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David Hilbert

David Hilbert
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David Hilbert

Born: 23 Jan 1862 in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia)

Died: 14 Feb 1943 in Göttingen, Germany

David Hilbert attended the gymnasium in his home town of Königsberg. After graduating from the gymnasium, he entered the University of Königsberg. There he went on to study under Lindemann for his doctorate which he received in 1885 for a thesis entitled Über invariante Eigenschaften specieller binärer Formen, insbesondere der Kugelfunctionen. One of Hilbert's friends there was Minkowski, who was also a doctoral student at Königsberg, and they were to strongly influence each others mathematical progress.

In 1884 Hurwitz was appointed to the University of Königsberg and quickly became friends with Hilbert, a friendship which was another important factor in Hilbert's mathematical development. Hilbert was a member of staff at Königsberg from 1886 to 1895, being a Privatdozent until 1892, then as Extraordinary Professor for one year before being appointed a full professor in 1893.

In 1892 Schwarz moved from Göttingen to Berlin to occupy Weierstrass's chair and Klein wanted to offer Hilbert the vacant Göttingen chair. However Klein failed to persuade his colleagues and Heinrich Weber was appointed to the chair. Klein was probably not too unhappy when Weber moved to a chair at Strasbourg three years later since on this occasion he was successful in his aim of appointing Hilbert. So, in 1895, Hilbert was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the University of Göttingen, where he continued to teach for the rest of his career.

Hilbert's eminent position in the world of mathematics after 1900 meant that other institutions would have liked to tempt him to leave Göttingen and, in 1902, the University of Berlin offered Hilbert Fuchs' chair. Hilbert turned down the Berlin chair, but only after he had used the offer to bargain with Göttingen and persuade them to set up a new chair to bring his friend Minkowski to Göttingen.

Hilbert's first work was on invariant theory and, in 1888, he proved his famous Basis Theorem. Twenty years earlier Gordan had proved the finite basis theorem for binary forms using a highly computational approach. Attempts to generalise Gordan's work to systems with more than two variables failed since the computational difficulties were too great. Hilbert himself tried at first to follow Gordan's approach but soon realised that a new line of attack was necessary. He discovered a completely new approach which proved the finite basis theorem for any number of variables but in an entirely abstract way. Although he proved that a finite basis existed his methods did not construct such a basis.

Hilbert submitted a paper proving the finite basis theorem to Mathematische Annalen. However Gordan was the expert on invariant theory for Mathematische Annalen and he found Hilbert's revolutionary approach difficult to appreciate. He refereed the paper and sent his comments to Klein:-

The problem lies not with the form ... but rather much deeper. Hilbert has scorned to present his thoughts following formal rules, he thinks it suffices that no one contradict his proof ... he is content to think that the importance and correctness of his propositions suffice. ... for a comprehensive work for the Annalen this is insufficient.

However, Hilbert had learnt through his friend Hurwitz about Gordan's letter to Klein and Hilbert wrote himself to Klein in forceful terms:-

... I am not prepared to alter or delete anything, and regarding this paper, I say with all modesty, that this is my last word so long as no definite and irrefutable objection against my reasoning is raised.

At the time Klein received these two letters from Hilbert and Gordan, Hilbert was an assistant lecturer while Gordan was the recognised leading world expert on invariant theory and also a close friend of Klein's. However Klein recognised the importance of Hilbert's work and assured him that it would appear in the Annalen without any changes whatsoever, as indeed it did.

Hilbert expanded on his methods in a later paper, again submitted to the Mathematische Annalen and Klein, after reading the manuscript, wrote to Hilbert saying:-

I do not doubt that this is the most important work on general algebra that the Annalen has ever published.

In 1893 while still at Königsberg Hilbert began a work Zahlbericht on algebraic number theory. The German Mathematical Society requested this major report three years after the Society was created in 1890. The Zahlbericht (1897) is a brilliant synthesis of the work of Kummer, Kronecker and Dedekind but contains a wealth of Hilbert's own ideas. The ideas of the present day subject of 'Class field theory' are all contained in this work. Rowe, in [18], describes this work as:-

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