David Hilbert (German: [ˈdaːvɪt ˈhɪlbɐt]; January 23, 1862 – February 14, 1943) was a German mathematician. He is recognized as one of the most influential and universal mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hilbert discovered and developed a broad range of fundamental ideas in many areas, including invariant theory and the axiomatization of geometry. He also formulated the theory of Hilbert spaces, one of the foundations of functional analysis.
Hilbert adopted and warmly defended Georg Cantor‘s set theory and transfinite numbers. A famous example of his leadership in mathematics is his 1900 presentation of a collection of problems that set the course for much of the mathematical research of the 20th century.
Hilbert and his students contributed significantly to establishing rigor and developed important tools used in modern mathematical physics. Hilbert is known as one of the founders of proof theory and mathematical logic, as well as for being among the first to distinguish between mathematics and metamathematics.
Hilbert lived to see the Nazis purge many of the prominent faculty members at University of Göttingen in 1933. Those forced out included Hermann Weyl (who had taken Hilbert’s chair when he retired in 1930), Emmy Noether and Edmund Landau. One who had to leave Germany, Paul Bernays, had collaborated with Hilbert in mathematical logic, and co-authored with him the important book Grundlagen der Mathematik (which eventually appeared in two volumes, in 1934 and 1939). This was a sequel to the Hilbert-Ackermann book Principles of Mathematical Logic from 1928.
About a year later, Hilbert attended a banquet and was seated next to the new Minister of Education, Bernhard Rust. Rust asked, “How is mathematics in Göttingen now that it has been freed of the Jewish influence?” Hilbert replied, “Mathematics in Göttingen? There is really none any more.”
By the time Hilbert died in 1943, the Nazis had nearly completely restaffed the university, inasmuch as many of the former faculty had either been Jewish or married to Jews. Hilbert’s funeral was attended by fewer than a dozen people, only two of whom were fellow academics, among them Arnold Sommerfeld, a theoretical physicist and also a native of Königsberg. News of his death only became known to the wider world six months after he had died.
Hilbert was baptized and raised in the Reformed Protestant Church. He later on left the Church and became an agnostic. He also argued that mathematical truth was independent of the existence of God or other a priori assumptions.
The epitaph on his tombstone in Göttingen consists of the famous lines he spoke at the conclusion of his retirement address to the Society of German Scientists and Physicians in the autumn of 1930. The words were given in response to the Latin maxim: “Ignoramus et ignorabimus” or “We do not know, we shall not know”:
- Wir müssen wissen.
- Wir werden wissen.
- We must know.
- We will know.
The day before Hilbert pronounced these phrases at the 1930 annual meeting of the Society of German Scientists and Physicians, Kurt Gödel—in a roundtable discussion during the Conference on Epistemology held jointly with the Society meetings—tentatively announced the first expression of his incompleteness theorem.