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In mathematics, an impossibility theorem is a theorem that demonstrates a problem or general set of problems cannot be solved. These are also known as proofs of impossibility, negative proofs, or negative results. Impossibility theorems often resolve decades or centuries of work spent looking for a solution by proving there is no solution. Proving that something is impossible is usually much harder than the opposite task, as it is often necessary to develop a proof that works in general, rather than to just show a particular example.^{[1]} Impossibility theorems are usually expressible as negative existential propositions or universal propositions in logic.
The irrationality of the square root of 2 is one of the oldest proofs of impossibility. It shows that it is impossible to express the square root of 2 as a ratio of two integers. Another consequential proof of impossibility was Ferdinand von Lindemann's proof in 1882, which showed that the problem of squaring the circle cannot be solved^{[2]} because the number π is transcendental (i.e., nonalgebraic), and that only a subset of the algebraic numbers can be constructed by compass and straightedge. Two other classical problems—trisecting the general angle and doubling the cube—were also proved impossible in the 19th century, and all of these problems gave rise to research into more complicated mathematical structures.
Some of the most important proofs of impossibility found in the 20th century were those related to undecidability, which showed that there are problems that cannot be solved in general by any algorithm, with one of the more prominent ones being the halting problem. Gödel's incompleteness theorems were other examples that uncovered fundamental limitations in the provability of formal systems.^{[3]}
In computational complexity theory, techniques like relativization (the addition of an oracle) allow for "weak" proofs of impossibility, in that proofs techniques that are not affected by relativization cannot resolve the P versus NP problem.^{[4]} Another technique is the proof of completeness for a complexity class, which provides evidence for the difficulty of problems by showing them to be just as hard to solve as any other problem in the class. In particular, a complete problem is intractable if one of the problems in its class is.
See also: Types of proof 
One of the widely used types of impossibility proof is proof by contradiction. In this type of proof, it is shown that if a proposition, such as a solution to a particular class of equations, is assumed to hold, then via deduction two mutually contradictory things can be shown to hold, such as a number being both even and odd or both negative and positive. Since the contradiction stems from the original assumption, this means that the assumed premise must be impossible.
In contrast, a nonconstructive proof of an impossibility claim would proceed by showing it is logically contradictory for all possible counterexamples to be invalid: at least one of the items on a list of possible counterexamples must actually be a valid counterexample to the impossibility conjecture. For example, a conjecture that it is impossible for an irrational power raised to an irrational power to be rational was disproved, by showing that one of two possible counterexamples must be a valid counterexample, without showing which one it is.
Main article: Proof by infinite descent 
Another type of proof by contradiction is proof by descent, which proceeds first by assuming that something is possible, such as a positive integer^{[5]} solution to a class of equations, and that therefore there must be a smallest solution (by the Wellordering principle). From the alleged smallest solution, it is then shown that a smaller solution can be found, contradicting the premise that the former solution was the smallest one possible—thereby showing that the original premise that a solution exists must be false.
The obvious way to disprove an impossibility conjecture is by providing a single counterexample. For example, Euler proposed that at least n different n^{th} powers were necessary to sum to yet another n^{th} power. The conjecture was disproved in 1966, with a counterexample involving a count of only four different 5th powers summing to another fifth power:
Proof by counterexample is a form of constructive proof, in that an object disproving the claim is exhibited.
In social choice theory, Arrow's impossibility theorem shows that it is impossible to devise a rankedchoice voting system that is both nondictatorial and satisfies a basic requirement for rational behavior called independence of irrelevant alternatives.
Gibbard's theorem shows that any strategyproof game form (i.e. one with a dominant strategy) with more than two outcomes is dictatorial.
The Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem is a special case showing that no deterministic voting system can be fully invulnerable to strategic voting in all circumstances, regardless of how others vote.
The revelation principle can be seen as an impossibility theorem showing the "opposite" of Gibbard's theorem, in a colloquial sense: any game or voting system can be made resistant to strategy by incorporating the strategy into the mechanism. Thus, it is impossible to design a mechanism with a solution that is better than can be obtained by a truthful mechanism.
The proof by Pythagoras about 500 BCE has had a profound effect on mathematics. It shows that the square root of 2 cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers. The proof bifurcated "the numbers" into two nonoverlapping collections—the rational numbers and the irrational numbers.
There is a famous passage in Plato's Theaetetus in which it is stated that Theodorus (Plato's teacher) proved the irrationality of
taking all the separate cases up to the root of 17 square feet ... .^{[6]}
A more general proof shows that the mth root of an integer N is irrational, unless N is the mth power of an integer n.^{[7]} That is, it is impossible to express the mth root of an integer N as the ratio a⁄b of two integers a and b, that share no common prime factor, except in cases in which b = 1.
Greek geometry was based on the use of the compass and a straightedge (though the straightedge is not strictly necessary). The compass allows a geometer to construct points equidistant from each other, which in Euclidean space are equivalent to implicitly calculations of square roots. Four famous questions asked how to construct:
For more than 2,000 years unsuccessful attempts were made to solve these problems; at last, in the 19th century it was proved that the desired constructions are mathematically impossible without admitting additional tools other than a compass.^{[8]}
All of these are problems in Euclidean construction, and Euclidean constructions can be done only if they involve only Euclidean numbers (by definition of the latter).^{[9]} Irrational numbers can be Euclidean. A good example is the square root of 2 (an irrational number). It is simply the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle with legs both one unit in length, and it can be constructed with a straightedge and a compass. But it was proved centuries after Euclid that Euclidean numbers cannot involve any operations other than addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the extraction of square roots.
Both trisecting the general angle and doubling the cube require taking cube roots, which are not constructible numbers.
is not a Euclidean number ... and therefore it is impossible to construct, by Euclidean methods a length equal to the circumference of a circle of unit diameter
Because was proved in 1882 to be a transcendental number, it is not a Euclidean number; Hence the construction of a length from a unit circle is impossible.^{[10]}^{[11]}
The GaussWantzel theorem showed in 1837 that constructing an equilateral ngon is impossible for most values of n.
Main article: NonEuclidean geometry 
The parallel postulate from Euclid's Elements is equivalent to the statement that given a straight line and a point not on that line, only one parallel to the line may be drawn through that point. Unlike the other postulates, it was seen as less selfevident. Nagel and Newman argue that this may be because the postulate concerns "infinitely remote" regions of space; in particular, parallel lines are defined as not meeting even "at infinity", in contrast to asymptotes.^{[12]} This perceived lack of selfevidence led to the question of whether it might be proven from the other Euclidean axioms and postulates. It was only in the nineteenth century that the impossibility of deducing the parallel postulate from the others was demonstrated in the works of Gauss, Bolyai, Lobachevsky, and Riemann. These works showed that the parallel postulate can moreover be replaced by alternatives, leading to nonEuclidean geometries.
Nagel and Newman consider the question raised by the parallel postulate to be "...perhaps the most significant development in its longrange effects upon subsequent mathematical history".^{[12]} In particular, they consider its outcome to be "of the greatest intellectual importance," as it showed that "a proof can be given of the impossibility of proving certain propositions [in this case, the parallel postulate] within a given system [in this case, Euclid's first four postulates]."^{[13]}
Main article: Fermat's Last Theorem 
Fermat's Last Theorem was conjectured by Pierre de Fermat in the 1600s, states the impossibility of finding solutions in positive integers for the equation with . Fermat himself gave a proof for the n = 4 case using his technique of infinite descent, and other special cases were subsequently proved, but the general case was not proven until 1994 by Andrew Wiles.
Main articles: Matiyasevich's theorem and Hilbert's problems 
The question "Does any arbitrary Diophantine equation have an integer solution?" is undecidable. That is, it is impossible to answer the question for all cases.
Franzén introduces Hilbert's tenth problem and the MRDP theorem (MatiyasevichRobinsonDavisPutnam theorem) which states that "no algorithm exists which can decide whether or not a Diophantine equation has any solution at all". MRDP uses the undecidability proof of Turing: "... the set of solvable Diophantine equations is an example of a computably enumerable but not decidable set, and the set of unsolvable Diophantine equations is not computably enumerable".^{[14]}
Main article: Richard's paradox 
This profound paradox presented by Jules Richard in 1905 informed the work of Kurt Gödel^{[15]} and Alan Turing. A succinct definition is found in Principia Mathematica:^{[16]}
Richard's paradox ... is as follows. Consider all decimals that can be defined by means of a finite number of words [“words” are symbols; boldface added for emphasis]; let E be the class of such decimals. Then E has [an infinite number of] terms; hence its members can be ordered as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, ... Let X be a number defined as follows [Whitehead & Russell now employ the Cantor diagonal method].
If the nth figure in the nth decimal is p, let the nth figure in X be p + 1 (or 0, if p = 9). Then X is different from all the members of E, since, whatever finite value n may have, the nth figure in X is different from the nth figure in the nth of the decimals composing E, and therefore X is different from the nth decimal. Nevertheless we have defined X in a finite number of words [i.e. this very definition of “word” above.] and therefore X ought to be a member of E. Thus X both is and is not a member of E.— Principia Mathematica, 2nd edition 1927, p. 61
Kurt Gödel considered his proof to be “an analogy” of Richard's paradox, which he called "Richard's antinomy"^{[17]} (
).Alan Turing constructed this paradox with a machine and proved that this machine could not answer a simple question: will this machine be able to determine if any machine (including itself) will become trapped in an unproductive ‘infinite loop’ (i.e. it fails to continue its computation of the diagonal number).
Main article: Gödel's incompleteness theorems 
To quote Nagel and Newman (p. 68), "Gödel's paper is difficult. Fortysix preliminary definitions, together with several important preliminary theorems, must be mastered before the main results are reached". In fact, Nagel and Newman required a 67page introduction to their exposition of the proof. But if the reader feels strong enough to tackle the paper, Martin Davis observes that "This remarkable paper is not only an intellectual landmark but is written with a clarity and vigor that makes it a pleasure to read" (Davis in Undecidable, p. 4).
Gödel proved, in his own words:
Gödel compared his proof to "Richard's antinomy" (an "antinomy" is a contradiction or a paradox; for more see Richard's paradox):
Main article: Turing's proof 
A number of similar undecidability proofs appeared soon before and after Turing's proof:
Main article: Chaitin's incompleteness theorem 
For an exposition suitable for nonspecialists, see Beltrami p. 108ff. Also see Franzen Chapter 8 pp. 137–148, and Davis pp. 263–266. Franzén's discussion is significantly more complicated than Beltrami's and delves into Ω—Gregory Chaitin's socalled "halting probability". Davis's older treatment approaches the question from a Turing machine viewpoint. Chaitin has written a number of books about his endeavors and the subsequent philosophic and mathematical fallout from them.
A string is called (algorithmically) random if it cannot be produced from any shorter computer program. While most strings are random, no particular one can be proved so, except for finitely many short ones:
Beltrami observes that "Chaitin's proof is related to a paradox posed by Oxford librarian G. Berry early in the twentieth century that asks for 'the smallest positive integer that cannot be defined by an English sentence with fewer than 1000 characters.' Evidently, the shortest definition of this number must have at least 1000 characters. However, the sentence within quotation marks, which is itself a definition of the alleged number is less than 1000 characters in length!"^{[22]}
Main article: Nogo theorem 
In natural science, impossibility theorems are derived as mathematical results proven within wellestablished scientific theories. The basis for this strong acceptance is a combination of extensive evidence of something not occurring, combined with an underlying theory, very successful in making predictions, whose assumptions lead logically to the conclusion that something is impossible.
Two examples of widely accepted impossibilities in physics are perpetual motion machines, which violate the law of conservation of energy, and exceeding the speed of light, which violates the implications of special relativity. Another is the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, which asserts the impossibility of simultaneously knowing both the position and the momentum of a particle. There is also Bell's theorem: no physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.
While an impossibility assertion in natural science can never be absolutely proved, it could be refuted by the observation of a single counterexample. Such a counterexample would require that the assumptions underlying the theory that implied the impossibility be reexamined.