Peter Lax's student years

In 1994 the journal with Hungarian title Középiskolai Matematikai Lapok, which translated into English is the Mathematical and Physical Journal for Secondary Schools, celebrated 100 years of publication. To mark the occasion the Journal brought out a special issue in English with articles about the Journal and its influence on mathematics and mathematicians in Hungary. In this issue there is an article Remembering the student years assembled by George Marx, Honorary President of the Loránd Eötvös Physical Society. We quote here the part relating to the student years of Péter Lax:-

Many prominent physicists and mathematicians, born in Hungary, achieved their famous results abroad, but they remembered their school years, the students journal and student competition contributing to their career.

Péter Lax was born in 1926 in Budapest. He left for America at the age of 15 where he was lucky to fall into the hands of John von Neumann. He later became head of the Courant Institute and President of the American Mathematical Society. For his work, he received the Wolf Prize in 1987 and was elected to honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1994. For the KöMaL he said:

When we arrived in America at the end of 1941, John von Neumann, who had been told by Dénes König that I was coming, came to our house to greet us and spent an entire afternoon with me. This was very kind of him, especially if you consider, and I just found this out later, that he was very busy with his work for the war effort. Fate later had it that we spent many summers together at Los Alamos. He had an enormous effect on my life. I believe that some people are born with a gift for mathematics, just as in music. It is very easy to recognize the difference between someone who is tone deaf, but interested in music, and someone like Mozart, Schubert, or Mendelssohn, who already at an early age, demonstrates that he understands music in an entirely different way. Of course, intellectual development is also important for any talent. It was certainly very important for Mozart that his father travelled with him to many foreign places and exposed him to different types of traditional music. I was very fortunate in this respect as I started with the Hungarian tradition, having Dénes König and Rózsa Péter among my mentors, and followed this with the German tradition in America. In Los Alamos I was exposed to the physics tradition and was lucky to have the opportunity to work with computers from their infancy.

Mathematics is a very rich field that requires a life of study, and the earlier we start, the better. Only reading or studying does not fit in well with most people's temperaments, and is not sufficient. As mathematics is not passive, but rather active, I have the most reverence for those problems that need certain theoretical concepts in order to solve them. The problems can be very difficult, they can look impossible to solve, but if a solution is found, it is unbelievably worthwhile. Of course these are not problems that are out of reach for high school students. I find that there is a tradition of problems that are appropriate for high school students and then there are those that are too difficult. We have to reformulate those that appeared too difficult yesterday, and we will see that we are able to explain them so that they are understood by high school students. A journal should have articles like these."

JOC/EFR March 2006

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