Assignment 12-2 Calculate Mathematical Problems That Have Never Been Solved

By Benjamin Braun, Editor-in-Chief, University of Kentucky

One of my favorite assignments for students in undergraduate mathematics courses is to have them work on unsolved math problems.  An unsolved math problem, also known to mathematicians as an “open” problem, is a problem that no one on earth knows how to solve.  My favorite unsolved problems for students are simply stated ones that can be easily understood.  In this post, I’ll share three such problems that I have used in my classes and discuss their impact on my students.

Unsolved Problems

The Collatz Conjecture. Given a positive integer \(n\), if it is odd then calculate \(3n+1\).  If it is even, calculate \(n/2\).  Repeat this process with the resulting value. For example, if you begin with \(1\), then you obtain the sequence \[ 1,4,2,1,4,2,1,4,2,1,\ldots \] which will repeat forever in this way.  If you start with a \(5\), then you obtain the sequence \(5,16,8,4,2,1,\ldots\), and now find yourself in the previous case.  The unsolved question about this process is: If you start from any positive integer, does this process always end by cycling through \(1,4,2,1,4,2,1,\ldots\)?  Mathematicians believe that the answer is yes, though no one knows how to prove it. This conjecture is known as the Collatz Conjecture (among many other names), since it was first asked in 1937 by Lothar Collatz.

The Erdős-Strauss Conjecture. A fascinating question about unit fractions is the following: For every positive integer \(n\) greater than or equal to \(2\), can you write \(\frac{4}{n}\) as a sum of three positive unit fractions?  For example, for \(n=3\), we can write \[\frac{4}{3}=\frac{1}{1}+\frac{1}{6}+\frac{1}{6} \, . \]  For \(n=5\), we can write \[ \frac{4}{5}=\frac{1}{2}+\frac{1}{4}+\frac{1}{20} \] or \[\frac{4}{5}=\frac{1}{2}+\frac{1}{5}+\frac{1}{10} \, . \]  In other words, if \(n\geq 2\) can you always solve the equation \[ \frac{4}{n}=\frac{1}{a}+\frac{1}{b}+\frac{1}{c}\] using positive integers \(a\), \(b\), and \(c\)?  Again, most mathematicians believe that the answer to this question is yes, but a proof remains elusive.  This question was first asked by Paul Erdős and Ernst Strauss in 1948, hence its name, and mathematicians have been working hard on it ever since.

Lagarias’s Elementary Version of the Riemann Hypothesis.  For a positive integer \(n\), let \(\sigma(n)\) denote the sum of the positive integers that divide \(n\).  For example, \(\sigma(4)=1+2+4=7\), and \(\sigma(6)=1+2+3+6=12\).  Let \(H_n\) denote the \(n\)-th harmonic number, i.e. \[ H_n=1+\frac{1}{2}+\frac{1}{3}+\frac{1}{4}+\cdots+\frac{1}{n} \, .\] Our third unsolved problem is: Does the following inequality hold for all \(n\geq 1\)? \[ \sigma(n)\leq H_n+\ln(H_n)e^{H_n} \] In 2002, Jeffrey Lagarias proved that this problem is equivalent to the Riemann Hypothesis, a famous question about the complex roots of the Riemann zeta function.  Because it is equivalent to the Riemann Hypothesis, if you successfully answer it, then the Clay Mathematics Foundation will reward you with $1,000,000.  While the statement of this problem is more complicated than the previous two, it doesn’t involve anything beyond natural logs and exponentials at a precalculus level.

Impact on Students

I’ve used all three of these problems, along with various others, as the focus of in-class group work and as homework problems in undergraduate mathematics courses such as College Geometry, Problem Solving for Teachers, and History of Mathematics.  An example of a homework assignment I give based on the Riemann Hypothesis problem can be found at this link.  When I use these problems for in-class work, I will typically pose the problem to the students without telling them it is unsolved, and then reveal the full truth after they have been working for fifteen minutes or so.  By doing this, the students get to experience the shift in perspective that comes when what appears to be a simple problem in arithmetic suddenly becomes a near-impossibility.

Without fail, my undergraduate students, most of whom are majors in math, math education, engineering, or one of the natural sciences, are surprised that they can understand the statement of an unsolved math problem.  Most of them are also shocked that problems as seemingly simple as the Collatz Conjecture or the Erdős-Strauss Conjecture are unsolved — the ideas involved in the statements of these problems are at an elementary-school level!

I have found that having students work on unsolved problems gets them engaged in three ways that are otherwise very difficult to obtain.

  1. Students are forced to depart from the “answer-getting” mentality of mathematics.  In my experience, (most) students in K-12 and postsecondary mathematics courses believe that all math problems have known answers, and that teachers can find the answer to every problem.  As long as students believe this story, it is hard to motivate them to develop quality mathematical practices, as opposed to doing the minimum necessary to get the “right answer” sufficiently often.  However, if they are asked to work on an unsolved problem, knowing that it is unsolved, then students are forced to find other ways to define success in their mathematical work.  While getting buy-in on this idea is occasionally an issue, most of the time the students are immediately interested in the idea of an unsolved problem, especially a simply-stated one.  The discussion of how to define success in mathematical investigation usually prompts quality discussions in class about the authentic nature of mathematical work; students often haven’t reflected on the fact that professional mathematicians and scientists spend most of their time thinking about how to solve problems that no one knows how to solve.
  1. Students are forced to redefine success in learning as making sense and increasing depth of understanding.  The first of the mathematical practice standards in the Common Core, which have been discussed in previous blog posts by the author and by Elise Lockwood and Eric Weber, is that students should make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.  When faced with an unsolved problem, sense-making and perseverance must take center stage.  In courses heavily populated by preservice teachers, I’ve used open problems as in-class group work in which students work on a problem and monitor which of the practice standards they are using.  Since neither the students nor I expect that they will solve the problem at hand, they are able to really relax and focus on the process of mathematical investigation, without feeling pressure to complete the problem.  One could even go so far as to evaluate student work on unsolved problems using the common core practice standards, though typically I evaluate such work based on maturity of investigation and clarity of exposition.
  1. Students are able to work in a context in which failure is completely normal.  In my experience, undergraduates majoring in the mathematical sciences typically carry a large amount of guilt and self-doubt regarding their perceived mathematical failures, whether or not it is justified.  From data collected by the recent MAA Calculus Study, it appears that this is particularly harmful for women studying mathematics.  Because working on unsolved problems forces success to be redefined, it also provides an opportunity to discuss the definition of failure, and the pervasive normality of small mistakes in the day-to-day lives of mathematicians and scientists.  I usually combine work on unsolved problems with reading assignments and classroom discussions regarding developments in educational and social psychology, such as Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, to help students develop a more reasonable set of expectations for their mathematical process.

One of the most interesting aspects of using unsolved problems in my classes has been to see how my students respond.  I typically ask students to write a three-page reflective essay about their experience with the homework in the course, and almost all of the students talk about working on the open problems.  Some of them describe feelings of relief and joy to have the opportunity to be as creative as they wish on a problem with no expectation of finding the right answer, while others describe feelings of frustration and immediate defeat in the face of a hopeless task.  Either way, many students tell me that working on an unsolved problem is one of the noteworthy moments in the course.  For this reason, as much as I enjoy witnessing mathematics develop and progress, I hope that some of my favorite problems remain tantalizingly unsolved for many years to come.

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Mathematical Problems

Lecture delivered before the International Congress of Mathematicians at Paris in 1900

By Professor David Hilbert1

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 John 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 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 unsolvable—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 center 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 problem of three bodies. 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 so important as Jacobi's problem of inversion on which to work.

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 without, 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 rigor in reasoning. Indeed the requirement of rigor, 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 rigor 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 rigor 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 rigor. 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 rigor. 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 rigor 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 rigor 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 rigor 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 center, 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 behavior 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.2

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 preeminent 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;3 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.1. Cantor's problem of the cardinal number of the continuum

Two systems, i. e, two assemblages of ordinary real numbers or points, are said to be (according to Cantor) equivalent or of equal cardinal number, if they can be brought into a relation to one another such that to every number of the one assemblage corresponds one and only one definite number of the other. The investigations of Cantor on such assemblages of points suggest a very plausible theorem, which nevertheless, in spite of the most strenuous efforts, no one has succeeded in proving. This is the theorem:

Every system of infinitely many real numbers, i. e., every assemblage of numbers (or points), is either equivalent to the assemblage of natural integers, 1, 2, 3,... or to the assemblage of all real numbers and therefore to the continuum, that is, to the points of a line; as regards equivalence there are, therefore, only two assemblages of numbers, the countable assemblage and the continuum.

From this theorem it would follow at once that the continuum has the next cardinal number beyond that of the countable assemblage; the proof of this theorem would, therefore, form a new bridge between the countable assemblage and the continuum.

Let me mention another very remarkable statement of Cantor's which stands in the closest connection with the theorem mentioned and which, perhaps, offers the key to its proof. Any system of real numbers is said to be ordered, if for every two numbers of the system it is determined which one is the earlier and which the later, and if at the same time this determination is of such a kind that, if a is before b and b is before c, then a always comes before c. The natural arrangement of numbers of a system is defined to be that in which the smaller precedes the larger. But there are, as is easily seen infinitely many other ways in which the numbers of a system may be arranged.

If we think of a definite arrangement of numbers and select from them a particular system of these numbers, a so-called partial system or assemblage, this partial system will also prove to be ordered. Now Cantor considers a particular kind of ordered assemblage which he designates as a well ordered assemblage and which is characterized in this way, that not only in the assemblage itself but also in every partial assemblage there exists a first number. The system of integers 1, 2, 3, ... in their natural order is evidently a well ordered assemblage. On the other hand the system of all real numbers, i. e., the continuum in its natural order, is evidently not well ordered. For, if we think of the points of a segment of a straight line, with its initial point excluded, as our partial assemblage, it will have no first element.

The question now arises whether the totality of all numbers may not be arranged in another manner so that every partial assemblage may have a first element, i. e., whether the continuum cannot be considered as a well ordered assemblage—a question which Cantor thinks must be answered in the affirmative. It appears to me most desirable to obtain a direct proof of this remarkable statement of Cantor's, perhaps by actually giving an arrangement of numbers such that in every partial system a first number can be pointed out.

2. The compatibility of the arithmetical axioms

When we are engaged in investigating the foundations of a science, we must set up a system of axioms which contains an exact and complete description of the relations subsisting between the elementary ideas of that science. The axioms so set up are at the same time the definitions of those elementary ideas; and no statement within the realm of the science whose foundation we are testing is held to be correct unless it can be derived from those axioms by means of a finite number of logical steps. Upon closer consideration the question arises: Whether, in any way, certain statements of single axioms depend upon one another, and whether the axioms may not therefore contain certain parts in common, which must be isolated if one wishes to arrive at a system of axioms that shall be altogether independent of one another.

But above all I wish to designate the following as the most important among the numerous questions which can be asked with regard to the axioms: To prove that they are not contradictory, that is, that a definite number of logical steps based upon them can never lead to contradictory results.

In geometry, the proof of the compatibility of the axioms can be effected by constructing a suitable field of numbers, such that analogous relations between the numbers of this field correspond to the geometrical axioms. Any contradiction in the deductions from the geometrical axioms must thereupon be recognizable in the arithmetic of this field of numbers. In this way the desired proof for the compatibility of the geometrical axioms is made to depend upon the theorem of the compatibility of the arithmetical axioms.

On the other hand a direct method is needed for the proof of the compatibility of the arithmetical axioms. The axioms of arithmetic are essentially nothing else than the known rules of calculation, with the addition of the axiom of continuity. I recently collected them4 and in so doing replaced the axiom of continuity by two simpler axioms, namely, the well-known axiom of Archimedes, and a new axiom essentially as follows: that numbers form a system of things which is capable of no further extension, as long as all the other axioms hold (axiom of completeness). I am convinced that it must be possible to find a direct proof for the compatibility of the arithmetical axioms, by means of a careful study and suitable modification of the known methods of reasoning in the theory of irrational numbers.

To show the significance of the problem from another point of view, I add the following observation: If contradictory attributes be assigned to a concept, I say, that mathematically the concept does not exist. So, for example, a real number whose square is -l does not exist mathematically. But if it can be proved that the attributes assigned to the concept can never lead to a contradiction by the application of a finite number of logical processes, I say that the mathematical existence of the concept (for example, of a number or a function which satisfies certain conditions) is thereby proved. In the case before us, where we are concerned with the axioms of real numbers in arithmetic, the proof of the compatibility of the axioms is at the same time the proof of the mathematical existence of the complete system of real numbers or of the continuum. Indeed, when the proof for the compatibility of the axioms shall be fully accomplished, the doubts which have been expressed occasionally as to the existence of the complete system of real numbers will become totally groundless. The totality of real numbers, i. e., the continuum according to the point of view just indicated, is not the totality of all possible series in decimal fractions, or of all possible laws according to which the elements of a fundamental sequence may proceed. It is rather a system of things whose mutual relations are governed by the axioms set up and for which all propositions, and only those, are true which can be derived from the axioms by a finite number of logical processes. In my opinion, the concept of the continuum is strictly logically tenable in this sense only. It seems to me, indeed, that this corresponds best also to what experience and intuition tell us. The concept of the continuum or even that of the system of all functions exists, then, in exactly the same sense as the system of integral, rational numbers, for example, or as Cantor's higher classes of numbers and cardinal numbers. For I am convinced that the existence of the latter, just as that of the continuum, can be proved in the sense I have described; unlike the system of all cardinal numbers or of all Cantor s alephs, for which, as may be shown, a system of axioms, compatible in my sense, cannot be set up. Either of these systems is, therefore, according to my terminology, mathematically non-existent.

From the field of the foundations of geometry I should like to mention the following problem:

3. The equality of two volumes of two tetrahedra of equal bases and equal altitudes

In two letters to Gerling, Gauss5 expresses his regret that certain theorems of solid geometry depend upon the method of exhaustion, i. e., in modern phraseology, upon the axiom of continuity (or upon the axiom of Archimedes). Gauss mentions in particular the theorem of Euclid, that triangular pyramids of equal altitudes are to each other as their bases. Now the analogous problem in the plane has been solved.6 Gerling also succeeded in proving the equality of volume of symmetrical polyhedra by dividing them into congruent parts. Nevertheless, it seems to me probable that a general proof of this kind for the theorem of Euclid just mentioned is impossible, and it should be our task to give a rigorous proof of its impossibility. This would be obtained, as soon as we succeeded in specifying two tetrahedra of equal bases and equal altitudes which can in no way be split up into congruent tetrahedra, and which cannot be combined with congruent tetrahedra to form two polyhedra which themselves could be split up into congruent tetrahedra.7

4. Problem of the straight line as the shortest distance between two points

Another problem relating to the foundations of geometry is this: If from among the axioms necessary to establish ordinary euclidean geometry, we exclude the axiom of parallels, or assume it as not satisfied, but retain all other axioms, we obtain, as is well known, the geometry of Lobachevsky (hyperbolic geometry). We may therefore say that this is a geometry standing next to euclidean geometry. If we require further that that axiom be not satisfied whereby, of three points of a straight line, one and only one lies between the other two, we obtain Riemann's (elliptic) geometry, so that this geometry appears to be the next after Lobachevsky's. If we wish to carry out a similar investigation with respect to the axiom of Archimedes, we must look upon this as not satisfied, and we arrive thereby at the non-archimedean geometries which have been investigated by Veronese and myself. The more general question now arises: Whether from other suggestive standpoints geometries may not be devised which, with equal right, stand next to euclidean geometry. Here I should like to direct your attention to a theorem which has, indeed, been employed by many authors as a definition of a straight line, viz., that the straight line is the shortest distance between two points. The essential content of this statement reduces to the theorem of Euclid that in a triangle the sum of two sides is always greater than the third side—a theorem which, as is easily seen, deals sole]y with elementary concepts, i. e., with such as are derived directly from the axioms, and is therefore more accessible to logical investigation. Euclid proved this theorem, with the help of the theorem of the exterior angle, on the basis of the congruence theorems. Now it is readily shown that this theorem of Euclid cannot be proved solely on the basis of those congruence theorems which relate to the application of segments and angles, but that one of the theorems on the congruence of triangles is necessary. We are asking, then, for a geometry in which all the axioms of ordinary euclidean geometry hold, and in particular all the congruence axioms except the one of the congruence of triangles (or all except the theorem of the equality of the base angles in the isosceles triangle), and in which, besides, the proposition that in every triangle the sum of two sides is greater than the third is assumed as a particular axiom.

One finds that such a geometry really exists and is no other than that which Minkowski constructed in his book, Geometrie der Zahlen,8 and made the basis of his arithmetical investigations. Minkowski's is therefore also a geometry standing next to the ordinary euclidean geometry; it is essentially characterized by the following stipulations:
1. The points which are at equal distances from a fixed point O lie on a convex closed surface of the ordinary euclidean space with O as a center.
2. Two segments are said to be equal when one can be carried into the other by a translation of the ordinary euclidean space.

In Minkowski's geometry the axiom of parallels also holds. By studying the theorem of the straight line as the shortest distance between two points, I arrived9 at a geometry in which the parallel axiom does not hold, while all other axioms of Minkowski's geometry are satisfied. The theorem of the straight line as the shortest distance between two points and the essentially equivalent theorem of Euclid about the sides of a triangle, play an important part not only in number theory but also in the theory of surfaces and in the calculus of variations. For this reason, and because I believe that the thorough investigation of the conditions for the validity of this theorem will throw a new light upon the idea of distance, as well as upon other elementary ideas, e. g., upon the idea of the plane, and the possibility of its definition by means of the idea of the straight line, the construction and systematic treatment of the geometries here possible seem to me desirable.

5. Lie's concept of a continuous group of transformations without the assumption of the differentiability of the functions defining the group

It is well known that Lie, with the aid of the concept of continuous groups of transformations, has set up a system of geometrical axioms and, from the standpoint of his theory of groups, has proved that this system of axioms suffices for geometry. But since Lie assumes, in the very foundation of his theory, that the functions defining his group can be differentiated, it remains undecided in Lie's development, whether the assumption of the differentiability in connection with the question as to the axioms of geometry is actually unavoidable, or whether it may not appear rather as a consequence of the group concept and the other geometrical axioms. This consideration, as well as certain other problems in connection with the arithmetical axioms, brings before us the more general question: How far Lie's concept of continuous groups of transformations is approachable in our investigations without the assumption of the differentiability of the functions.

Lie defines a finite continuous group of transformations as a system of transformations

xi' = fi(x1, ... , xn; a1, ... , ar)

having the property that any two arbitrarily chosen transformations of the system, as

xi' = fi(x1, ... , xn; a1, ... , ar)
xi" = fi(x1', ... , xn'; b1, ... , br)

applied successively result in a transformation which also belongs to the system, and which is therefore expressible in the form

xi" = fi{f1(x, a), ... , fn(x, a); b1, ... , br} = fi(x1, ... , xn; c1, ... , cr)

where c1, ... , cr are certain functions of a1, ... , ar and b1, ... , br. The group property thus finds its full expression in a system of functional equations and of itself imposes no additional restrictions upon the functions f1, ... , fn; c1, ... , cr. Yet Lie's further treatment of these functional equations, viz., the derivation of the well-known fundamental differential equations, assumes necessarily the continuity and differentiability of the functions defining the group.

As regards continuity: this postulate will certainly be retained for the present—if only with a view to the geometrical and arithmetical applications, in which the continuity of the functions in question appears as a consequence of the axiom of continuity. On the other hand the differentiability of the functions defining the group contains a postulate which, in the geometrical axioms, can be expressed only in a rather forced and complicated manner. Hence there arises the question whether, through the introduction of suitable new variables and parameters, the group can always be transformed into one whose defining functions are differentiable; or whether, at least with the help of certain simple assumptions, a transformation is possible into groups admitting Lie's methods. A reduction to analytic groups is, according to a theorem announced by Lie10 but first proved by Schur,11 always possible when the group is transitive and the existence of the first and certain second derivatives of the functions defining the group is assumed.

For infinite groups the investigation of the corresponding question is, I believe, also of interest. Moreover we are thus led to the wide and interesting field of functional equations which have been heretofore investigated usually only under the assumption of the differentiability of the functions involved. In particular the functional equations treated by Abel12 with so much ingenuity, the difference equations, and other equations occurring in the literature of mathematics, do not directly involve anything which necessitates the requirement of the differentiability of the accompanying functions. In the search for certain existence proofs in the calculus of variations I came directly upon the problem: To prove the differentiability of the function under consideration from the existence of a difference equation. In all these cases, then, the problem arises: In how far are the assertions which we can make in the case of differentiable functions true under proper modifications without this assumption?

It may be further remarked that H. Minkowski in his above-mentioned Geometrie der Zahlen starts with the functional equation

f(x1 + y1, ... , xn + yn) f(x1, ... , xn) + f(y1, ... , yn)

and from this actually succeeds in proving the existence of certain differential quotients for the function in question.

On the other hand I wish to emphasize the fact that there certainly exist analytical functional equations whose sole solutions are non-differentiable functions. For example a uniform continuous non-differentiable function (x) can be constructed which represents the only solution of the two functional equations

(x + ) – (x) = f(x),
(x + ) – (x) = 0

where and are two real numbers, and f(x) denotes, for all the real values of x, a regular analytic uniform function. Such functions are obtained in the simplest manner by means of trigonometrical series by a process similar to that used by Borel (according to a recent announcement of Picard)13 for the construction of a doubly periodic, non-analytic solution of a certain analytic partial differential equation.

6. Mathematical treatment of the axioms of physics

The investigations on the foundations of geometry suggest the problem: To treat in the same manner, by means of axioms, those physical sciences in which mathematics plays an important part; in the first rank are the theory of probabilities and mechanics.

As to the axioms of the theory of probabilities,14 it seems to me desirable that their logical investigation should be accompanied by a rigorous and satisfactory development of the method of mean values in mathematical physics, and in particular in the kinetic theory of gases.

Important investigations by physicists on the foundations of mechanics are at hand; I refer to the writings of Mach,15 Hertz,16 Boltzmann17 and Volkmann. 18 It is therefore very desirable that the discussion of the foundations of mechanics be taken up by mathematicians also. Thus Boltzmann's work on the principles of mechanics suggests the problem of developing mathematically the limiting processes, there merely indicated, which lead from the atomistic view to the laws of motion of continua. Conversely one might try to derive the laws of the motion of rigid bodies by a limiting process from a system of axioms depending upon the idea of continuously varying conditions of a material filling all space continuously, these conditions being defined by parameters. For the question as to the equivalence of different systems of axioms is always of great theoretical interest.

If geometry is to serve as a model for the treatment of physical axioms, we shall try first by a small number of axioms to include as large a class as possible of physical phenomena, and then by adjoining new axioms to arrive gradually at the more special theories. At the same time Lie's a principle of subdivision can perhaps be derived from profound theory of infinite transformation groups. The mathematician will have also to take account not only of those theories coming near to reality, but also, as in geometry, of all logically possible theories. He must be always alert to obtain a complete survey of all conclusions derivable from the system of axioms assumed.

Further, the mathematician has the duty to test exactly in each instance whether the new axioms are compatible with the previous ones. The physicist, as his theories develop, often finds himself forced by the results of his experiments to make new hypotheses, while he depends, with respect to the compatibility of the new hypotheses with the old axioms, solely upon these experiments or upon a certain physical intuition, a practice which in the rigorously logical building up of a theory is not admissible. The desired proof of the compatibility of all assumptions seems to me also of importance, because the effort to obtain such proof always forces us most effectually to an exact formulation of the axioms.



7. Irrationality and transcendence of certain numbers

Hermite's arithmetical theorems on the exponential function and their extension by Lindemann are certain of the admiration of all generations of mathematicians. Thus the task at once presents itself to penetrate further along the path here entered, as A. Hurwitz has already done in two interesting papers,19 "Ueber arithmetische Eigenschaften gewisser transzendenter Funktionen." I should like, therefore, to sketch a class of problems which, in my opinion, should be attacked as here next in order. That certain special transcendental functions, important in analysis, take algebraic values for certain algebraic arguments, seems to us particularly remarkable and worthy of thorough investigation. Indeed, we expect transcendental functions to assume, in general, transcendental values for even algebraic arguments; and, although it is well known that there exist integral transcendental functions which even have rational values for all algebraic arguments, we shall still con sider it highly probable that the exponential function eiz, for example, which evidently has algebraic values for all rational arguments z, will on the other hand always take transcendental values for irrational algebraic values of the argument z. We can also give this statement a geometrical form, as follows:

If, in an isosceles triangle, the ratio of the base angle to the angle at the vertex be algebraic but not rational, the ratio between base and side is always transcendental.

In spite of the simplicity of this statement and of its similarity to the problems solved by Hermite and Lindemann, I consider the proof of this theorem very difficult; as also the proof that

The expression , for an algebraic base and an irrational algebraic exponent , e. g., the number 2ore = i-2i, always represents a transcendental or at least an irrational number.

It is certain that the solution of these and similar problems must lead us to entirely new methods and to a new insight into the nature of special irrational and transcendental numbers.

8. Problems of prime numbers

Essential progress in the theory of the distribution of prime numbers has lately been made by Hadamard, de la Vallée-Poussin, Von Mangoldt and others. For the complete solution, however, of the problems set us by Riemann's paper "Ueber die Anzahl der Primzahlen unter einer gegebenen Grösse," it still remains to prove the correctness of an exceedingly important statement of Riemann, viz., that the zero points of the function(s) defined by the series

all have the real part 1/2, except the well-known negative integral real zeros. As soon as this proof has been successfully established, the next problem would consist in testing more exactly Riemann's infinite series for the number of primes below a given number and, especially, to decide whether the difference between the number of primes below a number x and the integral logarithm of x does in fact become infinite of an order not greater than 1/2 in x.20 Further, we should determine whether the occasional condensation of prime numbers which has been noticed in counting primes is really due to those terms of Riemann's formula which depend upon the first complex zeros of the function (s).

After an exhaustive discussion of Riemann's prime number formula, perhaps we may sometime be in a position to attempt the rigorous solution of Goldbach's problem,21 viz., whether every integer is expressible as the sum of two positive prime numbers; and further to attack the well-known question, whether there are an infinite number of pairs of prime numbers with the difference 2, or even the more general problem, whether the linear diophantine equation

ax + by + c = 0

(with given integral coefficients each prime to the others) is always solvable in prime numbers x and y.

But the following problem seems to me of no less interest and perhaps of still wider range: To apply the results obtained for the distribution of rational prime numbers to the theory of the distribution of ideal primes in a given number-field k—a problem which looks toward the study of the functionk(s) belonging to the field and defined by the series

where the sum extends over all ideals j of the given realm k, andn(j) denotes the norm of the idealj.

I may mention three more special problems in number theory: one on the laws of reciprocity, one on diophantine equations, and a third from the realm of quadratic forms.

9. Proof of the most general law of reciprocity in any number field

For any field of numbers the law of reciprocity is to be proved for the residues of the l-th power, when l denotes an odd prime, and further when l is a power of 2 or a power of an odd prime.

The law, as well as the means essential to its proof, will, I believe, result by suitably generalizing the theory of the field of the l-th roots of unity,22 developed by me, and my theory of relative quadratic fields.23

10. Determination of the solvability of a diophantine equation

Given a diophantine equation with any number of unknown quantities and with rational integral numerical coefficients: to devise a process according to which it can be determined by a finite number of operations whether the equation is solvable in rational integers.

11. Quadratic forms with any algebraic numerical coefficients

Our present knowledge of the theory of quadratic number fields24 puts us in a position to attack successfully the theory of quadratic forms with any number of variables and with any algebraic numerical coefficients. This leads in particular to the interesting problem: to solve a given quadratic equation with algebraic numerical coefficients in any number of variables by integral or fractional numbers belonging to the algebraic realm of rationality determined by the coefficients.

The following important problem may form a transition to algebra and the theory of functions:

12. Extension of Kroneker's theorem on abelian fields to any algebraic realm of rationality

The theorem that every abelian number field arises from the realm of rational numbers by the composition of fields of roots of unity is due to Kronecker. This fundamental theorem in the theory of integral equations contains two statements, namely:

First. It answers the question as to the number and existence of those equations which have a given degree, a given abelian group and a given discriminant with respect to the realm of rational numbers.

Second. It states that the roots of such equations form a realm of algebraic numbers which coincides with the realm obtained by assigning to the argument z in the exponential function eiz all rational numerical values in succession.

The first statement is concerned with the question of the determination of certain algebraic numbers by their groups and their branching. This question corresponds, therefore, to the known problem of the determination of algebraic functions corresponding to given Riemann surfaces. The second statement furnishes the required numbers by transcendental means, namely, by the exponential function eiz.

Since the realm of the imaginary quadratic number fields is the simplest after the realm of rational numbers, the problem arises, to extend Kronecker's theorem to this case. Kronecker himself has made the assertion that the abelian equations in the realm of a quadratic field are given by the equations of transformation of elliptic functions with singular moduli, so that the elliptic function assumes here the same role as the exponential function in the former case. The proof of Kronecker's conjecture has not yet been furnished; but I believe that it must be obtainable without very great difficulty on the basis of the theory of complex multiplication developed by H. Weber25 with the help of the purely arithmetical theorems on class fields which I have established.

Finally, the extension of Kronecker's theorem to the case that, in place of the realm of rational numbers or of the imaginary quadratic field, any algebraic field whatever is laid down as realm of rationality, seems to me of the greatest importance. I regard this problem as one of the most profound and far reaching in the theory of numbers and of functions.

The problem is found to be accessible from many standpoints. I regard as the most important key to the arithmetical part of this problem the general law of reciprocity for residues of I-th powers within any given number field.

As to the function-theoretical part of the problem, the investigator in this attractive region will be guided by the remarkable analogies which are noticeable between the theory of algebraic functions of one variable and the theory of algebraic numbers. Hensel26 has proposed and investigated the analogue in the theory of algebraic numbers to the development in power series of an algebraic function; and Landsberg27 has treated the analogue of the Riemann-Roch theorem. The analogy between the deficiency of a Riemann surface and that of the class number of a field of numbers is also evident. Consider a Riemann surface of deficiency p = 1 (to touch on the simplest case only) and on the other hand a number field of class h = 2. To the proof of the existence of an integral everywhere finite on the Riemann surface, corresponds the proof of the existence of an integer a in the number field such that the number represents a quadratic field, relatively unbranched with respect to the fundamental field. In the theory of algebraic functions, the method of boundary values (Randwerthaufgabe) serves, as is well known, for the proof of Riemann's existence theorem. In the theory of number fields also, the proof of the existence of just this number a offers the greatest difficulty. This proof succeeds with indispensable assistance from the theorem that in the number field there are always prime ideals corresponding to given residual properties. This latter fact is therefore the analogue in number theory to the problem of boundary values.

The equation of Abel's theorem in the theory of algebraic functions expresses, as is well known, the necessary and sufficient condition that the points in question on the Riemann surface are the zero points of an algebraic function belonging to the surface. The exact analogue of Abel's theorem, in the theory of the number field of class h = 2, is the equation of the law of quadratic reciprocity28

which declares that the ideal j is then and only then a principal ideal of the number field when the quadratic residue of the number a with respect to the ideal j is positive.

It will be seen that in the problem just sketched the three fundamental branches of mathematics, number theory, algebra and function theory, come into closest touch with one another, and I am certain that the theory of analytical functions of several variables in particular would be notably enriched if one should succeed in finding and discussing those functions which play the part for any algebraic number field corresponding to that of the exponential function in the field of rational numbers and of the elliptic modular functions in the imaginary quadratic number field.

Passing to algebra, I shall mention a problem from the theory of equations and one to which the theory of algebraic invariants has led me.

13. Impossibility of the solution of the general equation of the 7-th degree by means of functions of only two arguments

Nomography29 deals with the problem: to solve equations by means of drawings of families of curves depending on an arbitrary parameter. It is seen at once that every root of an equation whose coefficients depend upon only two parameters, that is, every function of two independent variables, can be represented in manifold ways according to the principle lying at the foundation of nomography. Further, a large class of functions of three or more variables can evidently be represented by this principle alone without the use of variable elements, namely all those which can be generated by forming first a function of two arguments, then equating each of these arguments to a function of two arguments, next replacing each of those arguments in their turn by a function of two arguments, and so on, regarding as admissible any finite number of insertions of functions of two arguments. So, for example, every rational function of any number of arguments belongs to this class of functions constructed by nomographic tables; for it can be generated by the processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and each of these processes produces a function of only two arguments. One sees easily that the roots of all equations which are solvable by radicals in the natural realm of rationality belong to this class of functions; for here the extraction of roots is adjoined to the four arithmetical operations and this, indeed, presents a function of one argument only. Likewise the general equations of the 5-th and 6-th degrees are solvable by suitable nomographic tables; for, by means of Tschirnhausen transformations, which require only extraction of roots, they can be reduced to a form where the coefficients depend upon two parameters only.

Now it is probable that the root of the equation of the seventh degree is a function of its coefficients which does not belong to this class of functions capable of nomographic construction, i. e., that it cannot be constructed by a finite number of insertions of functions of two arguments. In order to prove this, the proof would be necessary that the equation of the seventh degreef7 + xf3 + yf2 + zf + 1 = 0 is not solvable with the help of any continuous functions of only two arguments. I may be allowed to add that I have satisfied myself by a rigorous process that there exist analytical functions of three arguments x, y, z which cannot be obtained by a finite chain of functions of only two arguments.

By employing auxiliary movable elements, nomography succeeds in constructing functions of more than two arguments, as d'Ocagne has recently proved in the case of the equation of the 7-th degree.30

14. Proof of the finiteness of certain complete systems of functions

In the theory of algebraic invariants, questions as to the finiteness of complete systems of forms deserve, as it seems to me, particular interest. L. Maurer31 has lately succeeded in extending the theorems on finiteness in invariant theory proved by P. Gordan and myself, to the case where, instead of the general projective group, any subgroup is chosen as the basis for the definition of invariants.

An important step in this direction had been taken al ready by A. Hurwitz,32 who, by an ingenious process, succeeded in effecting the proof, in its entire generality, of the finiteness of the system of orthogonal invariants of an arbitrary ground form.

The study of the question as to the finiteness of invariants has led me to a simple problem which includes that question as a particular case and whose solution probably requires a decidedly more minutely detailed study of the theory of elimination and of Kronecker's algebraic modular systems than has yet been made.

Let a number m of integral rational functions Xl, X2, ... , Xm, of the n variables xl, x2, ... , xn be given,

(S)X1 = f1(x1, ... , xn),
X2 = f2(x1, ... , xn),
...
Xm = fm(x1, ... , xn).

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