János Kemény'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 János Kemény (John G Kemény):-

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.
...

János (John G) Kemény was born in Budapest in 1926 and emigrated to the USA with his family in 1940. There he was a student of John von Neumann, and later an assistant of Albert Einstein's in Princeton. In Los Alamos he worked with computers under Richard Feynman. Convinced that computers are not only for specialists but for everyday people too, he created the BASIC language, now the most often used computer language in the world. For developing the time sharing system for networking computers, he was awarded the first Robinson Prize in 1991 by IBM. He became well-known for heading the presidential commission investigating the TMI nuclear power station accident in 1979. He was an honorary member of the Eötvös Society. In an interview he recalled:

Why are so many great mathematicians in Hungary? There are a few fields in which there are an inordinate number of Hungarians: mathematics, theoretical physics, Hollywood. I forgot who the producer in Hollywood was, with a big sign on his desk saying: 'Being a Hungarian is not enough; you must have talent.' I don't quite believe Gail Young's theory that the Hungarian language is so hard that only the brightest children manage to survive. Certainly, for mathematicians and theoretical physicists, the school system in Hungary was very good. - Let me give you an example. I went through seven and a half grades to school in Hungary. I had a mathematics teacher who would have been well qualified to teach at a good college. He just did an enormous amount to strengthen my interest in mathematics. I liked mathematics before that. But being interested and knowing something is very different. This teacher was better than any teacher I had in high school in the United States, really significantly better.

There was a mathematical contest for high school seniors in Hungary that was a very big thing. If you were talented, I am told, all through your last three years they would drill on practice tests. It was a great honour, not just for yourself, but for the school. - There is another interesting story about that teacher. When we left for the United States [in 1940], my whole class came out to the train to see me off, and my mathematics teacher did too. It was really nice. He said something that has stuck with me all the time. He said that he was terribly happy for me that I was leaving for the United States, because he was worried about the future of Hungary. On the other hand, he said, he had only one regret. He never had a winner in the mathematics competition. Look, for God's sake, I was four and a half years away from the exam, and he was already thinking that maybe I could make it to the top in the competition...

(John G. Kemeny, interviewed by Lynn A Steen in 1980. Mathematical People Profiles and Interviews, edited by D J Albers and G L Alexanderson, page 153. Fizikai Szemle 1993/5)


JOC/EFR March 2006

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