János Neumann's student years

n 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 János Neumann (John von Neumann):-

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.

John von Neumann was the mathematician of the 20th century perhaps with the greatest impact beyond mathematics. Born in Budapest in 1903, he laid the mathematical foundation of quantum mechanics in his twenties, in Göttingen. He was an honorary member of the Eötvös Society. He became professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and went on to design the electronically programmable computer. He developed the theory of games. He received the first Fermi Medal, and later the Freedom Medal.

Johnny entered the Lutheran Gymnasium in 1914, when the scholastic achievements of Budapest gymnasia were at their peak. László Rátz was his mathematics teacher, and Wigner's as well. Jenó (Eugene) Wigner was asked in the late 1970's (60 years after leaving the Lutheran Gymnasium): 'Do you remember Rátz?' Wigner answered: 'There he is!' and pointed to a picture of Rátz on his office wall. Rátz's recognition of Johnny's mathematical talents was instant. He paid a visit to Max von Neumann, Johnny's father, and told him that it would be nonsense, and perhaps sinful, to provide the boy with only the conventional education in mathematics that the Lutheran Gymnasium, and Rátz himself, could offer, as excellent as it might have been. Rátz proposed instead to take responsibility for seeing that a great deal more was provided, if there were no parental objection. There was no educational price to be paid. Max agreed at once. Rátz turned his student over to the mathematicians at Budapest University, themselves men of no small renown. Prof Kürschák asked Gábor (Gabriel) Szegó, to give some university teaching to the lad. (Tutor Szegó was later to become professor at Stanford University. In 1940 Stanford also attracted Hungary's György (George) Pölya, and some part of the Silicon Valley springs from that.) Before he finished high school, Johnny had been accepted by most of the university mathematicians as a colleague. Johnny's first published paper was sent for publication when he was seventeen.

(John von Neumann by Norman Macrea, Pantheon Books, NY 1992.)


JOC/EFR March 2006

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