George Berzsenyi is a retired math professor living in Milwaukee County. Most people have never heard of him.
But Berzsenyi has had a remarkable impact on American science and mathematics. He has mentored thousands of high school students, including some who became among the best mathematicians and scientists in the country.
I learned about Berzsenyi from a chance conversation with a scientist named Vamsi Mootha.
In the late 1980s, when Mootha was in high school in Beaumont, Texas, he won a science fair. A few days later, a letter arrived in the mail.
“It said, ‘Dear Vamsi, Congratulations on winning the Houston Science Fair, this is quite the accomplishment,’ ” Mootha recalls.
“But then when I started reading the next paragraph, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Mootha says.
The letter went on to say that the math problem young Vamsi solved to win the fair had been solved hundreds of years earlier.