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Nature 400:319-320 (1999)
In a famous lecture in 1900, David Hilbert listed 23 difficult problems he felt deserved the attention of mathematicians in the coming century. His conviction of the solvability of every mathematical problem was a powerful incentive to future generations: ``Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.'' (We must know. We will know.) Some of these problems were solved quickly, others might never be completed, but all have influenced mathematics. Later, Hilbert highlighted the need to clarify the methods of mathematical reasoning, using a formal system of explicit assumptions, or axioms. Hilbert's vision was the culmination of 2,000 years of mathematics going back to Euclidean geometry. He stipulated that such a formal axiomatic system should be both `consistent' (free of contradictions) and `complete' (in that it represents all the truth). Hilbert also argued that any wellposed mathematical problem should be `decidable', in the sense that there exists a mechanical procedure, a computer program, for deciding whether something is true or not. Of course, the only problem with this inspiring project is that it turned out to be impossible.
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