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Paul Erdős

“Paul Erdős was one of the most brilliant and prolific mathematicians of the twentieth century. He was also, as Paul Hoffman documents in his book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, a true eccentric—a ‘mathematical monk’ who lived out of a pair of suitcases, dressed in tattered suits, and gave away almost all the money he earned, keeping just enough to sustain his meager lifestyle; a hopeless bachelor who was extremely (perhaps abnormally) devoted to his mother and never learned to cook or even boil his own water for tea; and a fanatic workaholic who routinely put in nineteen-hour days, sleeping only a few hours a night.

Erdős liked to work in short, intense collaborations with other mathematicians, and he crisscrossed the globe seeking fresh talent, often camping out in colleagues’ homes while they worked on a problem together. One such colleague remembered an Erdos visit from the 1970s:

… he only needed three hours of sleep. He’d get up early and write letters, mathematical letters. He’d sleep downstairs. The first time he stayed, the clock was set wrong. It said 7:00, but it was really 4:30 A.M. He thought we should be up working, so he turned on the TV full blast. Later, when he knew me better, he’d come up at some early hour and tap on the bedroom door. ‘Ralph, do you exist?’ The pace was grueling. He’d want to work from 8:00 A.M. until 1:30 A.M. Sure we’d break for short meals but we’d write on napkins and talk math the whole time. He’d stay a week or two and you’d collapse at the end.

Erdős owed his phenomenal stamina to amphetamines—he took ten to twenty milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily. Worried about his drug use, a friend once bet Erdős that he wouldn’t be able to give up amphetamines for a month. Erdős took the bet and succeeded in going cold turkey for thirty days. When he came to collect his money, he told his friend, ‘You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.’ After the bet, Erdős promptly resumed his amphetamine habit, which he supplemented with shots of strong espresso and caffeine tablets. ‘A mathematician,’ he liked to say, ‘is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.'”

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From the section on Paul Erdős in Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

Erdős also had a distinctive lexicon which he used regardless if his audience understood its terms or not. For instance, although he was an atheist, Erdős spoke of “The Book” — a hypothetical volume into which God had poured his most nebulous mathematical proofs. He would frequently declare, “You don’t have to believe in God, but you should believe in The Book.”

Moreover, while he doubted the existence of God, he referred to the divine as the “Supreme Fascist,” or SF, which he accused of hiding his socks and Hungarian passports, and of concealing the most exquisite mathematical concepts and proofs from man. Often Erdős would declare, after discovering an especially beautiful mathematical proof, “This one’s from The Book!”.

Some other terms from Erdős’s dictionary:

– 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”
– Music was “noise”
– To give a mathematical lecture was “to preach”
– To give an oral exam to a student was “to torture” him/her.

Erdős’s affirmative mantra was, “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.”

He also declared, “Why are numbers beautiful? It’s like asking why is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is.”

For his epitaph, he suggested, “Végre nem butulok tovább,” which is Hungarian for “I’ve finally stopped getting dumber.”

Erdős is also the only person to have an Erdős number of 0.