Jenó Wigner's student years
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.
Jenó (Eugene) P Wigner was born in Budapest in 1902, and received the Nobel Prize in Physics as a professor at Princeton University in 1963 for understanding the role of symmetries in quantum mechanics, for the discovery of parity, and for applying quantum mechanics to atomic nuclei. He is an honorary member of the Eötvös Society and the Hungarian Academy. He received the Fermi Award in 1958, and the Atoms for Peace Award in 1960 from President Eisenhower. In his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize, he said:
"there were many superb teachers at the Lutheran gymnasium. But the greatest was my mathematics teacher László Rátz. Rátz was known not only throughout our gymnasium but also by the church and government hierarchy and among many of the teachers in the country schools. I still keep a photograph of Rátz in my workroom because he had every quality of a miraculous teacher: He loved teaching. He knew the subject and how to kindle interest in it. He imparted the very deepest understanding. Many gymnasium teachers had great skill, but no one could evoke the beauty of the subject like Rátz. Rátz cared deeply about mathematics as a discipline. He edited a mathematical journal for secondary schools which came to be read all over the nation. He ran the journal for 20 years, often distributing it with his own money. - At the retirement of Imre Gobi, the gymnasium director, the staff named Rátz as his successor. That gave Rátz a formal title and likely a higher salary. Most men would have said, 'Thank you kindly for the promotion. This is very fine.' But Rátz worried that his new duties would hurt his teaching. He knew how much energy is needed to evoke the deepest beauties of mathematics. And after five years of distinguished service as director, Rátz quietly resigned as director and became just a teacher again. He took special care to find his better students and to inspire them. Rátz felt so privileged to tutor a phenomenon like Neumann Jancsi that he refused any money for it. You might say, 'Well, von Neumann was one of the great mathematicians of our century. Of course he deserved private classes as a boy.' But look at this from the teacher's point of view. He appeared to be a genius. But, of course, not yet famous at all. His brain wasn't that of an adult. He had never published. He was just a startling 10-year-old boy, working next to 20 other bright 10-year-olds. Who could know that this precocious 10-year-old would someday become a great mathematician? Somehow Rátz knew. And he discovered it very quickly. Rátz was just as nice to me and nearly as devoted as he was to Neumann. Rátz was the only gymnasium teacher to invite me into his home. There were no private lessons. But Rátz lent me many well-chosen books, which I read thoroughly and made sure to return in good condition. - Rátz also compiled for his students a book of common sense mathematical problems. I solved a few of them, but most I found fantastically hard. Often in the years since, when I have been in no mood for work, I have taken Rátz's little book from the self and studied those common sense problems."
(The Recollections of Jenó (Eugene) P Wigner, as told to Andrew Szanton, Plenum, New York, 1992.)
JOC/EFR March 2006
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