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Math-Flavored Budapest

Pamela Pierce

This article is published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of MAA FOCUS.

Streets of Budapest. Photo by Pamela Pierce


After watching a number of the College of Wooster’s top students spend a semester in Budapest through the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (BSM) program, I was getting a little jealous. My students would return with gorgeous photos of the city that National Geographic has called “Little Paris on the Danube.” And with every photo, there was a tale of a new cultural experience, a new adventure, a new friend, and a new mouth-watering Hungarian dish. I knew that when the opportunity presented itself, I would have to go to Budapest.

In 2010, as I was busily organizing the 34th Summer Symposium in Real Analysis (SSRA) on my home campus, I learned that the very next year the conference would be held in Budapest. That was all that I needed to hear; I began making travel plans. Fortunately, Wooster has a Global Engagement initiative that provided financial support to attend the conference.

Arriving in Budapest, I was a little nervous. Although I was told that many Hungarians speak English, knowing that I could speak and understand absolutely no Hungarian made me apprehensive. Making my way through the public transportation system proved challenging, but I eventually got on the correct subway to Kálvin Tér, where the hotel was located.

Kálvin Haz was a lovely place to stay, with large rooms and beautiful wood flooring. It was ideally situated—close to the famous covered market with wonderful access to shopping and restaurants. I soon learned that many real analysis friends were staying at the same hotel, which made it all the more enjoyable, especially as they joined me on the 10-minute walk to the Alfréd Rényi Institute of Mathematics each day.

Budapest has a rich mathematical history; people have gathered here for many years to discuss groundbreaking developments in the field. Arriving at the Rényi Institute, I realized I was one of them—and suddenly felt very important! As I poked my head inside the large stone building, I thought of the mathematicians who came here almost daily to work on their research. What type of atmosphere would I find inside?

I need not have worried. Inside it was friendly and welcoming, partly because it was full of familiar faces. It was wonderful to grab some tea and sit down with friends to hear some great talks on one of my favorite subjects: real analysis.

Watch a slideshow of Pierce's photos from Budapest

An International Emphasis

The conference generally is held for two consecutive years in the United States, then one year in Canada, and the next year overseas. Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and the United Kingdom have all hosted the gathering. It is appropriate that the conference moves all over the globe, because the participants form an international group.
The mathematicians who began this conference have always intended for the atmosphere to be low-key, fun, and collaborative. For example, each year there is a session on problems, where participants can share ideas in their early stages and ask for feedback and advice.

Another notable feature of the SSRA is that the senior members of the community actively seek out and encourage their junior colleagues. The strong mentoring component of this conference makes it an excellent model for attracting and retaining new mathematicians, while keeping real analysis research alive and vibrant.

We have Mike Evans, Paul Humke, DickFleissner, Richard O’Malley, and Jim Foran to thank for founding this annual conference in 1978. These people realized the importance of maintaining connections in order to keep their research alive, and so they wrote a grant to the National Science Foundation to support the conference. Casper Goffman was the principal invited speaker in the first year, and the conference was off and running.

Paul and Mike had welcomed me at the first summer symposium I attended. I was a graduate student anxiously bracing myself for my first-ever research talk. It could not have been too intimidating, I suppose, although the specifics are lost in a stress-induced blur, because I continue to participate in this annual conference whenever I am able.

At the second summer symposium, one of the fun traditions was born—the awarding of the “Andy” at the annual conference banquet. The award, named after Andy Bruckner, is in the form of a particular garden vegetable that, rumor has it, closely resembles the head of its namesake. The criteria for determining the winner of the award are intentionally vague, and it is up to the conference organizer to determine an appropriate “winner.”

Another fun tradition is the annual excursion, which allows participants to take in some local attractions and meet people. This year, the group took a hydrofoil boat ride on the Danube to the river fortress town of Visegrad, just a few miles from the border with Slovakia. We hiked around the historic castle and grounds while taking in a gorgeous view of the river bend.

After descending the mountain, we were welcomed into the Renaissance Restaurant for the conference banquet. The menu included a venison ragout soup, potato rolls with onion, and larded leg of turkey served with cabbage stewed in wine. Just as impressive as the meal was the delightful company.

Immersed in Budapest

To have a quintessential Budapest experience, a group of us spent an evening at the Széchenyi Baths. Using the 170-degree water that bubbles up from the natural hot springs throughout Budapest, the baths include a variety of indoor and outdoor pools with different features and temperatures surrounded by Romanesque statues and fountains. In one pool, a circular current periodically whisked us around. In the immense, sprawling, hottest pool, you could see locals floating, talking, relaxing, playing chess, and taking in a beautiful moonlit Budapest evening.

On the final evening of the conference, a group of us heard a beautiful concert on Buda Hill, by the fortress and castle. This hilly, older side of the city is a quaint place to stroll and take in the view of Budapest’s famous parliament building, which sits magnificently on the river. This was a memorable way to end a fabulous trip, and I can’t wait to see where this conference might take me next!

Pamela Pierce is chair of the Department of Mathematics at the College of Wooster, Ohio.

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