Pál Erdős'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 Pál Erdős (Paul Erdős):-

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.

Pál (Paul) Erdős was born in Budapest in 1913. He was the son of two high school mathematics teachers who were good friends of Andor Faragó. Paul Erdős won the Wolf Prize in 1984, a prize in mathematics which has the same prestige as the Nobel Prize in other sciences. He is an honorary president of the János Bolyai Society, member of The National Academy of the U.S.A., The Royal Society of London, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Australian Academy, Dutch Royal Academy, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the Indian Academy of Sciences.

He is probably the most prolific creative mathematician alive today. He is an indefatigable traveller, who disseminates mathematics and mathematical problems all over the world. With over 1500 articles or books, he has collaborated with many more mathematicians than anyone else, past or present.

The influence of Paul Erdős on today's mathematics and today's mathematicians stems not only from the vast body of results we owe to him, but also, and most strongly, from the great number of remarkable mathematical problems he creates and disseminates. They come from number theory, graph theory, geometry, set theory, and they range in difficulty from ingenious high school competition problems to the most difficult research problems- that defy, and will continue to defy for many years to come, all attempts at solution; their common feature is that they are all fascinatingly interesting.

The World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions in 1991 established the David Hilbert International Award and in 1992 the Paul Erdős Award. Both awards recognise contributions of mathematicians who have played a significant role in the development of mathematical challenges which have been a stimulus for the enrichment of mathematics learning; the former at the international level and the latter at the national level."

(Paul Erdős, by Peter J O'Halloran, Journal of the World Federation of National Competitions Vol. 5 No. 1, June 1992.)

Do you feel that your mathematical development was affected by the high school mathematics newspaper (Középiskolai Matematikai Lapok)?

- Yes, of course. You actually learn to solve problems there. And many of the good mathematicians realize very early that they have ability.

(A visit to Hungarian Mathematics, Reuben Herscb, Vera John-Steiner, The Mathematical Intelligencer Vol 15. Springer-Verlag, New York, 1993)

The great flowering of Hungarian mathematics - to what do you attribute this?

- There must be many factors. There was a mathematical journal for high schools, and the contests, which started before Fejér. And once they started they were self perpetuating to some extent. Hungary was a poor country - the natural sciences were harder to pursue because of cost, so clever people went into mathematics. But probably such things have more than one reason. It would be very hard to pin it down.

(Mathematical People, by D J Albers and G J Alexanderson, Birkhauser, Boston (1985) Interview with P Erdős)

Last Updated March 2006