The continuum hypothesis problem was the first of Hilbert's famous 23 problems delivered to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900. Hilbert's famous speech "The Problems of Mathematics" challenged (and still today challenges) mathematicians to solve these fundamental questions.
From Hilbert's original paper, "MATHEMATICAL PROBLEMS."
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,