Autobiography of János Kollár
I was born in 1956 in Budapest, Hungary, the oldest of six children in a close family full of engineers and musicians. I was a bookish child, interested mostly in history, adventure stories and the sciences. Around age eight I developed a strong stammer, which further led me to reading. The stammering gradually subsided over the next fifteen years, but hints of it remain with me, especially when I am tired of giving talks.
In elementary school I was an undistinguished student, getting middling grades in many classes but doing well in the few that interested me. Luckily my parents had confidence in me, and for high school sent me to the Piarist Fathers. Their school, called the Budapesti Piarista Gimnázium, was founded in 1717. During the communist years it was barely tolerated by the government, but it was probably the best school in Hungary. After getting many failing grades in the first weeks, I came to understand that I had to work hard, and by the end of the first year I was near the top of my class. This was really the experience that started me on the path toward knowledge and science. My two most influential teachers were János Pogány, who taught mathematics, and Zoltán Fórián-Szabó, who taught physics and chemistry.
It was also at this time that I got involved in mathematics competitions. These had a long tradition in Hungary; the first competition for high school students was established in 1894. Those who did well were invited to participate in a monthly meeting where we worked on developing our problem-solving skills. This was a great opportunity to meet other students who were also interested in mathematics, and spur each other on to do better. Each year the best of us were sent to the International Mathematical Olympiad. I was selected twice and returned with a gold medal both times.
After a year of mandatory military service, I enrolled in Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest as a mathematics student. Here I was mostly influenced in my first year by László Babai and later by Ervin Fried. They told me that there was this large branch of mathematics, called algebraic geometry, which was completely unknown in Hungary at that time. So I decided to learn it. For two years I worked completely alone, with only a few books. It was slow going, with nobody to consult, but it resulted in my learning the foundations very well. After that I spent two semesters in Moscow as an exchange student, where I attended the lectures of Iskovskikh and Manin, and the seminar of Shafarevich. At the end of university I applied to enter the PhD programme in Moscow. I had strong support from the Russian mathematicians, but, to my surprise, the examiner failed me on the required Marxism-Leninism exam. I was very disheartened, but this turned out to be one of the great lucky twists in my life.
I had met David Eisenbud when he visited Hungary during my undergraduate years, so when Moscow fell through I wrote to him, asking to be a student in the USA. This was somewhat illegal at that time, so my whole application consisted of that letter. He arranged for a full scholarship for me, and in 1981 I arrived at Brandeis University, where I studied with Teruhisa Matsusaka. He taught me to aim to be not only a technician but a scientist, maybe even a natural philosopher. It was also there that I met my wife, Jennifer Johnson.
I graduated in 1984 and started a Junior Fellowship at Harvard. The Fellowship gave me an opportunity to spend three months in Nagoya and begin my collaboration with Shigefumi Mori. This turned out to have a decisive influence on my work, both in our joint papers, books and in my work ever since.
In 1987 I accepted an invitation from Herb Clemens and joined the mathematics department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The next twelve years were very fruitful, with several visits by Mori, Miyaoka, Voisin, and three intense Summer Seminars where dozens of young algebraic geometers came together to work on the rapidly developing minimal model programme, the moduli theory of canonical models and the early stages of the study of rationally connected varieties. These three topics have been the main areas of my research ever since. It is also in Salt Lake City that our daughter Alicia was born; she is currently a Postdoc at Princeton in experimental physics.
In 1999 we moved to Princeton University, where we have been ever since. Since then I have learned the most from my students, especially from ongoing collaborations with Alessio Corti, Sándor Kovács and Chenyang Xu. I hope to continue learning for many years to come.
26 September 2017 Hong Kong