The Man Who Loved Only Numbers
What would you do with a houseguest who appeared at your front door without warning and for no fixed period; who left your kitchen and bathroom a mess; who expected you to supply meals, wash his clothes, and chauffeur him around; who demanded your full attention while he was with you? If you were a mathematician and your unannounced guest was Paul Erdós, you welcomed him, took care of him, even, if you were Ronald Graham, built an addition to your house for him. You relished the time you were his host and felt that he honored you with his presence. You realized that the day or days he was with you would be extremely productive and mathematically interesting.
Paul Erdós’s behavior can only be described as eccentric. In many ways, he resembled the stereotypical absentminded professor. He developed tunnel vision to a new level. Erdós had no personal life: no spouse, no lovers, no children. Neither food nor money were important to him. He ignored literature, art, theater, movies, sports, and television. Cooking and driving were activities he never even attempted. He utilized a unique vocabulary, in which God was the “SF” (Supreme Fascist), children were “epsilons,” women were “bosses,” and husbands were “slaves.” His mother handled many of the details of daily life. Upon her death, the mathematician Ronald Graham took up some of the burden. For the last forty years of his life, he had no permanent address. Instead, he roamed the world, from one center of mathematical research to another, with all of his possessions (except the reprint copies of his publications) in an old suitcase and a shopping bag.
Rather than worry about the more mundane aspects of life, such as accumulating material goods, rearing a family, or obeying the fundamental rules of normal human social intercourse, Erdós lived to do mathematics. He did so nineteen hours a day, assisted by the intake of large amounts of stimulants. By narrowing his vision of what was important in life, he managed to author or coauthor 1,475 papers, many of which were significant in the development of mathematics. He conducted research in more than twenty-five countries.
It was not merely the quantity and quality of his research that made Erdós tolerable, even beloved, to his fellow mathematicians. They put up with his behavior because Erdós saw mathematical research as a social activity, not as an act conducted in isolation. He shared his genius without restraint or hesitation. Working with other mathematicians on four continents, he identified interesting problems, provided suggestions, and cultivated young talent. He served as a catalyst for mathematical research throughout the world. No other mathematician comes close to his record of 485 different coauthors. He inspired, goaded, and when appropriate, told hard truths about the difficulty of a particular problem when balanced against the ability of a specific mathematician. Mathematicians agreed that he moved the entire community forward.
Erdós was born in Budapest, the son of two high school mathematics teachers. Almost simultaneously with his birth, his two sisters died of scarlet fever. Perhaps not coincidentally, his mother, Anna Erdós, had an extremely close—perhaps pathological—relationship with her only surviving child. She could not do too much for her son. He did not learn to tie his own shoelaces until age eleven, and he first buttered his own piece of bread at age twenty-one. His mother did not allow him to date and, according to rumor, dressed and washed him well into his teenage years. Much of his education was at home. Much later in life, she traveled with him, even sharing his hotel room.
Erdós’s parents were assimilated Jews. Although the theological aspects of Judaism held no attraction for Erdós, he did acknowledge his heritage and was not naïve about what his ancestry meant in Hungary in the 1930’s. As Hungary became more and more Fascist and more and more anti-Semitic, Erdós decided to emigrate. He left Hungary in 1934, never again to have a permanent home. In 1938, he came to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the first of many temporary or part-time positions he held in the United States.
The United States proved less than fully welcoming, however. During the early 1950’s, Erdós’s continuing connections with communist Hungary (his mother had survived World War II, although his father and many other members of his family died in the Holocaust) raised...
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