David Hilbert: Mathematical Problems

David Hilbert's famous 23 Paris problems challenged (and still today challenge) mathematicians to solve fundamental questions. Hilbert's famous address Mathematical Problems was delivered to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900. It was a speech full of optimism for mathematics in the coming century and Hilbert felt that open problems were the sign of vitality in the subject. More than 100 years have now passed since Hilbert's address, and we can say now that his address has been extremely influential in shaping mathematics through that 100 years.

The address Mathematische Probleme appeared in Göttinger Nachrichten in 1900, before the Proceedings of the Congress were published. Another version appeared in Archiv der Mathematik und Physik in 1901. M L Laugel translated the address into French for the Proceeding of the Congress and it appeared under the title Sur les problèmes futurs des mathématiques in Compte Rendu du Deuxième Congrès International des Mathématiciens published by Gauthier-Villars, Paris, in 1902. An English translation by Mary Winston Newson was published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in 1902.

We give below an extract from the address, in which Hilbert speaks of his views on mathematics. The extract does not contain the section dealing with the problems themselves:-

Mathematical Problems

By David Hilbert

Who of us would not be glad to lift the veil behind which the future lies hidden; to cast a glance at the next advances of our science and at the secrets of its development during future centuries? What particular goals will there be toward which the leading mathematical spirits of coming generations will strive? What new methods and new facts in the wide and rich field of mathematical thought will the new centuries disclose?

History teaches the continuity of the development of science. We know that every age has its own problems, which the following age either solves or casts aside as profitless and replaces by new ones. If we would obtain an idea of the probable development of mathematical knowledge in the immediate future, we must let the unsettled questions pass before our minds and look over the problems which the science of today sets and whose solution we expect from the future. To such a review of problems the present day, lying at the meeting of the centuries, seems to me well adapted. For the close of a great epoch not only invites us to look back into the past but also directs our thoughts to the unknown future.

The deep significance of certain problems for the advance of mathematical science in general and the important role which they play in the work of the individual investigator are not to be denied. As long as a branch of science offers an abundance of problems, so long is it alive; a lack of problems foreshadows extinction or the cessation of independent development. Just as every human undertaking pursues certain objects, so also mathematical research requires its problems. It is by the solution of problems that the investigator tests the temper of his steel; he finds new methods and new outlooks, and gains a wider and freer horizon.

It is difficult and often impossible to judge the value of a problem correctly in advance; for the final award depends upon the gain which science obtains from the problem. Nevertheless we can ask whether there are general criteria which mark a good mathematical problem. An old French mathematician said: "A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street." This clearness and ease of comprehension, here insisted on for a mathematical theory, I should still more demand for a mathematical problem if it is to be perfect; for what is clear and easily comprehended attracts, the complicated repels us.

Moreover a mathematical problem should be difficult in order to entice us, yet not completely inaccessible, lest it mock at our efforts. It should be to us a guide post on the mazy paths to hidden truths, and ultimately a reminder of our pleasure in the successful solution.

The mathematicians of past centuries were accustomed to devote themselves to the solution of difficult particular problems with passionate zeal. They knew the value of difficult problems. I remind you only of the "problem of the line of quickest descent," proposed by Johann Bernoulli. Experience teaches, explains Bernoulli in the public announcement of this problem, that lofty minds are led to strive for the advance of science by nothing more than by laying before them difficult and at the same time useful problems, and he therefore hopes to earn the thanks of the mathematical world by following the example of men like Mersenne, Pascal, Fermat, Viviani and others and laying before the distinguished analysts of his time a problem by which, as a touchstone, they may test the value of their methods and measure their strength. The calculus of variations owes its origin to this problem of Johann Bernoulli and to similar problems.

Fermat had asserted, as is well known, that the diophantine equation

xn + yn = zn

(x, y and z integers) is insoluble - except in certain self evident cases. The attempt to prove this impossibility offers a striking example of the inspiring effect which such a very special and apparently unimportant problem may have upon science. For Kummer, incited by Fermat's problem, was led to the introduction of ideal numbers and to the discovery of the law of the unique decomposition of the numbers of a circular field into ideal prime factors - a law which today, in its generalization to any algebraic field by Dedekind and Kronecker, stands at the centre of the modern theory of numbers and whose significance extends far beyond the boundaries of number theory into the realm of algebra and the theory of functions.

To speak of a very different region of research, I remind you of the three-body problem. The fruitful methods and the far-reaching principles which Poincaré has brought into celestial mechanics and which are today recognized and applied in practical astronomy are due to the circumstance that he undertook to treat anew that difficult problem and to approach nearer a solution.

The two last mentioned problems - that of Fermat and the problem of the three bodies - seem to us almost like opposite poles - the former a free invention of pure reason, belonging to the region of abstract number theory, the latter forced upon us by astronomy and necessary to an understanding of the simplest fundamental phenomena of nature.

But it often happens also that the same special problem finds application in the most unlike branches of mathematical knowledge. So, for example, the problem of the shortest line plays a chief and historically important part in the foundations of geometry, in the theory of curved lines and surfaces, in mechanics and in the calculus of variations. And how convincingly has F Klein, in his work on the icosahedron, pictured the significance which attaches to the problem of the regular polyhedra in elementary geometry, in group theory, in the theory of equations and in that of linear differential equations.

In order to throw light on the importance of certain problems, I may also refer to Weierstrass, who spoke of it as his happy fortune that he found at the outset of his scientific career a problem on which to work as important as Jacobi's problem of inversion.

Having now recalled to mind the general importance of problems in mathematics, let us turn to the question from what sources this science derives its problems. Surely the first and oldest problems in every branch of mathematics spring from experience and are suggested by the world of external phenomena. Even the rules of calculation with integers must have been discovered in this fashion in a lower stage of human civilization, just as the child of today learns the application of these laws by empirical methods. The same is true of the first problems of geometry, the problems bequeathed us by antiquity, such as the duplication of the cube, the squaring of the circle; also the oldest problems in the theory of the solution of numerical equations, in the theory of curves and the differential and integral calculus, in the calculus of variations, the theory of Fourier series and the theory of potential - to say nothing of the further abundance of problems properly belonging to mechanics, astronomy and physics.

But, in the further development of a branch of mathematics, the human mind, encouraged by the success of its solutions, becomes conscious of its independence. It evolves from itself alone, often without appreciable influence from outside, by means of logical combination, generalization, specialization, by separating and collecting ideas in fortunate ways, new and fruitful problems, and appears then itself as the real questioner. Thus arose the problem of prime numbers and the other problems of number theory, Galois's theory of equations, the theory of algebraic invariants, the theory of abelian and automorphic functions; indeed almost all the nicer questions of modern arithmetic and function theory arise in this way.

In the meantime, while the creative power of pure reason is at work, the outer world again comes into play, forces upon us new questions from actual experience, opens up new branches of mathematics, and while we seek to conquer these new fields of knowledge for the realm of pure thought, we often find the answers to old unsolved problems and thus at the same time advance most successfully the old theories. And it seems to me that the numerous and surprising analogies and that apparently prearranged harmony which the mathematician so often perceives in the questions, methods and ideas of the various branches of his science, have their origin in this ever-recurring interplay between thought and experience.

It remains to discuss briefly what general requirements may be justly laid down for the solution of a mathematical problem. I should say first of all, this: that it shall be possible to establish the correctness of the solution by means of a finite number of steps based upon a finite number of hypotheses which are implied in the statement of the problem and which must always be exactly formulated. This requirement of logical deduction by means of a finite number of processes is simply the requirement of rigour in reasoning. Indeed the requirement of rigour, which has become proverbial in mathematics, corresponds to a universal philosophical necessity of our understanding; and, on the other hand, only by satisfying this requirement do the thought content and the suggestiveness of the problem attain their full effect. A new problem, especially when it comes from the world of outer experience, is like a young twig, which thrives and bears fruit only when it is grafted carefully and in accordance with strict horticultural rules upon the old stem, the established achievements of our mathematical science.

Besides it is an error to believe that rigour in the proof is the enemy of simplicity. On the contrary we find it confirmed by numerous examples that the rigorous method is at the same time the simpler and the more easily comprehended. The very effort for rigour forces us to find out simpler methods of proof. It also frequently leads the way to methods which are more capable of development than the old methods of less rigour. Thus the theory of algebraic curves experienced a considerable simplification and attained greater unity by means of the more rigorous function-theoretical methods and the consistent introduction of transcendental devices. Further, the proof that the power series permits the application of the four elementary arithmetical operations as well as the term by term differentiation and integration, and the recognition of the utility of the power series depending upon this proof contributed materially to the simplification of all analysis, particularly of the theory of elimination and the theory of differential equations, and also of the existence proofs demanded in those theories. But the most striking example for my statement is the calculus of variations. The treatment of the first and second variations of definite integrals required in part extremely complicated calculations, and the processes applied by the old mathematicians had not the needful rigour. Weierstrass showed us the way to a new and sure foundation of the calculus of variations. By the examples of the simple and double integral I will show briefly, at the close of my lecture, how this way leads at once to a surprising simplification of the calculus of variations. For in the demonstration of the necessary and sufficient criteria for the occurrence of a maximum and minimum, the calculation of the second variation and in part, indeed, the wearisome reasoning connected with the first variation may be completely dispensed with - to say nothing of the advance which is involved in the removal of the restriction to variations for which the differential coefficients of the function vary but slightly.

While insisting on rigour in the proof as a requirement for a perfect solution of a problem, I should like, on the other hand, to oppose the opinion that only the concepts of analysis, or even those of arithmetic alone, are susceptible of a fully rigorous treatment. This opinion, occasionally advocated by eminent men, I consider entirely erroneous. Such a one-sided interpretation of the requirement of rigour would soon lead to the ignoring of all concepts arising from geometry, mechanics and physics, to a stoppage of the flow of new material from the outside world, and finally, indeed, as a last consequence, to the rejection of the ideas of the continuum and of the irrational number. But what an important nerve, vital to mathematical science, would be cut by the extirpation of geometry and mathematical physics! On the contrary I think that wherever, from the side of the theory of knowledge or in geometry, or from the theories of natural or physical science, mathematical ideas come up, the problem arises for mathematical science to investigate the principles underlying these ideas and so to establish them upon a simple and complete system of axioms, that the exactness of the new ideas and their applicability to deduction shall be in no respect inferior to those of the old arithmetical concepts.

To new concepts correspond, necessarily, new signs. These we choose in such a way that they remind us of the phenomena which were the occasion for the formation of the new concepts. So the geometrical figures are signs or mnemonic symbols of space intuition and are used as such by all mathematicians. Who does not always use along with the double inequality a > b > c the picture of three points following one another on a straight line as the geometrical picture of the idea "between"? Who does not make use of drawings of segments and rectangles enclosed in one another, when it is required to prove with perfect rigour a difficult theorem on the continuity of functions or the existence of points of condensation? Who could dispense with the figure of the triangle, the circle with its centre, or with the cross of three perpendicular axes? Or who would give up the representation of the vector field, or the picture of a family of curves or surfaces with its envelope which plays so important a part in differential geometry, in the theory of differential equations, in the foundation of the calculus of variations and in other purely mathematical sciences?

The arithmetical symbols are written diagrams and the geometrical figures are graphic formulas; and no mathematician could spare these graphic formulas, any more than in calculation the insertion and removal of parentheses or the use of other analytical signs.

The use of geometrical signs as a means of strict proof presupposes the exact knowledge and complete mastery of the axioms which underlie those figures; and in order that these geometrical figures may be incorporated in the general treasure of mathematical signs, there is necessary a rigorous axiomatic investigation of their conceptual content. Just as in adding two numbers, one must place the digits under each other in the right order, so that only the rules of calculation, i. e., the axioms of arithmetic, determine the correct use of the digits, so the use of geometrical signs is determined by the axioms of geometrical concepts and their combinations.

The agreement between geometrical and arithmetical thought is shown also in that we do not habitually follow the chain of reasoning back to the axioms in arithmetical, any more than in geometrical discussions. On the contrary we apply, especially in first attacking a problem, a rapid, unconscious, not absolutely sure combination, trusting to a certain arithmetical feeling for the behaviour of the arithmetical symbols, which we could dispense with as little in arithmetic as with the geometrical imagination in geometry. As an example of an arithmetical theory operating rigorously with geometrical ideas and signs, I may mention Minkowski's work, Die Geometrie der Zahlen.

Some remarks upon the difficulties which mathematical problems may offer, and the means of surmounting them, may be in place here.

If we do not succeed in solving a mathematical problem, the reason frequently consists in our failure to recognize the more general standpoint from which the problem before us appears only as a single link in a chain of related problems. After finding this standpoint, not only is this problem frequently more accessible to our investigation, but at the same time we come into possession of a method which is applicable also to related problems. The introduction of complex paths of integration by Cauchy and of the notion of the ideals in number theory by Kummer may serve as examples. This way for finding general methods is certainly the most practicable and the most certain; for he who seeks for methods without having a definite problem in mind seeks for the most part in vain.

In dealing with mathematical problems, specialization plays, as I believe, a still more important part than generalization. Perhaps in most cases where we seek in vain the answer to a question, the cause of the failure lies in the fact that problems simpler and easier than the one in hand have been either not at all or incompletely solved. All depends, then, on finding out these easier problems, and on solving them by means of devices as perfect as possible and of concepts capable of generalization. This rule is one of the most important levers for overcoming mathematical difficulties and it seems to me that it is used almost always, though perhaps unconsciously.

Occasionally it happens that we seek the solution under insufficient hypotheses or in an incorrect sense, and for this reason do not succeed. The problem then arises: to show the impossibility of the solution under the given hypotheses, or in the sense contemplated. Such proofs of impossibility were effected by the ancients, for instance when they showed that the ratio of the hypotenuse to the side of an isosceles right triangle is irrational. In later mathematics, the question as to the impossibility of certain solutions plays a pre-eminent part, and we perceive in this way that old and difficult problems, such as the proof of the axiom of parallels, the squaring of the circle, or the solution of equations of the fifth degree by radicals have finally found fully satisfactory and rigorous solutions, although in another sense than that originally intended. It is probably this important fact along with other philosophical reasons that gives rise to the conviction (which every mathematician shares, but which no one has as yet supported by a proof) that every definite mathematical problem must necessarily be susceptible of an exact settlement, either in the form of an actual answer to the question asked, or by the proof of the impossibility of its solution and therewith the necessary failure of all attempts. Take any definite unsolved problem, such as the question as to the irrationality of the Euler-Mascheroni constant C, or the existence of an infinite number of prime numbers of the form 2n + 1. However unapproachable these problems may seem to us and however helpless we stand before them, we have, nevertheless, the firm conviction that their solution must follow by a finite number of purely logical processes.

Is this axiom of the solvability of every problem a peculiarity characteristic of mathematical thought alone, or is it possibly a general law inherent in the nature of the mind, that all questions which it asks must be answerable? For in other sciences also one meets old problems which have been settled in a manner most satisfactory and most useful to science by the proof of their impossibility. I instance the problem of perpetual motion. After seeking in vain for the construction of a perpetual motion machine, the relations were investigated which must subsist between the forces of nature if such a machine is to be impossible; and this inverted question led to the discovery of the law of the conservation of energy, which, again, explained the impossibility of perpetual motion in the sense originally intended.

This conviction of the solvability of every mathematical problem is a powerful incentive to the worker. We hear within us the perpetual call: There is the problem. Seek its solution. You can find it by pure reason, for in mathematics there is no ignorabimus.

The supply of problems in mathematics is inexhaustible, and as soon as one problem is solved numerous others come forth in its place. Permit me in the following, tentatively as it were, to mention particular definite problems, drawn from various branches of mathematics, from the discussion of which an advancement of science may be expected.

Let us look at the principles of analysis and geometry. The most suggestive and notable achievements of the last century in this field are, as it seems to me, the arithmetical formulation of the concept of the continuum in the works of Cauchy, Bolzano and Cantor, and the discovery of non-euclidean geometry by Gauss, Bolyai, and Lobachevsky. I therefore first direct your attention to some problems belonging to these fields.


JOC/EFR March 2006

The URL of this page is:
http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/Hilbert_Problems.html