David Hilbert's Radio Broadcast

(A Friendly Contest)

The 1998 International Congress Mathematicians in Berlin was a "best approximation" to the first centenial of David Hilbert's hugely influential set of twenty-three problems, presented at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, in August 1900. The European Congress of Mathematicians in Barcelona of August 2000 will be another. Here we propose to recall the personality and mathematical values of Hilbert by focusing on the short public radio broadcast he made on the occasion of his retirement from Götingen some thirty years later.

In his broadcast, Hilbert answered, with poetic clarity, some basic questions on the nature of mathematics, which, for the politics of science in society, are as vital today as they were in 1930.

This broadcast is similar to the concluding paragraphs of a long address "Naturerkennen und Logik", which Hilbert gave on the same day, 8 Sept 1930, before a special meeting of the German scientific and medical society "Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte", in Hilbert's city of origin, Königsberg. (Hilbert retained a strong Königsberg accent!) This scientific society was an umbrella organisation under whose auspices the German mathematical society, now the Deutsche Mathematiker Vereinigung, was constituted in September 1890, in Bremen, with Hilbert among the founding members.

For an extended commentary on this broadcast, see a forthcoming article "We Shall Know: Hilbert's Apology" by Victor Vinnikov in Mathematical Intelligencer.

The precise text of this broadcast seems relatively little known even in 1998, and even among mathematicians. It is more tightly constructed than the corresponding subset of the full address, which appears in Hilbert's collected works. We are unaware of any early publication of it as an autonomous tract, or of any early translations of it. To make amends for this unfortunate neglect, the editors here propose, as a challenge to mathematicians, the translation of this broadcast into the many languages in which mathematics is practised.

In the last few years, translations into English and French have been made. They are annexed along with the original German version in order to facilitate further translations by mathematicians whose knowlege of German might otherwise prove inadequate. Enjoy!

[ Please consult Contest Rules! ]

A Russian translation by Vladimir Averbukh was submitted on 30 March 1998. It was posted here on April 15 1998 after patient conversion to a variety of formats that together should provide readability worldwide. Prof. Averbukh's effort makes Hilbert's broadcast available henceforth in all the four official languages of the 1998 ICM; the editors therefore hastened to award him a complementary copy of MathCD.

A Danish translation was submitted on 3 July 1998 by three nathematicians from Aalborg University: L. Fajstrup, M. Raussen, and U. Rønnow. Then on 15 July H.J. Munkolm of Aarhus responded with an alternative Danish translation, explaining: "It goes [...] in the direction of preserving a declamatory style. It is quite literal, but first of all, it is meant to be read aloud -- and the reader should pay attention to punctuation. Actually, Danish and German are close enough for such an approach to produce good, old fashioned Danish -- the type that announcers in the Danish Radio would use in the fifties."

An Italian translation was submitted on 9 September 1998 by Paolo Nardini of Lucca, Italy. With this, he completed a first "clean sweep"; indeed, back in June 1998, he had captained translations for both halves of the Galois competition.

A Portuguese translation was submitted on 16 February 1999 by a professed admirer of Hilbert, physicist L. Fraser Monteiro, of Lisbon, Portugal.

A Spanish translation was submitted on 29 July 1999 by Milton del Castillo Lesmes Acosta, of Bagota, Colombia.

There is still just time to get your ground-breaking translation on the first edition of MathCD; latecomers will have to await a second edition.

Locating Hilbert's sources

Hilbert's broadcast quotes luminaries of the past: Galileo, Kant, Gauss, Kronecker, Poincaré, Tolstoi, Jacobi. The dispersion of library resources for science is a formidable obstacle to mathematicians finding the corresponding original texts. Happily, electronic techniques give us fresh opportunities to shrink the core of science to human dimensions. Let us seize one such opportunity by pooling our resources here on internet to locate the original passages that Hilbert refers to.

To launch this process, I offer the source text of Galileo located for me (LS) by Paolo Nardini in "Galilei, Il Saggiatore", (a cura di Libero Sosio), Feltrinelli Editore, Milano, Prima edizione, 1965, pag. 38:

Context, dates, and translations would, of course, be welcome. I include in the scope of this challenge the historical elucidation of the term "ignorabimus" as used by Hilbert, noting the hint of connection to the writings of Dubois-Raymond mentioned in comments on the English translation.

All the translations in review

German Original
English Translation
French Translation
Russian Translation
Danish Translation #1
Danish Translation #2
Italian Translation
Portuguese Translation
Spanish Translation

Many browsers will allow you to view several translations in parallel in as many windows. To launch a new window for a hyperreference, one can usually click the mouse on it -- perhaps while holding down a "modifier" key (Control, Option, Command as the case may be).

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Please send comments on this page to Laurent Siebenmann
e-mail: LCS@topo.math.u-psud.fr