Paul Erdös Was The Eccentric, Nomadic, Prolific Mathematical Prodigy You've Never Heard Of

"Vegre nem butulok tovabb" (translation: Finally I am becoming stupider no more) was the epitaph Paul Erdös wrote for himself. Put simply, he was a brilliant mathematician. But that sentence barely begins to scrape the surface of his genius or legendary eccentricity. One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century, Erdös redefined what it meant to be unconventional, unrelenting, and obsessed with math.

The Prolific Prodigy

Paul Erdös was born on March 26, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, and it didn't take long for his mathematical brilliance become apparent. The prodigious thinker could multiply three-digit numbers and independently developed the idea of negative numbers by age three.

In 1930, at age 17, Erdös entered the Péter Pázmány University in Budapest, where he completed his undergraduate work and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in just four years. Erdös was only 19 and a college freshman when his first paper was published, a new proof of Bertrand's conjecture. Though the theory was already proven in 1850 by a long-winded and messy proof, Erdös' elegant, simple explanation of the problem stunned the international mathematics community. A solution wasn't enough for Erdös; he needed the end result gracefully tied up in a bow.

Erdös authored around 1,500 mathematical papers, a record that has yet to be beaten. In fact, he was so prolific and so often collaborating with co-authors that he prompted the creation of the Erdös number, the number of steps between a mathematician and Erdös in terms of co-authorships. (Think of it as "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" for math geniuses.)

In his career, he chased down unsolved problems and hatched new problems in the fields of discrete mathematics, graph theory, number theory, mathematical analysis, approximation theory, set theory, and probability theory. The testimonials from peers of the mathematician highlight just how brilliant the dude was.

According to mathematician and computer scientist George Purdy: "In 1976, we were having coffee in the mathematics lounge at Texas A&M. There was a problem on the blackboard in functional analysis, a field Erdös knew nothing about. I happened to know that two analysts had just come up with a thirty-page solution to the problem and were very proud of it. Erdös looked up at the board and said, 'What's that? Is it a problem?' I said yes, and he went up to the board and squinted at the tersely written statement. He asked a few questions about what the symbols represented, and then he effortlessly wrote down a two-line solution. If that's not magic, what is?"

Paul Erdos with Terence Tao.

Math Mania

So what prompted TIME magazine to call this genius the "oddball's oddball"? Where to begin...

Erdös didn't have an easy childhood: His only sisters died when he was born, his father was held captive in WWI for six years, and fascism began to gain traction in and around his homeland. Once he left to study mathematics in different institutions, the (ethnically, non-practicing) Jewish Erdös never again had the opportunity to reunite with his family in Hitler-controlled Hungary.

After his one-year fellowship at Princeton, the university refused to renew his fellowship for an additional full year, finding him "uncouth and unconventional." So he began his nomadic lifestyle. He basically showed up on the doorsteps of colleagues to do his usual 19-hour-long days of work with them until the host had had enough math. These people would name themselves "Uncle Paul sitters"; Erdös depended on these people for food and shelter, though math consumed his mind. Erdös never had a proper teaching job and lived the last 60 years of his life out of a half-empty suitcase with no home.

According to Mike Plummer, a former math professor at Vanderbilt: "That first day we did mathematics until one in the morning. I went upstairs to bed, and he stayed downstairs in the guest room. At 4:30 a.m. I heard pots banging in the kitchen. He kept banging them. It was his way of telling me to get up. I stumbled downstairs about six. What were the first words out of his mouth? Not 'Good morning' or 'How'd you sleep?', but 'Let n be an integer. Suppose k is...'"

Talk This Way

To even communicate with Erdös, one had to understand his idiosyncratic language, too. Some examples of his vocabulary, as Joshua Hill writes in his memoir of Erdös, include:

  • "Trivial beings" are non-mathematicians
  • "Bosses" are women
  • "Slaves" are men
  • "Epsilons" are children
  • People "arrive" when they are born
  • People "die" when they stop doing math
  • People "leave" when they actually die
  • When he was "preaching" he was lecturing
  • When he was ready to do mathematics, "his mind was open"
  • The "Supreme Fascist" is God

His aim in life was "to do mathematics: to prove and conjecture," and, boy, did he ever. And a favorite saying of his was, "Every human activity, good or bad, must come to an end, except mathematics." Erdös died in Warsaw on September 20, 1996, doing what he loved right up until the end. Literally — a heart attack took him at the age of 83 while he was attending a mathematics conference.

To get the whole story on the incredible and wacky life of Paul Erdös, check out his biography, "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth" by Paul Hoffman.

Math Encounters: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

Written by Joanie Faletto September 16, 2017

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