))

return f(self, other)

return newF


So this is great, but there are two issues. The first is that this will only silently typecast if the thing we’re casting is on the right-hand side of the expression. In other words, the following will raise an exception complaining that you can’t add ints to Mod7 integers.

>>> x = IntegersModP(7)(1)
>>> 1 + x


What we need are the right-hand versions of all the operator overloads. They are the same as the usual operator overloads, but Python gives preference to the left-hand operator overloads. Anticipating that we will need to rewrite these silly right-hand overloads for every number type, and they’ll all be the same, we make two common base classes.

class DomainElement(object):
def __radd__(self, other): return self + other
def __rsub__(self, other): return -self + other
def __rmul__(self, other): return self * other

class FieldElement(DomainElement):
def __truediv__(self, other): return self * other.inverse()
def __rtruediv__(self, other): return self.inverse() * other
def __div__(self, other): return self.__truediv__(other)
def __rdiv__(self, other): return self.__rtruediv__(other)


And we can go ahead and make our IntegersModP a subclass of FieldElement. [3]

But now we’re wading into very deep waters. In particular, we know ahead of time that our next number type will be for Polynomials (over the integers, or fractions, or $\mathbb{Z}/p$, or whatever). And we’ll want to do silent typecasting from ints and IntegersModP to Polynomials! The astute reader will notice the discrepancy. What will happen if I try to do this?

>>> MyInteger() + MyPolynomial()


Let’s take this slowly: by our assumption both MyInteger and MyPolynomial have the __add__ and __radd__ functions defined on them, and each tries to typecast the other the appropriate type. But which is called? According to Python’s documentation if the left-hand side has an __add__ function that’s called first, and the right-hand sides’s __radd__ function is only sought if no __add__ function is found for the left operand.

Well that’s a problem, and we’ll deal with it in a half awkward and half elegant way. What we’ll do is endow our number types with an “operatorPrecedence” constant. And then inside our type checker function we’ll see if the right-hand operand is an object of higher precedence. If it is, we return the global constant NotImplemented, which Python takes to mean that no __add__ function was found, and it proceeds to look for __radd__. And so with this modification our typechecker is done. [4]

def typecheck(f):
def newF(self, other):
if (hasattr(other.__class__, 'operatorPrecedence') and
other.__class__.operatorPrecedence > self.__class__.operatorPrecedence):
return NotImplemented

if type(self) is not type(other):
try:
other = self.__class__(other)
except TypeError:
message = 'Not able to typecast %s of type %s to type %s in function %s'
raise TypeError(message % (other, type(other).__name__, type(self).__name__, f.__name__))
except Exception as e:
message = 'Type error on arguments %r, %r for functon %s. Reason:%s'
raise TypeError(message % (self, other, f.__name__, type(other).__name__, type(self).__name__, e))

return f(self, other)

return newF


We add a default operatorPrecedence of 1 to the DomainElement base class. Now this function answers our earlier question of why we want to encapsulate the prime modulus into the IntegersModP class. If this typechecker is really going to be generic, we need to be able to typecast an int by passing the single int argument to the type constructor with no additional information! Indeed, this will be the same pattern for our polynomial class and the finite field class to follow.

Now there is still one subtle problem. If we try to generate two copies of the same number type from our number-type generator (in other words, the following code snippet), we’ll get a nasty exception.

>>> mod7 = IntegersModP(7)
>>> mod7Copy = IntegersModP(7)
>>> mod7(1) + mod7Copy(2)
... fat error ...


The reason for this is that in the type-checker we’re using the Python built-in ‘is’ which checks for identity, not semantic equality. To fix this, we simply need to memoize the IntegersModP function (and all the other functions we’ll use to generate number types) so that there is only ever one copy of a number type in existence at a time.

So enough Python hacking: let’s get on with implementing finite fields!

[3] This also compels us to make some slight modifications to the constructor for IntegersModP, but they’re not significant enough to display here. Check out the Github repo if you want to see.
[4] This is truly a hack, and we’ve considered submitting a feature request to the Python devs. It is conceivably useful for the operator-overloading aficionado. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments as to whether this is a reasonable feature to add to Python.

Polynomial Arithmetic

Recall from our finite field primer that every finite field can be constructed as a quotient of a polynomial ring with coefficients in $\mathbb{Z}/p$ by some prime ideal. We spelled out exactly what this means in fine detail in the primer, so check that out before reading on.

Indeed, to construct a finite field we need to find some irreducible monic polynomial $f$ with coefficients in $\mathbb{Z}/p$, and then the elements of our field will be remainders of arbitrary polynomials when divided by $f$. In order to determine if they’re irreducible we’ll need to compute a gcd. So let’s build a generic polynomial type with a polynomial division algorithm, and hook it into our gcd framework.

We start off in much the same way as with the IntegersModP:

# create a polynomial with coefficients in a field; coefficients are in
# increasing order of monomial degree so that, for example, [1,2,3]
# corresponds to 1 + 2x + 3x^2
@memoize
def polynomialsOver(field=fractions.Fraction):

class Polynomial(DomainElement):
operatorPrecedence = 2
factory = lambda L: Polynomial([field(x) for x in L])

def __init__(self, c):
if type(c) is Polynomial:
self.coefficients = c.coefficients
elif isinstance(c, field):
self.coefficients = [c]
elif not hasattr(c, '__iter__') and not hasattr(c, 'iter'):
self.coefficients = [field(c)]
else:
self.coefficients = c

self.coefficients = strip(self.coefficients, field(0))

def isZero(self): return self.coefficients == []

def __repr__(self):
if self.isZero():
return '0'

return ' + '.join(['%s x^%d' % (a,i) if i > 0 else '%s'%a
for i,a in enumerate(self.coefficients)])

def __abs__(self): return len(self.coefficients)
def __len__(self): return len(self.coefficients)
def __sub__(self, other): return self + (-other)
def __iter__(self): return iter(self.coefficients)
def __neg__(self): return Polynomial([-a for a in self])

def iter(self): return self.__iter__()
def degree(self): return abs(self) - 1



All of this code just lays down conventions. A polynomial is a list of coefficients (in increasing order of their monomial degree), the zero polynomial is the empty list of coefficients, and the abs() of a polynomial is one plus its degree. [5] Finally, instead of closing over a prime modulus, as with IntegersModP, we’re closing over the field of coefficients. In general you don’t have to have polynomials with coefficients in a field, but if they do come from a field then you’re guaranteed to get a sensible Euclidean algorithm. In the formal parlance, if $k$ is a field then $k[x]$ is a Euclidean domain. And for our goal of defining finite fields, we will always have coefficients from $\mathbb{Z}/p$, so there’s no problem.

Now we can define things like addition, multiplication, and equality using our typechecker to silently cast and watch for errors.

      @typecheck
def __eq__(self, other):
return self.degree() == other.degree() and all([x==y for (x,y) in zip(self, other)])

@typecheck
newCoefficients = [sum(x) for x in itertools.zip_longest(self, other, fillvalue=self.field(0))]
return Polynomial(newCoefficients)

@typecheck
def __mul__(self, other):
if self.isZero() or other.isZero():
return Zero()

newCoeffs = [self.field(0) for _ in range(len(self) + len(other) - 1)]

for i,a in enumerate(self):
for j,b in enumerate(other):
newCoeffs[i+j] += a*b

return Polynomial(newCoeffs)


Notice that, if the underlying field of coefficients correctly implements the operator overloads, none of this depends on the coefficients. Reusability, baby!

And we can finish off with the division algorithm for polynomials.

      @typecheck
def __divmod__(self, divisor):
quotient, remainder = Zero(), self
divisorDeg = divisor.degree()

while remainder.degree() >= divisorDeg:
monomialExponent = remainder.degree() - divisorDeg
monomialZeros = [self.field(0) for _ in range(monomialExponent)]
monomialDivisor = Polynomial(monomialZeros + [remainder.leadingCoefficient() / divisorLC])

quotient += monomialDivisor
remainder -= monomialDivisor * divisor

return quotient, remainder


Indeed, we’re doing nothing here but formalizing the grade-school algorithm for doing polynomial long division [6]. And we can finish off the function for generating this class by assigning the field member variable along with a class name. And we give it a higher operator precedence than the underlying field of coefficients so that an isolated coefficient is cast up to a constant polynomial.

@memoize
def polynomialsOver(field=fractions.Fraction):

class Polynomial(DomainElement):
operatorPrecedence = 2

[... methods defined above ...]

def Zero():
return Polynomial([])

Polynomial.field = field
Polynomial.__name__ = '(%s)[x]' % field.__name__
return Polynomial


We provide a modest test suite in the Github repository for this post, but here’s a sample test:

>>> Mod5 = IntegersModP(5)
>>> Mod11 = IntegersModP(11)
>>> polysOverQ = polynomialsOver(Fraction).factory
>>> polysMod5 = polynomialsOver(Mod5).factory
>>> polysMod11 = polynomialsOver(Mod11).factory
>>> polysOverQ([1,7,49]) / polysOverQ([7])
1/7 + 1 x^1 + 7 x^2
>>> polysMod5([1,7,49]) / polysMod5([7])
3 + 1 x^1 + 2 x^2
>>> polysMod11([1,7,49]) / polysMod11([7])
8 + 1 x^1 + 7 x^2


And indeed, the extended Euclidean algorithm works without modification, so we know our typecasting is doing what’s expected:

>>> p = polynomialsOver(Mod2).factory
>>> f = p([1,0,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,1,1]) # x^10 + x^9 + x^8 + x^6 + x^5 + x^4 + 1
>>> g = p([1,0,1,1,0,1,1,0,0,1])   # x^9 + x^6 + x^5 + x^3 + x^1 + 1
>>> theGcd = p([1,1,0,1]) # x^3 + x + 1
>>> x = p([0,0,0,0,1]) # x^4
>>> y = p([1,1,1,1,1,1]) # x^5 + x^4 + x^3 + x^2 + x + 1
>>> (x,y,theGcd) == extendedEuclideanAlgorithm(f, g)
True


[5] The mathematical name for the abs() function that we’re using is a valuation.
[6] One day we will talk a lot more about polynomial long division on this blog. You can do a lot of cool algebraic geometry with it, and the ideas there lead you to awesome applications like robot motion planning and automated geometry theorem proving.

Generating Irreducible Polynomials

Now that we’ve gotten Polynomials out of the way, we need to be able to generate irreducible polynomials over $\mathbb{Z}/p$ of any degree we want. It might be surprising that irreducible polynomials of any degree exist [7], but in fact we know a lot more.

Theorem: The product of all irreducible monic polynomials of degree dividing $m$ is equal to $x^{p^m} - x$.

This is an important theorem, but it takes a little bit more field theory than we have under our belts right now. You could summarize the proof by saying there is a one-to-one correspondence between elements of a field and monic irreducible polynomials, and then you say some things about splitting fields. You can see a more detailed proof outline here, but it assumes you’re familiar with the notion of a minimal polynomial. We will probably cover this in a future primer.

But just using the theorem we can get a really nice algorithm for determining if a polynomial $f(x)$ of degree $m$ is irreducible: we just look at its gcd with all the $x^{p^k} - x$ for $k$ smaller than $m$. If all the gcds are constants, then we know it’s irreducible, and if even one is a non-constant polynomial then it has to be irreducible. Why’s that? Because if you have some nontrivial gcd $d(x) = \gcd(f(x), x^{p^k} - x)$ for $k < m$, then it’s a factor of $f(x)$ by definition. And since we know all irreducible monic polynomials are factors of that this collection of polynomials, if the gcd is always 1 then there are no other possible factors to be divisors. (If there is any divisor then there will be a monic irreducible one!) So the candidate polynomial must be irreducible. In fact, with a moment of thought it’s clear that we can stop at $k= m/2$, as any factor of large degree will necessarily require corresponding factors of small degree. So the algorithm to check for irreducibility is just this simple loop:

def isIrreducible(polynomial, p):
ZmodP = IntegersModP(p)
poly = polynomialsOver(ZmodP).factory
x = poly([0,1])
powerTerm = x
isUnit = lambda p: p.degree() == 0

for _ in range(int(polynomial.degree() / 2)):
powerTerm = powerTerm.powmod(p, polynomial)
gcdOverZmodp = gcd(polynomial, powerTerm - x)
if not isUnit(gcdOverZmodp):
return False

return True


We’re just computing the powers iteratively as $x^p, (x^p)^p = x^{p^2}, \dots, x^{p^j}$ and in each step of the loop subtracting $x$ and computing the relevant gcd. The powmod function is just there so that we can reduce the power mod our irreducible polynomial after each multiplication, keeping the degree of the polynomial small and efficient to work with.

Now generating an irreducible polynomial is a little bit harder than testing for one. With a lot of hard work, however, field theorists discovered that irreducible polynomials are quite common. In fact, if you just generate the coefficients of your degree $n$ monic polynomial at random, the chance that you’ll get something irreducible is at least $1/n$. So this suggests an obvious randomized algorithm: keep guessing until you find one.

def generateIrreduciblePolynomial(modulus, degree):
Zp = IntegersModP(modulus)
Polynomial = polynomialsOver(Zp)

while True:
coefficients = [Zp(random.randint(0, modulus-1)) for _ in range(degree)]
randomMonicPolynomial = Polynomial(coefficients + [Zp(1)])

if isIrreducible(randomMonicPolynomial, modulus):
return randomMonicPolynomial


Since the probability of getting an irreducible polynomial is close to $1/n$, we expect to require $n$ trials before we find one. Moreover we could give a pretty tight bound on how likely it is to deviate from the expected number of trials. So now we can generate some irreducible polynomials!

>>> F23 = FiniteField(2,3)
>>> generateIrreduciblePolynomial(23, 3)
21 + 12 x^1 + 11 x^2 + 1 x^3



And so now we are well-equipped to generate any finite field we want! It’s just a matter of generating the polynomial and taking a modulus after every operation.

@memoize
def FiniteField(p, m, polynomialModulus=None):
Zp = IntegersModP(p)
if m == 1:
return Zp

Polynomial = polynomialsOver(Zp)
if polynomialModulus is None:
polynomialModulus = generateIrreduciblePolynomial(modulus=p, degree=m)

class Fq(FieldElement):
fieldSize = int(p ** m)
primeSubfield = Zp
idealGenerator = polynomialModulus
operatorPrecedence = 3

def __init__(self, poly):
if type(poly) is Fq:
self.poly = poly.poly
elif type(poly) is int or type(poly) is Zp:
self.poly = Polynomial([Zp(poly)])
elif isinstance(poly, Polynomial):
self.poly = poly % polynomialModulus
else:
self.poly = Polynomial([Zp(x) for x in poly]) % polynomialModulus

self.field = Fq

@typecheck
def __add__(self, other): return Fq(self.poly + other.poly)
@typecheck
def __sub__(self, other): return Fq(self.poly - other.poly)
@typecheck
def __mul__(self, other): return Fq(self.poly * other.poly)
@typecheck
def __eq__(self, other): return isinstance(other, Fq) and self.poly == other.poly

def __pow__(self, n): return Fq(pow(self.poly, n))
def __neg__(self): return Fq(-self.poly)
def __abs__(self): return abs(self.poly)
def __repr__(self): return repr(self.poly) + ' \u2208 ' + self.__class__.__name__

@typecheck
def __divmod__(self, divisor):
q,r = divmod(self.poly, divisor.poly)
return (Fq(q), Fq(r))

def inverse(self):
if self == Fq(0):
raise ZeroDivisionError

x,y,d = extendedEuclideanAlgorithm(self.poly, self.idealGenerator)
return Fq(x) * Fq(d.coefficients[0].inverse())

Fq.__name__ = 'F_{%d^%d}' % (p,m)
return Fq


And some examples of using it:

>>> F23 = FiniteField(2,3)
>>> x = F23([1,1])
>>> x
1 + 1 x^1 ∈ F_{2^3}
>>> x*x
1 + 0 x^1 + 1 x^2 ∈ F_{2^3}
>>> x**10
0 + 0 x^1 + 1 x^2 ∈ F_{2^3}
>>> 1 / x
0 + 1 x^1 + 1 x^2 ∈ F_{2^3}
>>> x * (1 / x)
1 ∈ F_{2^3}

>>> k = FiniteField(23, 4)
>>> k.fieldSize
279841
>>> k.idealGenerator
6 + 8 x^1 + 10 x^2 + 10 x^3 + 1 x^4
>>> y
9 + 21 x^1 + 14 x^2 + 12 x^3 ∈ F_{23^4}
>>> y*y
13 + 19 x^1 + 7 x^2 + 14 x^3 ∈ F_{23^4}
>>> y**5 - y
15 + 22 x^1 + 15 x^2 + 5 x^3 ∈ F_{23^4}


And that’s it! Now we can do arithmetic over any finite field we want.

[7] Especially considering that other wacky things happen like this: $x^4 +1$ is reducible over every finite field!

Some Words on Efficiency

There are a few things that go without stating about this program, but I’ll state them anyway.

The first is that we pay a big efficiency price for being so generic. All the typecasting we’re doing isn’t cheap, and in general cryptography needs to be efficient. For example, if I try to create a finite field of order $104729^{20}$, it takes about ten to fifteen seconds to complete. This might not seem so bad for a one-time initialization, but it’s clear that our representation is somewhat bloated. We would display a graph of the expected time to perform various operations in various finite fields, but this post is already way too long.

In general, the larger and more complicated the polynomial you use to define your finite field, the longer operations will take (since dividing by a complicated polynomial is more expensive than dividing by a simple polynomial). For this reason and a few other reasons, a lot of research has gone into efficiently finding irreducible polynomials with, say, only three nonzero terms. Moreover, if we know in advance that we’ll only work over fields of characteristic two we can make a whole lot of additional optimizations. Essentially, all of the arithmetic reduces to really fast bitwise operations, and things like exponentiation can easily be implemented in hardware. But it also seems that the expense coming with large field characteristics corresponds to higher security, so some researchers have tried to meet in the middle an get efficient representations of other field characteristics.

In any case, the real purpose of our implementation in this post is not for efficiency. We care first and foremost about understanding the mathematics, and to have a concrete object to play with and use in the future for other projects. And we have accomplished just that.

Until next time!