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September 14, 2012 12:51 PM   Subscribe

N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős is a 1993 documentary directed by George Paul Csicsery about the life of mathematician Paul Erdős. Paul Erdős (26 March 1913 -- 20 September 1996) was a Hungarian mathematician. Erdős published more papers than any other mathematician in history, working with hundreds of collaborators. He worked on problems in combinatorics, graph theory, number theory, classical analysis, approximation theory, set theory, and probability theory. He is also known for his "legendarily eccentric" personality. (Previously he was mostly a number)
posted by Obscure Reference (19 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is a pretty great book about Erdős. At math camp there was a prof that worked on several papers with Erdős, so since he occasionally graded our proofs I'm pretty sure that means I have an Erdős number of 1+ε.
posted by kmz at 1:10 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


He is also known for his "legendarily eccentric" personality.

ahem
Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He would typically show up at a colleague's doorstep and announce "my brain is open", staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom he (Erdős) should visit next.

His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems", and Erdős drank copious quantities. (This quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi.) After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper."
posted by alms at 1:11 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia on the double acute accent in his surname.
posted by grouse at 1:14 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ever since I read The Man Who Loved Only Numbers ( it is like nerd required reading) I always wanted to know from a real mathematician, how important was his work really? He is an interesting figure, who seems to have spend a large part of his life as an itenerant mathematician/drug addict. Did people put his name on their papers because he legitimately helped is so many cases? Or was it more a case of humoring a beloved old figure and getting a lower Erdős number.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:23 PM on September 14, 2012


Is this documentary for real, or is it a device for enhancing certain people's Erdős-Bacon number?
posted by ubiquity at 1:28 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or even generating more Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath numbers? Own up everyone; you're just copying the double-accent-mark ő from upthread every time you make one.
posted by JHarris at 1:37 PM on September 14, 2012


I always wanted to know from a real mathematician, how important was his work really?

Very.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:37 PM on September 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


how important was his work really?

I recall reading something about how Erdős was a problem solver rather than a builder of theories. It explains how he could both be very important, and yet never have won a Fields medal nor be numbered among giants like Hilbert, Russell, Gauss, etc. As usual, Wikipedia puts it better than I could:

"In terms of mathematical style, Erdős was much more of a "problem solver" than a "theory developer". (See
"The Two Cultures of Mathematics"
by Timothy Gowers for an in-depth discussion of the two styles, and why problem solvers are perhaps less appreciated.) Joel Spencer states that "his place in the 20th-century mathematical pantheon is a matter of some controversy because he resolutely concentrated on particular theorems and conjectures throughout his illustrious career.""
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:43 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks.

I understand. In computers, when you are trying to work through a problem, at first you try to pare down the issue, eliminate all variables and work through it logically. There comes a point, usually at 2 am, when all things fail, and you know there is something in the system that nobody has accounted for. That is when you get the most experienced people in a room throwing out ideas to test.

Having vast experience has trenmendous value in solving problems.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:51 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was a conspiracy theory back in the 50s that the 'Hungarians' were actually aliens who had come to teach us advanced math & physics. It wasn't just Erdős, Wigner and Rényi and lots more were all active at the same time. There was a huge concentration of geniuses that all came from the same small country within a short time span.
posted by echo target at 2:09 PM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Did people put his name on their papers because he legitimately helped is so many cases? Or was it more a case of humoring a beloved old figure and getting a lower Erdős number.

Though I'm sure we can think of exceptions, the convention in math is very much that every person whose name is on the paper did a non-trivial amount of work. See also not having 'first authors'.

I recall reading something about how Erdős was a problem solver rather than a builder of theories.

One could turn this sideways and talk also about contributions in terms of posing problems, rather than solving them.

I'm amused that the related posts seem to have been chosen by asking "Did this post have the word 'Hungarian' in it?" They're pretty much otherwise totally unrelated.
posted by hoyland at 3:54 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


One could do worse than keeping the SF's score as low as possible.
posted by Twang at 5:24 PM on September 14, 2012


peenayopplay-oopsheeday-dovn-tsokay
posted by Kinbote at 6:06 PM on September 14, 2012


I met Erdős in the mid-to-late 80s. He lectured my Honors Calculus section a few times. He wasn't there for us, of course - that was just a special treat. He was on his itinerant, 'pollinating' tour, spreading ideas and problems around the world.

He was every bit as charming as anything I have read about him since. He explained that he called children 'epsilons', because in mathematical notation an epsilon usually referred to a small quantity. He autographed my textbooks (Tom Apostol's "Calculus", Volumes I and II, 2nd Edition). On one volume he wrote, "Good luck from Paul Erdős, p.g.o.m, l.d.a.d, l.d.", and then explained, "P G O M: that means 'Poor Great Old Man'. 'L D', that means: 'Living Dead'.... that mean's you're over 65. A D means 'Archeological Discovery', that means you're over 70 'LD' means 'Legally Dead'... that means you're over 75'.

Erdős used to visit Ralph Faudree, then chair of the mathematics department at Memphis State University and a very frequent collaborator. I once asked Faudree (or maybe a colleague of his... I've slept since then) about those visits. Faudree said they spent weeks preparing beforehand, spent practically every hour he was there working around the clock, and the rest of the semester recovering. He described it as 'exhausting.'
posted by grimjeer at 7:34 PM on September 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Tom Apostle's Calc texts were my undergrad texts too! Mine aren't autographed, though. I still like how he does integrals before derivatives.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:10 AM on September 15, 2012


There was a conspiracy theory back in the 50s that the 'Hungarians' were actually aliens who had come to teach us advanced math & physics. It wasn't just Erdős, Wigner and Rényi and lots more were all active at the same time.

I can excuse most of them as human beings, but Johnny von Neumann? There's no way to explain that guy without assuming intelligent alien life on Earth.

I would go on, but this is an Erdős thread.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:38 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was a conspiracy theory back in the 50s that the 'Hungarians' were actually aliens who had come to teach us advanced math & physics. It wasn't just Erdős, Wigner and Rényi and lots more were all active at the same time. There was a huge concentration of geniuses that all came from the same small country within a short time span.

Probably related to WWII and the Holocaust (at least for the Hungarian Jews) and then the postwar R&D boom. I was just looking at my father's matrilineal genealogy yesterday--way too many names are followed by the parenthetical "killed in Holocaust." My grandma and her sisters made it out on a visa for the World's Fair, and managed not to go back. My paternal grandfather was also Hungarian, although he came over earlier. He became a paint chemist. The Hungarian educational system, though very traditional and underinclusive, apparently didn't mess around when it came to math and science. Both grandparents were of the opinion that even most private education in the US was inferior....

From the flyleaf of The Martians of Science:
If science has the equivalent of a Bloomsbury group, it is the five men born at the turn of the twentieth century in Budapest: Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. From Hungary to Germany to the United States, they remained friends and continued to work together and influence each other throughout their lives. As a result, their work was integral to some of the most important scientific and political developments of the twentieth century.

All five were Jewish by birth, although IIRC most were not observant.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:17 AM on September 15, 2012


Last night I happened to have a conversation that touched on math in Hungary and someone pointed out that Hungary had been doing problem-solving competitions since something like the 1890s. It pretty much stands to reason that Hungary will drastically over-perform for its size in something like the IMO (last time, they finished 38th, but that was sandwiched between France and Italy). And, of course, if your culture isn't discouraging the people good at those competitions from studying math, you're probably going to be overproducing mathematicians for your size, too.

(While digging around the IMO website, I have discovered that they abbreviate United Kingdom as UNK, which is probably a choice with an interesting story behind it, given that the ISO code is GBR. Wiki tells me that it actually has been agreed to not use UNK for a country because it's used in passports issued by the UN in Kosovo. UKM is apparently buried somewhere in the standard for situations where GBR won't work.)
posted by hoyland at 10:56 AM on September 15, 2012


Was about the mention von Neumann. "What's simpler than summing the series?" is one of my favorite stories.
posted by DU at 8:21 AM on September 18, 2012


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