Birthplace: Budapest, Hungary
Location of death: Warsaw, Poland
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Asexual
Executive summary: Loved only numbers
Paul Erdos was a Hungarian born mathematician famous for his brilliantly elegant proofs of seemingly unsolvable mathematical problems, especially in the area of numbers theory. He founded the field of discrete mathematics, the foundation of computer science, and was one of the most prolific mathematicians in history. He authored more than 1500 papers working, over the years, with roughly 458 collaborators. So highly regarded was he by other mathematicians that it became a badge of honor to have collaborated with him, an honor designated by claiming an "Erdos number" of 1, a system begun by Casper Goffman around 1965. To have an Erdos number of 2 meant you had collaborated with someone who had collaborated with Erdos, and so on.
So thoroughly did Erdos devote himself to mathematics that he never married, acquired no property beyond a change of clothes ("Property is a nuisance."), and he refused to stay tied down to a job because it would limit his ability to focus on mathematical problems and to collaborate with distant colleagues. Instead he traveled from one place to another, living out of a half-empty suitcase, staying with fellow mathematicians and sharing ideas from one place to the next. Whatever money he acquired was soon given away, sometimes to charities but often as prizes to those who solved the difficult mathematical problems he set them (though many preferred to frame, rather than spend, their winnings).
Though kind hearted, warm, and likeable Erdos was known for his lack of social graces, the by-product of an unusually sheltered childhood. Born shortly after two older sisters had died of scarlet fever, he was extremely coddled by his mother, Anna, who had to raise him on her own for several years while his father, Lajo (captured by the invading Russian army in WWI), was imprisoned in Siberia. It is said Erdos had never tied his own shoelaces until age 14 nor buttered his own bread until he was 21 years old. More significantly, he had been kept home from school (which his mother thought crawling with diseases) all through childhood and early adolescence. Instead he was privately tutored in mathematics by his parents, both mathematicians. By age 3 he had discovered negative numbers by himself and could amuse houseguests by multiplying three digit numbers in his head.
At age 20, having already received his doctorate in mathematics from the University Pázmány Péter in Budapest, he discovered an elegant proof for Chebyshev's theorem -- a famous theorem within number theory that states that for each number greater than one, there is always at least one prime number between it and its double (a prime number being a number that has no divisors other than itself and 1). Erdos carried out postdoctoral work at Manchester, England, to escape the extreme anti-Semitism that barred him from further academic achievement in Hungary. When he was done at Manchester he found himself unable to return to Hungary safely due to the political climate and opted to immigrate to the United States. Because of the political tensions resulting from WWII and, later, the Cold War, over the years he would continue to have difficulties with travel restrictions imposed on foreign nationals (especially upon Jews and those from communist nations). As a result he developed a disdain for governments and individuals that sought to limit the freedoms of others -- as well as the ready exchange of ideas.
Erdos died 20 September 1996 of heart failure while working on yet another mathematical problem. A biography entitled The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth was published in 1998 by Paul Hoffman. A second biography, authored by Bruce Schechter, is entitled My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos. Erdos on Graphs: His Legacy of Unsolved Problems by Fan Chung and Ron Graham is, as the title suggests, an update on a group of mathematical problems which Erdos had posed to other mathematicians that are still in progress. Videos about Erdos can be obtained from the Mathematical Association of America.
University: PhD University Pázmány Péter, Budapest (1934)
Wolf Prize in Mathematics 1983 (with Shiing S. Chern)
Risk Factors: Amphetamines
Is the subject of books:
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, 1998, BY: Paul Hoffman
My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos, 1998, BY: Bruce Schechter
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