A pioneering theorist of a mathematical discipline with important applications in computer science, Rózsa Politzer was born February 17, 1905, in Budapest, Hungary. Although she never married, Politzer changed her name to Rózsa Péter in 1930. Initially, Péter intended to fulfill her father's wish for her to become a chemist, but lectures by mathematicians enticed her to a course that would change her life as well as the field of mathematics. Through lectures and papers in the 1930s, she promoted the study of recursive functions as a distinct field of mathematics. This aspect of number theory considers functions that are used to study the structure of number classes or functions in terms of the complexity of the calculations required to determine them. Since theories of relay contact systems , cybernetics , and computer programming are dependent on recursive functions, Péter's work is indispensable to computer science.
After attending the Mária Terézia Girls' School in Budapest, Péter enrolled at Eötvös Loránd University in 1922 to pursue a career in chemistry. Soon after starting, however, she decided to change her field of study to mathematics. Also while in school, she met László Kalmár, with whom she maintained a close, lifelong professional friendship. Kalmár, who became a famous mathematics pioneer in his own right, was the person who later introduced her to recursive functions.
In 1932 Péter wrote a paper on recursive functions. She lectured on the subject at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zurich in 1932 and again in 1936. At this conference, she was the first to formally suggest recursive mathematics as a field unto itself. In 1935, she received her Ph.D. summa cum laude from Eötvös Loránd University. After publishing several papers on recursive functions, she was invited to join the editorial boards of several international mathematical journals, including, in 1937, the Journal of Symbolic Logic.
In 1943 Péter wrote Playing with Infinity: Mathematical Explorations and Excursions (not released until 1945 because of World War II), a work intended for the general public. It discussed number theory, geometry, calculus, logic, and Gödel's undecidability theory, all in a manner accessible to nonspecialists. This book successfully attempted to bridge the gap between mathematics and science and the humanities. Péter's work has since been translated into forty languages.
After Germany's 1945 defeat in World War II, Péter enjoyed teaching at Pedagógiai Förskola, a teacher's college in Budapest, for the next ten years. In 1951 she published Recursive Functions, the first book on recursive functions. This book was also translated into numerous other languages and became a standard reference. In 1955 the teacher's college was shut down. Péter became a professor of mathematics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Her interests turned to the use of recursive functions and their relevance to computers. Her first paper on this subject addressed primitive recursive functions and ALGOL . After her retirement, she continued her research into recursive functions and their relationship to computer program languages. She published her last book, Recursive Functions in Computer Theory, in 1976.
Péter was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1951 by the state of Hungary for her achievements. She also received the State Award, Silver Degree, in 1970, and the State Award, Gold Degree, in 1973. That same year, she became a corresponding member and the first female member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She was made an honorary president of the János Bolyai Mathematical Association in 1975.
In addition to the study of recursive mathematics, Péter was very active in mathematics education, writing textbooks and teaching both children and mathematics teachers. Péter challenged society, and particularly children, to see mathematics and the sciences as entertaining, joyful, adventurous, and ultimately more than dry, intellectual exercises. She believed mathematics to be an indispensable part of science, and science to be an indispensable part of humanity.
Péter's interests extended beyond mathematics; she enjoyed art and cooking and also wrote theater reviews. She enjoyed literature as well and translated poetry into Hungarian. However, mathematics remained her first love, and in Playing with Infinity, she wrote: "I love mathematics not only for its technical applications, but principally because it is beautiful: because man has breathed his spirit of play into it, and because it has given him his greatest game—the encompassing of the infinite." Péter died of cancer on February 17, 1977.
see also Lovelace, Ada Byron King, Countess of; Mathematics; Procedural Languages.
Mary McIver Puthawala
Grinstein, Louise S., and Paul J. Campbell, eds. Women of Mathematics: A Bibliographic Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Morris, Edie, and Leon Harkleroad. "Rózsa Péter: Recursive Function Theory's Founding Mother." Mathematical Intelligencer 12, no. 1 (1990): 59–61.
Péter, Rózsa. Recursive Functions. New York: Academic Press, 1967.
Young, Robyn V., ed. Notable Mathematicians: From Ancient Times to the Present. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.