Pál Erdös: born March 26, 1913 (Budapest, Hungary), died September 20, 1996 (Warsaw, Poland).

Erdös is arguably one of the greatest and most prolific mathematicians ever known. He contributed to such diverse fields as geometry, number theory, probability theory, set theory, and analysis. He is best known for his work in combinatorial mathematics. Over 1500 (many joint) papers were published during his lifetime.

He was somewhat of an itinerant. He would go from mathematicians house to matheaticians house, stay and work for a few weeks and then move on. It is said of him that all of his worldly possesions fit into two bags.

On arriving at a new home he would declare another roof another proof

I read that once he was walking along the street and tripped. He was lying on the ground and someone came to help. Erdos said, Don't disturb me you fool, can't you see I'm working

Erdös should also be remembered for his belief in The Book.

He would often speak of a book in which all of the proofs of all of the mathematics in the universe is kept. In this book, every proof is as compact, beautiful and elegant as it can be. It is mathematics the way we would like to see it, the genetic code of the universe written down in all its perfect simplicity.

The idea isn't a new one. Borges writes in The Library Of Babel:

To me, it does not seem unlikely that on some shelf of the universe there lies a total book. I pray the unknown gods that some man -- even if only one man, and though it had been thousands of years ago! -- may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may Thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.

To say that something was "close to The Book" was the highest praise Erdös reserved for a proof. Just after Erdös died, Joel Spencer, a frequent co-author with him and his usual "roof" (place to stay) when he was in the NYC area, told me that Erdös was fond of saying:

You don't have to believe in God, but you should believe in The Book

Both biographies of Erdös report that he was using speed (amphetamine) throughout his life. He received it from a Hungarian doctor who was a friend. He slept only a couple of hours every night.

In 1979, his friend and mathematician Ronald Graham offered a $500 bet, challenging him to go without drugs for 30 days. Erdös met the challenge, but later complained bitterly that the progress of mathematics had been held up by this silly little bet.


This writeup is in the public domain.
Though he is widely respected for being an extraordinary mathematical thinker, Erdos was also something of a freak, if his biographies are to be believed. He was apparently incapable of many of lifes simplest tasks: Fellow mathematician and friend Ronald Graham recounted tales of Erdos (pronounced "Air-dish") asking for help trimming his toe nails, or having such difficulty opening a can of tomato soup with a can opener that he spilt most of it all over the kitchen floor. Erdos himself told of how he shocked himself by learning late in life to butter his own bread, stating: "It wasn't that hard."

Also of note were his sarcastic ideas of God. As mentioned above, according to Erdos, God possessed a book with a transinfinite integer of pages, which contained all the most elegant mathematical theorems in reality. It was sacred duty of every mathematician to steal a glimpse into the book whenever possible, but God made this job exceedingly difficult at times. This thought is underlined by Erdos' calling God the SF, which stood for "Supreme Fascist".

Erdos would often joke that the SF played a rigged game with humanity, much like a sick game show. Whenever a person did an immoral thing, a point was scored against her. When a person knew the right thing to do, but didn't do it, a point was scored against her. Yet, if a person actually DID do the right thing, she didn't score. The point of the game was that humanity couldn't possibly win, so the only way to do well was keep the score against them as low as possible over the course of their lives.

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