1913: An Eccentric Mathematician Who Spent a Lifetime Crashing With Friends Is Born

A friend, on Paul Erdos: ‘A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.’

David Green
David B. Green
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In this 1985 photo taken at the University of Adelaide, Erdős explains a problem to young mathematician Terence Tao — who was 10 years old at the time.
In this 1985 photo taken at the University of Adelaide, Erdős explains a problem to young mathematician Terence Tao — who was 10 years old at the time. Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

March 26, 1913, is the birthdate of the prolific, eccentric and peripatetic mathematician Paul Erdos, who gave up or ignored many of the conventions and concerns of daily life to spend his time solving problems. As one friend and colleague observed, with Erdos in mind, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

He meant it: Paul Erdos consumed both coffee and amphetamines in quantities that allowed him to remain alert for up to 20 hours at a time, and thus afforded himself the opportunity to be the author or co-author of more than 1,500 academic papers during his lifetime.

Paul Erdos (pronounced “AIR-dosh” in Hungarian) was born in Budapest. His parents, Anna and Lajos Erdos, were both high-school math teachers.

Early in his life, the family suffered two traumas that had a powerful impact on Paul’s upbringing. Several days before his birth, his two sisters, aged 3 and 5, died of scarlet fever. And during World War I, Lajos Erdos, a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, was taken prisoner by the Russians and held in a POW camp in Siberia for six years.

As a consequence, Paul was raised in his early years by his mother, who was fearful and protective, and a governess, and he received much of his education at home. Tellingly, it was said that Paul did not learn to tie his shoelaces until he was 14, and did not have the experience of buttering his own bread until he moved to England to study, at age 21.

Erdos demonstrated mathematical prowess at an early age. By age 4 he could, on being told a person’s date of birth, calculate in his head the number of seconds the person had been alive.

‘Hi. My brain is open’

In 1930, at age 17, Erdos entered Pazmany Peter University in Budapest, where he completed both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in mathematics within four years.

By 1934, Hungary, with its fascist regime, was becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Jews, and Erdos traveled to England, where he pursued post-doctoral work at the universities of Manchester and Cambridge. In 1938, he was offered a one-year appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and when war broke out the next year, he remained in the United States, accepting short-term appointments at one university after another.

His mother survived the Holocaust, in hiding in Hungary, but Erdos lost his father (to a heart attack in 1942) and four aunts and uncles in the war.

Paul Erdos in Budapest, 1992.Credit: Wikipedia

Erdos never married, and never had a permanent home. Instead, he relied on friends to host him as he wandered from school to school, showing up at their doors and announcing that “My brain is open.”

Communist risk? Not to Israel

In 1954, while teaching in Indiana, Erdos was informed that he was a security risk, apparently by virtue of coming from communist Hungary, and would no longer be eligible for visas to enter the U.S. Denied entry to the U.K. and Netherlands as well, he took up residence for a time in Israel, where he received an appointment from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa.

In 1984, when he won the prestigious Wolf Prize in Mathematics, he used nearly all of the $50,000 award to endow a prize in memory of his parents, which is presented by the Israel Mathematical Union.

Although Erdos lacked many social graces, he had an innocence and generosity that brought him countless friends and collaborators – more than 500 different people co-authored papers with him. Hence arose the concept of an “Erdos number,” by which people denote the degree of separation between them and Erdos, beginning with one degree for those who actually worked directly with him. Some 200,000 mathematicians are said to have assigned themselves Erdos numbers.

Erdos was attending a math conference in Warsaw when he suffered a fatal heart attack, on September 20, 1996. He asked for his epitaph to read, “I’ve finally stopped getting dumber.”

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