Part I. Paul Erdos, the Kevin Bacon of Mathematics

If you’ve hung around mathematicians for a while, then you know there’s a fine line between the MATHEMATICAL GENIUS, a groundbreaking leader with breathtaking vision and imagination, and a homeless dude with a bunch of mimeographed papers and bladder control issues.  For example, in grad school, I got the pleasure of meeting the following two individuals:

1)  Chubby guy who randomly appeared in lectures, classes, and seminars, who pushed around a small shopping cart full of papers and books, and asked embarrassing rambling questions of visiting Nobel laureates giving talks


2)  Thin but wiry guy who looked uncannily like Rasputin, who rode around campus on a motorized stand-up scooter of his own making, so if seen from a distance (when you couldn’t see the scooter) he looked like he was spookily levitating at 15 mph through campus.

One of these gentlemen was a random hanger-on that no one could get rid of, and the other was on the faculty of the physics department.  With tenure.  This is more evidence that social skills, charm, even sanity aren’t factors in success in math and science — it all comes down to if your theorems are correct.  The most famous example of this was Paul Erdos, a man whose daily life habits would put him squarely in the “homeless & crazy” camp but was nevertheless one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, maybe one of the top 10 number theorists of all time.

Paul Erdos. You wish you were this smart.

Have you ever gotten in a conversation about the proverbial mathematician who proves the most abstract theorems, yet can’t tie his shoes?  Paul Erdos is the guy you’re talking about.  I’m only being slightly unfair — he could tie his shoes, but he couldn’t drive a car, cook for himself, hold down a stable job as a professor, or have a romantic relationship, all essentially by choice in order to better devote his life to solving interesting problems in number theory.

His style was to collaborate with other top mathematicians — and when he collaborated with you, he collaborated the hell out of you.  You (if “you” are a number theorist he took a liking to) would sometimes get a warning call, sometimes not, before Erdos would show up on your doorstep with his one suitcase for a visit of a couple days or weeks, during which he would stay at your house doing mathematics with you until you dropped.  If you were lucky, you’d work slightly less than 20-hour days with him, developing theorems and proofs, exploring new problems, and writing papers.  After he’d wring you dry of all math, he’d mercifully move on to the next mathematician on his list.  While this may have been the most challenging, exhausting, and probably productive few days of your life, it was just another routine week for Paul Erdos.  He kept up this nomadic lifestyle for decades, always subsisting on the kindness of others, doing virtually nothing but math for all but the couple of hours he slept per night.

As you might imagine, he got a lot done.  The basic “product” of a mathematician or scientist, the unit of measure for their work, is the “paper” — a research report published in a peer-reviewed journal that describes some new result.  The very best, the nobel prize winners and such, might aspire to publish about a hundred papers in their lifetimes.  A grad student will be lucky to get more than three papers published during the course of their 5 to 7 year PhD.  They’re a hell of a lot of work.  Erdos published about 1,500 papers all told, more than anyone else in modern times in any subject by far, more than ten times the number that a distinguished professor would be proud of and five times as much as Albert Einstein.  In fact, he wrote more pages of original scientific research than anyone else in all of history except for a guy named Euler that you might have heard of a few centuries back.

He also collaborated with hundreds of other people, generating a list of coauthors bigger than your high school’s graduating class.  Beyond writing papers, he was constantly meeting, discussing, talking, and consulting math with essentially everyone in his particular branch of mathematics, plus a great many luminaries in other fields (including the aforementioned Einstein, plus Kurt Godel, the man who did to logic what that defensive line did to Joe Theismann’s knee).  He also served as a mentor to countless students and younger mathematicians, often guiding them down just the right path in their research careers.

All this drive for collaboration should clue you in to the fact that he wasn’t just a soulless math automaton, some two-dimensional stereotype of an emotionless math genius.  Far from it — he was keenly aware emotionally, always had a soft spot for the underdog, loved kids, doted on the elderly, donated the bulk of money he earned (and he did pretty well, thanks entirely to his math accomplishments) all to various charities, and by all accounts was beloved by the entire math community.  To this day, having collaborated with Erdos on a paper is a feat cherished by anyone lucky enough to have done it.  He was a remarkable man, who deserves to be one of the mathematical legends of the 20th century1.

<< Back   >> Part II.   Erdos Numbers and Bacon Numbers


1.   Before I caught my error, this sentence originally ended “..who deserves to be one of the unsung legends of the 20th century.”  Like, he deserves to be unsung.  Clearly not what I meant.  And it had been this way for years.  Why didn’t anybody tell me?  WHYYY???

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