Paul Erdos

March 26, 1913 – September 20, 1996

by

Kristi Kirkland

Gulf Coast Community College

April 2000

 

      Paul Erdos is viewed by most present day mathematicians as a very brilliant, eccentric man. Erdos was born on March 26, 1913 to a Hungarian-Jewish family in Budapest. Paul’s parents, who were both math teachers, were very eager for Paul to learn all that he could on the subject as well, and that he did. Paul was the only living child of Lajos and Anna Erdos, since his two sisters had died before his birth from scarlet fever.   When Paul was only one his father was captured by the Russian Army during WWI and sent to Siberia. Following this and the deaths of her two daughters Paul’s mother, Anna, became very protective of him and she taught him at home. At a very young age Paul could multiply and divide three-digit numbers. From that point on he became and remained through out his life somewhat of a mathematical monk, giving up all of his worldly possessions and devoting his life entirely to mathematics.

      In 1920 Paul’s father, Lajos, returned home from Siberia, having learned English. While Lajos was being held captive he taught himself English to help pass the time. As soon as he returned he began to teach Paul to speak English as well. Since Paul’s father had not had an English teacher he did not pronounce all of the words correctly, and this explained the strange English accent that Paul carried with him throughout his life. In fact Paul Erdos even had somewhat of his own special language that is well known as his “Erdosisms”. For example, for Erdos the word to die meant to stop working with numbers and the word to leave meant to actually die. This was a special way Erdos had of saying certain words, which is better described by Paul Hoffman in his book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

     Although there were many restrictions on the Jews in the 1930's, Paul was able to enter the University of Pazmany Peter in Budapest where he studied for and was awarded his doctorate in 1934. Following this he began his post-doctoral fellowship at Manchester. After leaving Manchester Erdos traveled to the United States where he took up fellowship at Princeton, but his extension was cut short because he refused to conform to Princeton's standards. Princeton found him to be " uncouth and unconventional", which was a typical assumption made by others about him because of his nonconforming attitude.

      Paul Erdos proved that mathematics was not just a young mans game. In the last 25 years of his life he made it his goal to prove as many mathematical theorems as possible. Erdos often said, " The first sign of senility, is when a man forgets his theorems. The second sign is when he forgets to zip up. The third is when he forgets to zip down." Fortunately Erdos never could identify with the first, having never forgotten any of his theorems. In fact during his life Paul wrote and co-authored 1,475 papers and he could recite the details of them all, which made him a mathematician who probably thought about more mathematical problems than any other mathematician in history. Utilizing the advantages of caffeine and amphetamines Erdos worked on mathematics at almost all hours of the day, seven days a week. Even when he wasn’t working on his theorems he seemed to be always working on a problem that needed to be solved, whether mathematical or philosophical.

       Those who knew Paul remember a very simple man who knew only one love and that was numbers. Paul never had a wife, children, or even a home of his own and he lived only to search for mathematical truth. Erdos had no steady job and he traveled from university to university in search of another problem to solve and a new mathematician eager to learn or to teach, for that matter. He would arrive in a new town, after getting bored with where he had been before, and show up on the door step of  the town’s most well known mathematician and announce: “My brain is open”. For most of his life Paul lived out of a single suitcase traveling as far as four continents anxious to find the next mathematical question that needed to be answered. Paul, being such a simple man, had little need for money. In fact, when he won the Wolf Prize in 1983 he received  $50,000 and he only kept  $720. He also used the money that he received from lecturing towards worthy causes. Paul Erdos died from a heart attack at a conference in Warsaw having done mathematics in over 25 different countries. Paul had worked diligently all of his life to try and solve and understand all of mathematics’ hidden truths. For this reason he is viewed by many as the “The Man Who Loved Only Numbers” and thought of as one of the greatest mathematicians ever.

 

 

References


1) Hoffman, Paul.  “Who is Paul Erdos.” The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: the mathematical truth.                      

      Copyright 1998. http://paulerdos.com/1.html  (8 Feb., 2000).

2) Hoffman, Paul. “Read chapter 1e”. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: the mathematical truth.

       Copyright 1998. http://www.paulerdos.com/e2.html  (8 Feb., 2000).

3) Kolata, Gina. “Paul Erdos, a Math Wayfarer at Fields Pinnacle Dies at 83.” The New York Times.

        24 Sept. ,1996. http://www.cs.elte.hu/erdos/NY-Times.html. (12 Feb., 2000).

4) Schechter, Bruce. “My Brain is Open.” The Mathematical  Journeys of Paul Erdos. Copyright Sept. 1998.

       http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684846357/davidframbles/102-124068323-6887219 

       (4 March, 2000).

5) School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St. Andrews Scotland. “Paul Erdos.” January 2000.

     http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/mathematics/Erdos.html (8 Feb., 2000).

 6) The Times. “Paul Erdos.” (25 Sept., 1996). http://www.ime.usp.br/dcc/DAAD/ob-times.html (8 Feb., 

     2000).