Paul Erdős: Another Hungarian Genius

Paul Erdős and his Mother

Paul Erdős and his Mother

I am currently writing an article for the Magyar Szó on Paul Erdős as part of the series, Famous Hungarians. Before I started researching for the article, I knew next-to-nothing about him, other than he was Hungarian and had something to do with mathematics. What a truly fascinating character in turned out to be! First of all he was born at the end of what I think was the most fertile, prosperous and extraordinary time in modern Hungarian history, perhaps matched by the glory of Mathias reign in the 15th Century. That time was of course the decades after the Compromise of 1867 and outbreak of World War I. These nearby forty years produced many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century such Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Leo Sziliard, Andre Kertesz, Frank Capa – the list goes on and on. Nearly of these individuals were born in Budapest and many were Jewish. For some reason the creativity and intelligence found fertile ground in Budapest at this time. Erdős was born into this great circle in 1913.

What is remarkable about his early life is how protected he was by his Mother – no doubt spurred by the loss of her two daughters to scarlet fever a few days before Erd&;#337;s was born and that her husband was a prisoner of war for nearly six years. She did everything for Paul apparently. He didn’t tie is own shoes till 14 and didn’t know how to butter toast at 21! Amazing. Throughout his life he never bothered with the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday tasks of like such as cooking, washing clothes, learning to drive, having a bank account, cooking a meal, mowing the lawns, getting a mortgage… you get the picture.

Erdős was always looked after by a wide circle of friends who found him stimulating to be around. Thus he always had people to take care of such things. But he was an extraordinary generous man. Once when a student sought to repay a $1000 that Erdős that given to him so that he could go to Harvard, Erdős refused to accept the repayment. But what should I do with the money, the student asked. “What I did with it”, came the reply.

I always try to finds the Hungarianness in such people, even after they invariably leave Hungary. Erdős, like many Hungarians loved language and word-plays. His use of English was consistently quirky as with many Hungarians. He was also concerned with becoming senile and he fretted constantly about old-age. he combined his love of language and his neurosis when he parodied some lines from Pétőfi’s famous poem, One Thought/Egy gondolat bánt engemet.. when he wrote, ‘One thought disturbs me, that I may decease/In slowing progressing Alzheimer’s disease.’ A particularly amusing example of his peculiar use of language was when he mother, who began to learn English at the age of 84, asked him, “Pálko, what is the English word for ‘szilva’ [plum]?”. “Plimm, mother, plimm.”, was his reply. Anyone who has heard a Hungarian speak English with that ‘quirkiness’ they seem to possess, will appreciate how funny that must have sounded.

I am not all qualified to judge is contribution to mathematics but his output was prolific – some 1500 papers – over his long life-time. Indeed it lead to the development of the concept known as “Erdős Number”. This is used by mathematicians, and other scientists too, to measure their ‘collaborative closeness to having worked on a paper with Erdős. For example, if you co-authored a paper with Erd?s you had an Erdős number of 1, if you co-authored a paper with someone who had an Erdős number of 1, then your Erdős Number was 2. And so on. Naturally his own Erdős number was 0! Mathematicians in particular treasure there Erdős number as a badge of honour. Those with a number of 3 or less are considered notable in their own right. Needless to say, a goodly number of these are Hungarians. But not only mathematicians are measured by their Erdős number. If you look at Nobel Prize winners in Physics, Chemistry or even Economics you see many with a Erdős Number of 2, 3 or 4. Albert Einstein as an Erdős number of 2 and even Bill Gates of Microsoft fame has an Erdős number of 4.

A wonderful man and another Hungarian genius! I’ll post the full article once it is published in the Magyar Szó.

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