The common knowledge in this regard seems to be that Hilbert's Fifth Problem was completely solved by Gleason, Montgomery, and Zippin. However, such wisdom was contested by Peter Olver:

More precisely:

Hilbert’s fifth problem concerns the role of analyticity in general transformation groups, and seeks to generalize the result of Lie, [18; p. 366], and Schur, [32]. The Gleason–Montgomery– Zippin result only addresses the special case when a global Lie group acts on itself by right or left multiplication.

Palais wrote about it in the Notices:

but he only treats the old story from the 1950s and seems not to be aware of Olver's remark.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ It's policy to never use the [general] or [mathematics] tags, since these are useless. I'd also suggest putting some more background here, since most of us probably haven't read Olver's argument. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2010 at 11:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think that the OP refers to Olver's opinion in a footnote p.28 of this heldermann-verlag.de/jlt/jlt06/OLVPL.PDF Mathematically, it says that the so-called Hilbert-Smith conjecture is unsolved (see wikipedia for statement). There are 2001 papers by Louis McAuley on arXiv that claim to be a solution, but they seem unpublished (at least, absent from MR). $\endgroup$
    – BS.
    Jul 11, 2010 at 12:28
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ @rlw: Is there some reason you say "a few Americans" rather than "Gleason, Montgomery and Zippin"? $\endgroup$ Jul 12, 2010 at 2:47
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In a comment to Deane Yang's response you wrote that you found the 1998 book by E. E. Rosinger and asked if anyone was familiar with it. I think this proves that you are not E. E. Rosinger. If this is the case, I strongly suggest that you change your MO name as it is very misleading. $\endgroup$
    – GH from MO
    Feb 13, 2012 at 6:43
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ @GH : Alas, it's far worse than that. The original question and post below were by one "Ron I Winger", who turned out to be a sock puppet for Elemer Rosinger. I guess he wanted to advertise his book and promote himself as the solver of the problem in question. There's a very nasty deleted post by him down below (which you'll be able to see once your rep passes 10000). The accounts were eventually merged. Thankfully we haven't seen ER in a while... $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2012 at 6:58

4 Answers 4


The OP says:

" ...Recently, Palais wrote about it in the Notices but he only treats the old story from the 1950s and seems not to be aware of Olver’s facts."

Actually, I am aware of Olver's work and also Sören Illman's contribution.

Sören is an old friend and wrote to me somewhat miffed that I did not mention his work on the problem. What he proved was a very nice fact---that if a proper Lie group action is differentiable, then it can be made real analytic. As I pointed out in my article, there are very simple examples that Hilbert should have noticed (see my article---linked below---if you think I am being hard on Hilbert) that show that without properness this is false.

As for Olver, his contribution is also nice but a little off the beaten track. Here is a quick version. One facet of what Hilbert asked was whether a "local Lie group" (i.e., an open set in $R^n$ with a continuous group operation and inverse defined near the identity) could always be embedded in a global Lie group. Cartan answered that in a way that suffices for all practical purposes; he showed that after cutting back the original neighborhood to a smaller one it could be embedded. However a number of people (including Malcev and Douady) showed that without cutting back the answer could be "no". Their examples were infinite dimensional however, and Olver in his paper "Non-Associative Local Lie Groups" provided a class of finite dimensional examples.

OK, so why didn't I mention the work of Illman, Olver and a host of others who worked on the Fifth Proble after the 1950s. If you look at my article, available for download here:


the answer is clear. My article was part of a larger memorial article for Andy Gleason (my PhD advisor) and it was titled "Gleason's Contribution to the Solution of the Hilbert Fifth Problem". There was plenty to talk about there, and a discussion of other contributions to the Fifth Problem that happened decades later would have been out of place.

By the way, in regard to what is called "Route B" in an answer above, the first section of my article is titled "What IS Hilbert's Fifth Problem" in which I try to explain at least a little bit about how and why Hilbert's original statement of the Fifth Problem morphed over time.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilbert%27s_fifth_problem is a decent survey. In general in the discussion of "status" of the Hilbert problems, there are at least two recognisable routes.

Route A is the more natural for contemporary mathematicians. Roughly speaking it equates with asking first for the version of Hilbert Problem N that has entered mathematical folklore (the tea-room version if you like, "Hilbert N asked if [add translation into contemporary jargon]"), and then giving the update on that folklore version.

Route B involves reading what Hilbert actually wrote in German, comparing with accepted English translations, discussing ambiguities and parsing out the issues where Hilbert deliberately made open-ended remarks. In other words Route B treats the problem set as a historical document, and allows for a degree of quibbling and/or interpretative queries.

The reason these routes don't always give the same answer should be relatively obvious once they are formulated this way. But it is worth making the further point, given the tone of various MO discussions, that 1900 is quite close to the cusp at which "discursive mathematics" gives way to "formal axiomatic mathematics". Also (no one express shock, please) Hilbert did not have a definition of topological space, let alone Lie group. The issues here cannot be resolved by saying that without definitions he had no right to pose problems!

There are quite a number of the problems where the accepted Route A box-ticking answer has been queried. Some of these are worth further questions on MO.

Edit: I think problems 12, 15 and 21 are others among those problems where there is a worthwhile and clarifying debate about the status.

  • $\begingroup$ Your "Routes A and B" view seems very much to the point. Recently, at a conference, someone claimed in a personal conversation that there is, since 1998, a complete solution to Hilbert's fifth problem in the sense of your "Route B", published in a Kluwer book. Also, some Scandinavian contributed to the clarification of the earlier 1950s seemingly partial solution. Do you happen to know about any of the above ? $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2010 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ No personal knowledge, and it seems a murky area. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2010 at 11:03
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ The Scandinavian is probably Sören Illman. Well, Finland is actually not part of Scandinavia, but Illman did clarify the work of Gleason, Montgomery and Zippin. The 1998 Kluwer book is probably "Parametric Lie Group Actions On Global Generalised Solutions Of Nonlinear Pdes: Including A Solution To Hilbert's Fifth Problem" by Elemer E. Rosinger. tinyurl.com/2wapl44 I believe the author is a contributor to MathOverflow so hopefully he will see your question and answer it. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2010 at 12:18

Recent work of Pardon appears to show (See http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.2324) that that $\mathbb{Z}_p$ does not act faithfully on a connected 3-manifold. His work uses "tools from low dimensional topology, for example incompressible surfaces, minimal surfaces, and a property of the mapping class group"


As mentioned by BS and wikipedia, there are two different formulations of Hilbert's fifth problem. One was solved by Gleason, Montgomery, and Zippin. The second more general conjecture, which is also called the Hilbert-Smith conjecture, is still open. My knowledge of this is nil, but my rather hazy recollection is that the remaining step is to prove that a p-adic group (or something like that) cannot act continuously and nontrivially on a manifold.

I do not know for sure but I suspect that Montgomery and my father (C. T. Yang) worked on this for a long time without success. And indeed in the late 70's and early 80's, McAuley claimed to have a proof and distributed a manuscript. Actually, he distributed many manuscripts, because he would find gaps in his own proof and distribute corrected versions. As far as I know, McAuley's claim was never taken seriously.

  • $\begingroup$ On Google I found the following items. Is anyone familiar with them ? 1998 E. E. Rosinger: Parametric Lie group actions on global generalised solutions of nonlinear PDEs. Including a solution to Hilbert's Fifth Problem. Kluwer Academic Pub. 1995 S. Illmann: Every proper smooth action of a Lie group is equivalent to a real analytic action: a contribution to Hilbert's fifth problem. Prospects in topology (Princeton, NJ, 1994), 189-220, Ann. of Math. Stud., 138, Princeton Univ. Press. 1995 J. P. Holmes, M. Anderson: Differentiable semigroups are Lie groups. Internat. J. Math. 18, 509-530. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2010 at 15:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.