Columns / Discourse / February 4, 2010

Surrounded by math

This past term I spent five months in Budapest, Hungary studying mathematics. While many people do not think a study abroad includes mathematics, Hungary truly is a wonderful country for it.

All around the city of Budapest, my classmates and I encountered mathematics in some of the oddest places. I had invited several of my classmates to visit my neighborhood, which was far from the center of the city, to ride the Gyermekvasút, the Children’s Railway, that weaves its way through the Buda hills. Nearly everything on the Children’s Railway is run by students aged 10 to 14, and it is a remnant from the Soviet Era.

During the summer months, the train is a popular and beautiful ride that caters to young children, tourists and hikers. But our trip occurred in December, when only one train car would make the journey. At one point, an elderly lady came on and sat nearby us. She asked us what we were doing in Budapest, and when we informed her that we were studying mathematics, she exclaimed excitedly, “I’m a mathematician, too!”

After making this revelation, she continued to tell us about the camping trips that she had taken when she was younger. These trips involved discussions and presentations on mathematics during the day and campfire dinners and conversation in the evening.

Not only did the camping sound like a lot of fun, we were more amazed by the fact that she had taken these trips with Alfréd Rényi, Endre Szemerédi, and many other world-renowned Hungarian mathematicians. While this was a random coincidence, many of my classmates had encounters similar to this at coffee shops and other places. For us, simply being surrounded by all of the mathematics in Hungary was an incredible experience.

Katharine Williams

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