Paul Erdős at a student seminar in Budapest (Fall 1992)
26 March 1913|
|Died||20 September 1996
|Alma mater||Eötvös Loránd University|
|Doctoral advisor||Leopold Fejér|
|Doctoral students||Bonifac Donat
|Known for||See list|
|Notable awards||Wolf Prize (1983/84)
AMS Cole Prize (1951)
Paul Erdős (Hungarian: Erdős Pál [ˈɛrdøːʃ paːl]; 26 March 1913 – 20 September 1996) was a Hungarian mathematician. Erdős worked with hundreds of collaborators, pursuing problems in combinatorics, graph theory, number theory, classical analysis, approximation theory, set theory, and probability theory. He was also known for his eccentric personality.
Early life and education
Paul Erdős was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 26, 1913. He was the only surviving child of Anna and Lajos Erdős (formerly Engländer); his siblings died before he was born, aged 3 and 5. His parents were both mathematics teachers from a vibrant intellectual community. His fascination with mathematics developed early—at the age of four, he could calculate in his head how many seconds a person had lived, given their age.
Both of Erdős's parents were high school mathematics teachers, and Erdős received much of his early education from them. Erdős always remembered his parents with great affection. At 16, his father introduced him to two of his lifetime favorite subjects—infinite series and set theory. During high school, Erdős became an ardent solver of the problems proposed each month in KöMaL, the Mathematical and Physical Monthly for Secondary Schools.
Erdős later published several articles in it about problems in elementary plane geometry.
In 1934, at the age of 21, he was awarded a doctorate in mathematics.
Erdős's name contains the Hungarian letter "ő" ("o" with double acute accent). This has led to many misspellings in the literature, typically Erdos or Erdös, either "by mistake or out of typographical necessity".
Because anti-Semitism was increasing in Hungary, he moved the same year he received his doctorate to Manchester, England, to be a guest lecturer. In 1938, he accepted his first American position as a scholarship holder at Princeton University. At this time, he began to develop the habit of traveling from campus to campus. He would not stay long in one place and traveled back and forth among mathematical institutions until his death.
In 1952, during the McCarthy anti-communist investigations, the U.S. government denied Erdős, a Hungarian citizen, a re-entry visa into the United States, for reasons that have never been fully explained. Teaching at Notre Dame at the time, Erdős could have chosen to remain in the country. Instead, he packed up and left, albeit requesting reconsideration from the Immigration Service at periodic intervals. The government changed its mind in 1963 and Erdős resumed including American universities in his teaching and travels.
Hungary, then a Communist nation, was under the hegemony of the Soviet Union. Although it curtailed the freedom of its citizens, in 1956 it gave Erdős the singular privilege of being allowed to enter and exit Hungary as he pleased. Erdős exiled himself voluntarily from Hungary in 1973 as a principled protest against his country's policy of denying entry to Israelis.
During the last decades of his life, Erdős received at least fifteen honorary doctorates. He became a member of the scientific academies of eight countries, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society. Shortly before his death, he renounced his honorary degree from the University of Waterloo over what he considered to be unfair treatment of colleague Adrian Bondy. On September 20, 1996, at the age of 83, he had a heart attack and died "in action," attending a conference in Warsaw. He never married and had no children. He is buried next to his mother and father in grave 17A-6-29 at Kozma Utcai Temető in Budapest.
Erdős was one of the most prolific publishers of papers in mathematical history, comparable only with Leonhard Euler; Erdős published more papers, mostly in collaboration with other mathematicians, while Euler published more pages, mostly by himself. Erdős wrote around 1,525 mathematical articles in his lifetime, mostly with co-authors. He strongly believed in and practiced mathematics as a social activity, having 511 different collaborators in his lifetime.
In terms of mathematical style, Erdős was much more of a "problem solver" than a "theory developer". (See "The Two Cultures of Mathematics" by Timothy Gowers for an in-depth discussion of the two styles, and why problem solvers are perhaps less appreciated.) Joel Spencer states that "his place in the 20th-century mathematical pantheon is a matter of some controversy because he resolutely concentrated on particular theorems and conjectures throughout his illustrious career." Erdős never won the highest mathematical prize, the Fields Medal, nor did he coauthor a paper with anyone who did, a pattern that extends to other prizes. He did win the Wolf Prize, where his contribution is described as "for his numerous contributions to number theory, combinatorics, probability, set theory and mathematical analysis, and for personally stimulating mathematicians the world over". In contrast, the works of the three winners after were recognized as "outstanding", "classic", and "profound", and the three before as "fundamental" or "seminal".
Of his contributions, the development of Ramsey theory and the application of the probabilistic method especially stand out. Extremal combinatorics owes to him a whole approach, derived in part from the tradition of analytic number theory. Erdős found a proof for Bertrand's postulate which proved to be far neater than Chebyshev's original one. He also discovered an elementary proof for the prime number theorem, along with Atle Selberg. However, the circumstances leading up to the proofs, as well as publication disagreements, led to a bitter dispute between Erdős and Selberg. Erdős also contributed to fields in which he had little real interest, such as topology, where he is credited as the first person to give an example of a totally disconnected topological space that is not zero-dimensional.
Throughout his career, Erdős would offer prizes for solutions to unresolved problems. These ranged from $25 for problems that he felt were just out of the reach of current mathematical thinking, to several thousand dollars for problems that were both difficult to attack and mathematically significant. There are thought to be at least a thousand such outstanding prizes, though there is no official or comprehensive list. The prizes remain active despite Erdős's death; Ronald Graham is the (informal) administrator of solutions. Winners can get either a check signed by Erdős (for framing only) or a cashable check from Graham.
Perhaps the most mathematically notable of these problems is the Erdős conjecture on arithmetic progressions:
- If the sum of the reciprocals of a sequence of integers diverges, then the sequence contains arithmetic progressions of arbitrary length.
If true, it would solve several other open problems in number theory (although one main implication of the conjecture, that the prime numbers contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions, has since been proved independently as the Green–Tao theorem). The problem is currently worth US$5000.
The most familiar problem with an Erdős prize is likely the Collatz conjecture, also called the 3N + 1 problem. Erdős offered $500 for a solution.
His most frequent collaborators include Hungarian mathematicians András Sárközy (62 papers) and András Hajnal (56 papers), and American mathematician Ralph Faudree (50 papers). Other frequent collaborators were
- Béla Bollobás (18 papers)
- Stefan Burr (27 papers)
- Fan Chung (14 papers)
- Zoltán Füredi (10 papers)
- Ron Graham (28 papers)
- András Gyárfás (15 papers)
- Richard R. Hall (14 papers)
- István Joó (12 papers)
- Eric Milner (15 papers)
- Melvyn Nathanson (19 papers)
- Jean-Louis Nicolas (19 papers)
- János Pach (21 papers)
- George Piranian (14 papers)
- Carl Pomerance (23 papers)
- Richard Rado (18 papers)
- A. R. Reddy (11 papers)
- Alfréd Rényi (32 papers)
- Pal Revesz (10 papers)
- Vojtěch Rödl (11 papers)
- C. C. Rousseau (35 papers)
- Richard Schelp (42 papers)
- John Selfridge (14 papers)
- Miklós Simonovits (21 papers)
- Vera Sós (35 papers)
- Joel Spencer (23 papers)
- Ernst G. Straus (20 papers)
- Endre Szemerédi (29 papers)
- Paul Turán (30 papers)
- Zsolt Tuza (12 papers)
For other co-authors of Erdős, see the list of people with Erdős number 1 in List of people by Erdős number.
Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He would typically show up at a colleague's doorstep and announce "my brain is open", staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.
His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems", and Erdős drank copious quantities. (This quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi.) After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper." After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use.
He had his own idiosyncratic vocabulary: Although an atheist, he spoke of "The Book", an imaginary book in which God had written down the best and most elegant proofs for mathematical theorems. Lecturing in 1985 he said, "You don't have to believe in God, but you should believe in The Book." He himself doubted the existence of God, whom he called the "Supreme Fascist" (SF). He accused the SF of hiding his socks and Hungarian passports, and of keeping the most elegant mathematical proofs to himself. When he saw a particularly beautiful mathematical proof he would exclaim, "This one's from The Book!". This later inspired a book entitled Proofs from THE BOOK.
Other idiosyncratic elements of Erdős's vocabulary include:
- Children were referred to as "epsilons" (because in mathematics, particularly calculus, an arbitrarily small positive quantity is commonly denoted by the Greek letter (ε))
- Women were "bosses"
- Men were "slaves"
- People who stopped doing mathematics had "died"
- People who physically died had "left"
- Alcoholic drinks were "poison"
- Music (except classical music) was "noise"
- People who had married were "captured"
- People who had divorced were "liberated"
- To give a mathematical lecture was "to preach"
- To give an oral exam to a student was "to torture" him/her.
Also, all countries which he thought failed to provide freedom to individuals as long as they did no harm to anyone else were classified as imperialist and given a name that began with a lowercase letter. For example, the U.S. was "samland" (after Uncle Sam), the Soviet Union was "joedom" (after Joseph Stalin), and Israel was "isreal". For his epitaph he suggested, "I've finally stopped getting dumber." (Hungarian: "Végre nem butulok tovább").
Because of his prolific output, friends created the Erdős number as a humorous tribute. An Erdős number describes a person's degree of separation from Erdős himself, based on their collaboration with him, or with another who has their own Erdős number. Erdős alone was assigned the Erdős number of 0 (for being himself), while his immediate collaborators could claim an Erdős number of 1, their collaborators have Erdős number at most 2, and so on. Approximately 200,000 mathematicians have an assigned Erdős number, and some have estimated that 90 percent of the world's active mathematicians have an Erdős number smaller than 8 (not surprising in light of the small world phenomenon). Due to collaborations with mathematicians, many scientists in fields such as physics, engineering, biology, and economics have Erdős numbers as well.
Jerry Grossman has written that it could be argued that Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball when Emory University awarded them honorary degrees on the same day. Erdős numbers have also been proposed for an infant, a horse, and several actors.
The Erdős number was most likely first defined by Casper Goffman, an analyst whose own Erdős number is 2. Goffman published his observations about Erdős's prolific collaboration in a 1969 article titled "And what is your Erdős number?"
- List of topics named after Paul Erdős – including conjectures, numbers, prizes, and theorems
- "Mathematics Genealogy Project". Retrieved 13 Aug 2012.
- Encyclopædia Britannica article
- Michael D. Lemonick (March 29, 1999). "Paul Erdos: The Oddball's Oddball". Time Magazine.
- "Erdos biography". Gap-system.org. Retrieved 2010-05-29.
- Baker, A.; Bollobas, B. (1999). "Paul Erdos. 26 March 1913 -- 20 September 1996: Elected For.Mem.R.S. 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 45: 147. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0011.
- Hoffman, p. 66.
- László Babai. "Paul Erdős just left town".
- Erdős's thesis advisor at the University of Budapest was Leopold Fejér (or Fejér Lipót), who was also the thesis advisor for John von Neumann, George Pólya, and Paul (Pál) Turán.
- The full quote is "Note the pair of long accents on the "ő," often (even in Erdos's own papers) by mistake or out of typographical necessity replaced by "ö," the more familiar German umlaut which also exists in Hungarian.", from Paul Erdős, D. Miklós, Vera T. Sós (1996). Combinatorics, Paul Erdős is eighty.
- "Erdos biography". School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland. January 2000. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
- László Babai and Joel Spencer. "Paul Erdős (1913–1996)" (PDF). Notices of the American Mathematical Society (American Mathematical Society) 45 (1).
- Letter from Erdős to University of Waterloo
- Transcription of October 2, 1996, article from University of Waterloo Gazette
- grave 17A-6-29
- Hoffman, p. 42.
- Jerry Grossman. "Publications of Paul Erdös". Retrieved 1 Feb 2011.
- Charles Krauthammer (September 27, 1996). "Paul Erdos, Sweet Genius". Washington Post. p. A25. "?".
- "The Erdős Number Project Data Files". Oakland.edu. 2009-05-29. Retrieved 2010-05-29.
- This essay is in Mathematics: Frontiers and Perspectives, Edited by V. I. Arnold, Michael Atiyah, Peter D. Lax and Barry Mazur, American Mathematical Society, 2000. Available online at .
- Joel Spencer, "Prove and Conjecture!", a review of Mathematics: Frontiers and Perspectives. American Scientist, Volume 88, No. 6 November–December 2000
- Paths to Erdös — The Erdös Number Project
- From "trails to Erdos", by DeCastro and Grossman, in The Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 21, no. 3 (Summer 1999), 51–63: A careful reading of Table 3 shows that although Erdos never wrote jointly with any of the 42 [Fields] medalists (a fact perhaps worthy of further contemplation)... there are many other important international awards for mathematicians. Perhaps the three most renowned...are the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, the Wolf Prize in Mathematics, and the Leroy P. Steele Prizes. ... Again, one may wonder why KAPLANSKY is the only recipient of any of these prizes who collaborated with Paul Erdös. (After this paper was written, collaborator Lovasz received the Wolf prize, making 2 in all).
- "Wolf Foundation Mathematics Prize Page". Wolffund.org.il. Retrieved 2010-05-29.
- Goldfeld, Dorian (2003). "The Elementary Proof of the Prime Number Theorem: an Historical Perspective". Number Theory: New York Seminar: 179–192.
- Baas, Nils A.; Skau, Christian F. (2008). "The lord of the numbers, Atle Selberg. On his life and mathematics". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 45 (4): 617–649. doi:10.1090/S0273-0979-08-01223-8
- Melvin Henriksen. "Reminiscences of Paul Erdös (1913–1996)". Mathematical Association of America. Retrieved 2008-09-01.
- Brent Wittmeier, "Math genius left unclaimed sum," Edmonton Journal, September 28, 2010. 
- Charles Seife (5 April 2002). "Erdös's Hard-to-Win Prizes Still Draw Bounty Hunters". Science 296 (5565): 39–40. doi:10.1126/science.296.5565.39. PMID 11935003.
- p. 354, Soifer, Alexander (2008); The Mathematical Coloring Book: Mathematics of Coloring and the Colorful Life of its Creators; New York: Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-74640-1
- List of collaborators of Erdős by number of joint papers, from the Erdős number project web site.
- Cited in at least 20 books.
- Biography of Alfréd Rényi by J.J. O'Connor and E.F. Robertson
- Bruno Schechter (2000), My Brain is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdős, p. 155, ISBN 0-684-85980-7
- Paul Erdős (1995). "Child Prodigies". Mathematics Competitions 8 (1): 7–15. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Hill, J. Paul Erdos, Mathematical Genius, Human (In That Order)
- Colm Mulcahy (03/26/2013). "Centenary of Mathematician Paul Erdős -- Source of Bacon Number Concept". Huffington Post. Retrieved 13 April 2013. "In his own words, "I'm not qualified to say whether or not God exists. I kind of doubt He does. Nevertheless, I'm always saying that the SF has this transfinite Book that contains the best proofs of all mathematical theorems, proofs that are elegant and perfect...You don't have to believe in God, but you should believe in the Book." (SF was his tongue- in-cheek reference to God as "the Supreme Fascist")."
- Jack Huberman (2008). Quotable Atheist: Ammunition for Nonbelievers, Political Junkies, Gadflies, and Those Generally Hell-Bound. Nation Books. p. 107. ISBN 9781568584195. "I kind of doubt He [exists]. Nevertheless, I'm always saying that the SF [Supreme Fascist-Erdos's customary name for G-d has this transfinite Book ... that contains the best proofs of all theorems, proofs that are elegant and perfect.... You don't have to believe in God, but you should believe in the Book."
- Nathalie Sinclair, William Higginson, ed. (2006). Mathematics and the Aesthetic: New Approaches to an Ancient Affinity. Springer. p. 36. ISBN 9780387305264. "Erdös, an atheist, named 'the Book' the place where God keeps aesthetically perfect proofs."
- Schechter, Bruce (2000). My brain is open: The mathematical journeys of Paul Erdős. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 70–71. ISBN 0-684-85980-7.
- Varadaraja Raman (2005). Variety in Religion And Science: Daily Reflections. iUniverse. p. 256. ISBN 9780595358403. "Erdös had a pungent wit. As an atheist who had suffered under fascist regimes, he described God as a Supreme Fascist."
- Hoffman, chapter 1. As included with the New York Times review of the book.
- Hoffman, p. 3.
- "From Benford to Erdös". Radio Lab. Episode 2009-10-09. 2009-09-30. http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2009/10/09/segments/137643.
- Jerry Grossman. "Some Famous People with Finite Erdös Numbers". Retrieved 1 Feb 2011.
- Jerry Grossman. "Items of Interest Related to Erdös Numbers".
- Extended Erdős Number Project
- Michael Golomb's obituary of Paul Erdős
- https://files.oakland.edu/users/grossman/enp/ErdosA.html from the Erdos Number Project
- Goffman, Casper (1969). "And what is your Erdős number?". American Mathematical Monthly 76 (7): 791. doi:10.2307/2317868. JSTOR 2317868.
- Aigner, Martin; Günther Ziegler (2003). Proofs from THE BOOK. Berlin; New York: Springer. ISBN 3-540-40460-0.
- Csicsery, George Paul (2005). N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős. Berlin; Heidelberg: Springer Verlag. ISBN 3-540-22469-6. - DVD
- 1993 documentary film "N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős" by George Paul Csicsery.
- Hoffman, Paul (1998). The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth. London: Fourth Estate Ltd. ISBN 1-85702-811-2.
- Kolata, Gina (1996-09-24). "Paul Erdos, 83, a Wayfarer In Math's Vanguard, Is Dead". New York Times. pp. A1 and B8. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- Bruce Schechter (1998). My Brain is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdős. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84635-7.
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|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Paul Erdős|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Paul Erdős.|
- Erdős's Scholar Google profile
- Searchable collection of (almost) all papers of Erdős
- O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Paul Erdős", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
- Paul Erdős at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
- Jerry Grossman at Oakland University. The Erdös Number Project
- The Man Who Loved Only Numbers - Royal Society Public Lecture by Paul Hoffman (video)
- Paul Erdös: N is a number - (Documentary) Contains footage of Erdös lecturing and in conversation.
- Radiolab: Numbers, with a story on Paul Erdős
- Fan Chung, "Open problems of Paul Erdős in graph theory"