The Man Who Loved Only Number
November 18, 2003 2:36 AM   Subscribe

Paul Erdös (pronounced Air-Dersh) was the most prolific mathematician of all time. He wrote almost 1500 papers with many others, leading to the creation of the Erdös number, connecting mathematicians to each other by way of their co-authored papers. Even a horse has an Erdös number of 3. He also had his own language - if a person had "left", they had died, but if they had "died", they had stopped doing mathematics.
posted by Orange Goblin (24 comments total)

He never married, eh?
posted by boneybaloney at 3:20 AM on November 18, 2003

Me and my coworkers have developed an Erdös factor.

One of the legends about Erdös is that he refused to butter his own bread, preferring to leave such lowly tasks to his host (or hostess, more likely...)

I do tech support in higher education, and we use this anecdote a lot when we come across a defiantly eccentric academic, and rate them relative to Erdös in practical incompetence.

I recently helped someone who has been word processing for at least ten years (given the software package they insist upon using). This person also who reads and answers their own email. Yet, for some reason, it fell to me, here in 2003, to show them how to navigate the World Wide Web, apparently for the first time. They were absolutely terrified of the pop ups that sprouted around the official site for their favorite sports team, and rather disappointed that the site for their favorite newspaper didn't mimic the front page exactly.
posted by bendybendy at 4:01 AM on November 18, 2003

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is a very engaging and non-mathgeek-friendly biography of Paul. Highly recommended.

I had hoped to come up with something simple in mathematics to prove or discover or whatever, while I was in college, so that I could then try and convince our crazy Hungarian/Romanian number theory Alpha Prof to co-author a trivial paper with me, so that I could also have a finite Erdos number, but, well, shit. I played video games instead.
posted by cortex at 5:12 AM on November 18, 2003

How many finite Erdos numbers do we have on MeFi? Mine's 4. I know of at least one other 4. Anyone else?
posted by gleuschk at 6:38 AM on November 18, 2003

Oh, damn. I thought mine was 3, by marriage. Apparently that doesn't work, though the publication of our divorce papers may have gotten me in.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:44 AM on November 18, 2003

Paul Erdos has a Kevin Bacon number of 4.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 6:56 AM on November 18, 2003

He also inspired the Winer Number.
posted by danisaacs at 7:03 AM on November 18, 2003

cortex, who's the author. That might make a cool Christmas present for my dad. (I like to give him books he'd never find on his own)
posted by Karmakaze at 7:04 AM on November 18, 2003

funny, my dad gave me that book for christmas 3 years ago.
posted by goneill at 7:34 AM on November 18, 2003

Paul Hoffman is the author. I just started the book last night and read about 100 pages in one go - this guy is just fascinating.
posted by Orange Goblin at 7:55 AM on November 18, 2003

He never married, eh?
He married a "10".
posted by wendell at 8:32 AM on November 18, 2003

It seems my dad has an Erdos number of 2. Nifty.
posted by Mark Doner at 9:32 AM on November 18, 2003

Funny thing is that Hungarians don't find Erdös strange at all. There is some theory about the fact that Hungarians have a particular talent for mathematics, and an inordinate amount of nobel science winners in math and physics. Supposedly it is the language - Magyar is exceedingly... er,... different. The passive voice is virtually non-existent, so you always have to imply which A caused which B. It also grammatically marks everything that English or other indo-European tongues imply via word order or declension, meaning that you can be precise or vague at the same time.

Also, being an incredibly self-absorbed, arrogant social asswipe is not at all uncommon in Budapest intellectual circles.
posted by zaelic at 9:33 AM on November 18, 2003

Zaelic, so is the legend about revolving doors true?
posted by bendybendy at 9:53 AM on November 18, 2003

Not sure if I like the idea that he might've called me a trivial being, as I try very hard to be dead to math, but referring to divorce as an act of liberation? Heh. I gotta grant him that one. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 10:11 AM on November 18, 2003

He's a very interesting guy. One of my hallmates posted his obit on his dorm room door back when Erdos died in 96. One of his more famous quips is "Mathematicians are machines which turn coffee into theorems."

More reminiscing here.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 10:13 AM on November 18, 2003

Bendybendy: no, it is not anymore. Believe me.

One interesting note about Budapest intellectuals is the group I call the "Mensa Monsters." These are a gang of about ten grungy, spit-covered middle aged guys who inhabit the bars of downtown Budapest who all have IQs of over 180, and the social graces of a school of jellyfish. They are unkempt, dirty, broke, and aggressively beg drinks from passersby while loudly discussing incredibly dense and difficult linguistic and mathematical issues until they get tossed out of one bar and into another. Really. Hang out in the Budapest 7th district and you will meet them. One of the world's foremost authorities on Uralic and Romani linguistics is one of them.
posted by zaelic at 10:34 AM on November 18, 2003

My friend Richard is a 1, but I guess I don't get a Erdös number by association. (I asked him once how many people in the world really understand what he does, and he said maybe 12 to 15.)

Another very good book about Erdös is called My Brain is Open. It mentions that he always started phone calls by saying, “Itt vagyok!”; (“I am here.”), and also that “Erdös loved children, whom he insisted on calling epsilons, after a Greek letter that mathematicians use to denote vanishingly small quantities.”

From page 70: ”Perhaps Erdös’s most interesting coinage is the term Supreme Fascist, or SF, which is what he called the God in whom he professed no belief. Erdös’s view was that the relationship between human beings and the SF is fundamentally an unfair game that we cannot win but are obliged to play.”

From page 114: “As much as Erdös enjoyed his conversations with Gödel, he found them exasperating. Erdös berated Gödel, saying: ‘You became a mathematician so that people should study you, not that you should study Leibniz.’ ”

He also called the United States samland, and the Soviet Union joedom.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2003

zaelic: hmmm... I lived in the seventh district for about a year, and I never ran into them... Or maybe I did and was just too dense to know it.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:10 AM on November 18, 2003

Hrm. My dad has an Erdos number of 3, and although he and I have never formally published anything together, we've certainly written things together, and I've edited various writings of his for clarity of English. (I'm a native speaker, he's not.) I suppose that makes me a tenuous 4.

And it's true that he loved children. My father was friends with Erdos and I've been told every time he came over to visit, he would bring chocolate and candy for my sister and I. Unfortunately, I was too young to remember, though my sister does. Aparently very strange, but very nice. And in a household where mathematicians routinely visit, one more strange visitor is nothing new.
posted by antimony at 12:24 PM on November 18, 2003

Paul Erdös was a brilliant mathematician, but far beyond that, he was truly a saint.

Having few possessions, he was always willing to share what money he received from mathematical awards, contributing unceasingly to causes ranging from needy graduate students to earthquake relief funds.

His memory for children rivaled his memory for mathematics. "When he asked a father of four, 'How are the epsilons? [a mathematical term usually denoting a small quantity]', it did not mean that he did not remember the names of the children. Just on the contrary -- he perfectly well knew the names, ages, past illnesses," and other significant events of those children and "a few thousand others," said Pelikan, now a graph theorist at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest.

Erdos also forged a special bond with anyone he perceived as vulnerable. In 1945, when Michael Golomb was in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute doing war service for the government, he got a call from Erdös, who was passing through town and wanted to get together. Golomb explained that he was going to a party that evening at the home of a fellow mathematician who was eager to meet Erdös and would be happy if he showed up. Erdös did come to the party, but instead of conversing with the mathematicians he promptly disappeared. "We did not see him for the rest of the evening," Golomb recalled. "Only when everyone was ready to leave did we learn that Erdös had found out that our host had a blind father, who could not join the party, but sat up in a room on the upper floor. Erdös preferred spending the time with the lonely blind man rather than with the people in the party, who were eager to meet him."

Peter Winkler saw the same side of Erdös when he was teaching at Emory. "We had a very bright student who had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair," said Winkler. "When Paul saw him, he immediately came over and asked him what was his disease and what was his prognosis. He found out more about this student in ten minutes than we had learned in the entire time he was a graduate student in the department. And then he got into what the student was doing -- he was working on his Ph.D -- and made some suggestions. It was wonderful. This was the kind of thing he did all the time."

-- Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

posted by fold_and_mutilate at 1:11 PM on November 18, 2003 [1 favorite]

Wow. Just wow. Another entry in my hero list.
posted by zerofoks at 1:48 PM on November 18, 2003

Argh. I missed meeting Erdos by a couple of years -- one of my profs used to host him annually and bring him into the classroom to speak.

It is true, Erdos gave away every dollar he earned. Much of the money funded payouts of the bounties he regularly de clared on his unsolved problems. Hundreds of these problems remain, and the bounties are still paid by his friends, including Ron Graham and Fan Chung of Berkeley, California. Of course, even in life, the generous spendthrift relied on a network of adori n g colleagues to host him in his travels; yes, they made his breakfast, too. (I remember learning some of this from a movie called "N Is a Number".)

Erdos's lifestyle was ideal to his mathematical vision. He could cross-fertilize with other mathematici a ns constantly, and could work 18 hours a day without binding attachments. I think he was revered most, among his friends, for his commitment to math; his purpose in the world was singular. Nevertheless, as the anecdotes on this page show, he was distinc tl y aware of his humanity; he knew that it was his choice to serve as a "machine for turning coffee [and speed] into mathematics."u n
posted by aws17576 at 6:55 PM on November 18, 2003

Home run king Hank Aaron arguably has an Erdos number of 1, because he co-autographed a baseball with Erdos when the University of Georgia simultaneously awarded the two men honorary degrees. All this is of course connected to the phenomenon of Ruth-Aaron numbers, which gives number theorists an excuse to think about baseball.
posted by jonp72 at 3:03 AM on November 20, 2003

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