Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Chapter 6: Problem Solving and Algorithm Design

George Polya

George Polya was born in Budapest on December 13, 1887. Although he became known as a world famous mathematician, he did not show an early interest in mathematics. His lack of interest might be explained by his memory of three high school mathematics teachers: "two were despicable and one was good."

In 1905, Polya entered the University of Budapest, where he studied law at the insistence of his mother. After one very boring semester, he decided to study languages and literature. He earned a teaching certificate in Latin and Hungarian--and never used it. He became interested in philosophy and took courses in math and physics as part of his philosophy studies. He settled on mathematics, commenting that "I am too good for philosophy and not good enough for physics. Mathematics is in between." He received his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1912, which launched his career.

Polya did research and taught at the University of Göttingen, the University of Paris, and the Swiss Federation of Technology in Zurich. While in Zurich he interacted with John von Neumann, about whom he said, "Johnny was the only student I was ever afraid of. If, in the course of a lecture, I stated an unsolved problem, the chances were he'd come to me as soon as the lecture was over, with the complete solution in a few scribbles on a slip of paper."

Like many Europeans of that era, he moved to the United States in 1940 because of the political situation in Germany. After teaching at Brown University for two years, he moved to Palo Alto to teach at Stanford, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Polya's research and publications encompassed many areas of mathematics, including number theory, combinatorics, astronomy, probability, integral functions, and boundary value problems for partial differential equations. The George Polya Prize is given in his honor for notable application of combinatorial theory.

Yet, for all George Polya's contributions to mathematics, it is his contribution to mathematics education for which he was the most proud and for which he will be the most remembered. His book, How to Solve It, published in 1945, sold over a million copies and was translated into 17 languages. In this book, Polya outlines a problem-solving strategy designed for mathematical problems. The generality of the strategy makes it applicable to all problem solving, however. Polya's strategy is the basis of the computer problem-solving strategy outlined in this text. Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, published in 1954, was another book dedicated to mathematics education. He not only wrote about mathematics education, but also took an active interest in the teaching of mathematics. He was a regular visitor to the schools in the Bay Area and visited most of the colleges in the western states. The Math Center at the University of Idaho is named for him.

On September 7, 1985, George Polya died in Palo Alto at the age of 97.

Additional Links

For some fun quotes said by the author of the influential book "How to Solve It," visit this site and become familiar with Polya's astute observations and keen sense of humor.

Visit the Quotations by Polya web site
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