# An Arbitrary Number of Years Since Mathematician Paul Erdős’s Birth

Today would’ve been the 100th birthday of the Hungary-born mathematician who published so many papers--and many with such great impact--that a playful measure of one’s academic affiliation with him has been created

Paul Erdős at a student seminar in Budapest, Fall 1992. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kmhkmh

I take issue with the celebration of Paul Erdős’ 100th birthday.

Not the celebration itself, but the number. Why 100? The number 100 was chosen, of course, because 10 is the base unit of our number system: We have 10 unique symbols (0-9) that can be combined to represent any conceivable number. Ten units of 10 is 100, so it’s a nice, neat factor. If we used a base 12 system, we would have 12 unique symbols, and we’d be celebrating anniversaries of 144 years. But I can’t find any particular significance about 100 for Erdős.

Erdős was born in 1913 in Hungary to Jewish parents, both mathematics teachers. He moved to Manchester, England, in 1934 for a post-doctoral appointment, but also spent time (unofficially) working in London, Cambridge and Bristol--establishing a trend of bouncing from institute to institute that would continue for the rest of his life. Erdős did not return to Hungary until 1945, after Soviet troops liberated Budapest from the Nazis. Throughout his life he spent time living in the US, Israel and Britain, and visited Hungary often. But he had no permanent residence. He lectured, taught and worked at dozens of universities, but never held a permanent position at any of them. He died in 1996 of a heart attack while attending a conference in Warsaw.

Next year will mark Erdős’s 101st birthday, which would be better than celebrating his 100th birthday, because 101 is a prime number. You can’t divide 101 by anything but 1 and itself and still get a whole number (where 100 is the product of 2 x 2 x 5 x 5). Erdős once told his biographer, Paul Hoffman, in a somewhat beautiful and somewhat sad sentiment that prime numbers were his best friends.

A large portion of Erdős’s work involved prime numbers. The first significant theorem he ever proved, at age 17, stated that between any number and its double, there is at least one prime number. The Russian mathematical giant Pafnuty Chebyshev had already proved this theorem, called Bertrand’s conjecture, 80 years earlier, but Erdős proof was simpler and clearer. Erdős later did a similar job of simplifying the prime number theorem, which reveals how prime numbers will be distributed. Close to zero, prime numbers are common: 2,3,5,7, et cetera. As one climbs higher and higher, however, prime numbers occur more infrequently. (The prime number theorem doesn’t  show how to find those numbers, which are infinitely abundant. The largest known prime number is 257,885,161 – 1, which has over 17.4 million digits).

Reducing proofs and theorems to their “elementary” state was a particular talent of Erdős’. He once wrote a simpler proof of a theorem in a paper he was supposed to be refereeing. Erdős believed that “the Supreme Fascist” (God) kept a book of mathematical proofs in their most perfect, simplified states, and it was the task of mathematicians to transcribe the pages from this book.

In some respects, zero was a rather significant number for Erdős. Along with his peripatetic proclivity, he never married, never had children, never bought a home and never had a regular job or very much money. Instead he traveled, carrying all his worldly possessions in two suitcases, making a temporary home with collaborators. This lifestyle took him throughout the U.S. and Europe. At last count, he published papers with 511 people.

Erdős’ terrible behavior as a house guest is legendary: opening a carton of tomato juice by cutting a hole in it and not bothering to clean up the mess; banging pots and pans at 4:30 in the morning to wake everyone so they could continue their work.

Despite his obnoxious behavior, Erdős was usually welcomed back, and remained friends with most of the people he visited. Reportedly, he was a radiantly happy person, a delightful collaborator, and had a gift for getting people to do mathematics to the best of their capabilities.  In fact, a more fitting celebration for Erdős might be December 26, 2039, or 1,521 months after his birth: 1,521 is the total number of papers he collaborated on, which is more than any other mathematician in history.

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1. 1. stargene 03:18 AM 3/27/13

If memory serves, Erdos once stated, perhaps
only half in jest, "A mathematician is a device
which turns caffeine into theorems!" :-)

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2. 2. Germanicus 09:02 AM 3/27/13

Name the device that turns theorems into mal de tete.

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3. 3. SJK1943 09:55 AM 3/27/13

I admire his contribution and talent. However, there is a sadness in this bio.

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4. 4. Germanicus 11:14 AM 3/27/13

Erdos [urdish] claimed he'd never suffered carnal desire & knew he was peculiar in many aspects of temperament.

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5. 5. Pazuzu 04:10 PM 3/27/13

My father, Stewart Scott Cairns, was a mathematician (topology) and after WWII, when I was a child, Erdös was a guest in our home several times, both in Syracuse and Urbana. I can attest to his oddness as a house guest; I never experienced the tomato soup or pot banging episodes, but we always needed to bring in a plumber to snake out the drain when he visited. He called me "epsilon," and our very friendly little dog, Patches, was "hell hound." God, of course, was the "supreme fascist in the sky."

Perhaps the most remarkable memory I have of him was of a dinner party at our home in Syracuse, it must have been 1947 or 1948 (I was 12 or 13), with him and several other mathematicians; he carried on several mathematical conversations at once. My father said he frequently did this. The topics were completely unconnected and on quite different topics, much like a chess master playing multiple games simultaneously.

Although Erdös had no income, he would regularly offer prizes (if I recall, up to \$1,000) to students if they could prove a challenging theorem. Then, when a student succeeded, it was up to his supporters (e.g., my father) to come up with the money.

My father admired him immensely. He was truly a mathematics machine, as well as a very generous man.

I don't agree with SJK1943 that there is a sadness in this bio. Erdös did with his life exactly what he wanted to do, namely mathematics. His use of caffeine and speed were in the service of doing math. I see a beauty in this bio, not sadness.

Also, Germanicus, it's [ɛrdø∫] in the International Pnonetic Alphabet, with stress on the first syllable. The [ø] is what we phonologists call (roughly) a mid, front rounded vowel, like the 'e' in 'bet' pronounced with the lips rounded as in the word 'boat,' and, as you indicated, the Hungarian 's' is pronounced as the 'sh' in English. The first vowel, 'e,' is closer to the English vowel in 'bet' than to the 'u' you indicated. The Wikipedia entry on him gives the correct IPA transcription.

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6. 6. Pazuzu in reply to Pazuzu 09:06 PM 3/27/13

To make a minor correction in my description of how pronounce his name: the last syllable has a long vowel, pronounced about twice as long as a "normal" vowel. The stress (emphasis) remains on the first syllable.

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7. 7. Pazuzu in reply to SJK1943 09:06 PM 3/27/13

Sadness? I think he was beautiful.

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8. 8. larkalt 07:35 AM 3/28/13

There's a part of me that wants to live the way Erdos lived, with minimal possessions and minimal attachments in the world. Attachments create obligations and chores.

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9. 9. mikpar 12:11 PM 3/31/13

I believe the book "the Man Who Loved Numbers" pointed out that Hank Aaron (or was it another baseball great?) had an Erdos number of one, Erdos & Aaron have both autographed the same baseball!

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10. 10. tamasger 04:39 PM 4/3/13

I study physics at the university where Erdős Pál studied. It's kind of a great feeling :)

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11. 11. bucketofsquid 06:15 PM 4/4/13

This article is the only connection I have with Erdos. What does that make my Erdos number?

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12. 12. Sinibaldi 11:51 AM 4/8/13

Fantaisie.

Un groupe de
feuilles, un
souffle de
lumière où
vient la pensée,
le son de la
neige qui
chante le matin....

Francesco Sinibaldi

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13. 13. e b here 12:31 PM 4/16/13

b ( 2 ) B =

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14. 14. yak4love 07:27 AM 5/30/13

Hi, I am helen
how are you,hope you are fine and in perfect condition of health. I went through your profile and I read it and took interest in it,please if you don't mind I will like you to write me on this ID(helenyak11@yahoo.com)hope to hear from you soon,and I will be waiting for your mail because I have something VERY important to tell you. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever believe this would ever happen. I never expected to fall so deeply in love so fast. It all started after reading profile first. Lots of love helen

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15. 15. yak4love 07:27 AM 5/30/13

Hi, I am helen
how are you,hope you are fine and in perfect condition of health. I went through your profile and I read it and took interest in it,please if you don't mind I will like you to write me on this ID(helenyak11@yahoo.com)hope to hear from you soon,and I will be waiting for your mail because I have something VERY important to tell you. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever believe this would ever happen. I never expected to fall so deeply in love so fast. It all started after reading profile first. Lots of love helen

Reply | Report Abuse | Link to this

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