Paul Erdos was the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, and probably one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He published more mathematics than almost anyone in history (except for Euler, who kept publishing even after he went blind), and he collaborated with more coauthors than anyone else EVER. In fact, he collaborated with so many people that everyone else in the mathematical community started keeping track of how many degrees of co-authorship connection they were separated from Erdos by (he exchanged mathematical ideas promiscuously, so almost everybody had one), and hence the Erdos number was born.
As an adolescent, the mathematical giants of the past were my version of gods and heroes (Archimedes and Fermat being two of my favorites), and most of them seemed as distant in space and time as King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, but Erdos landed a lot closer to home: he was in residence at the University of Memphis, an hour away from where I was growing up, sometime when I was between between the ages diapers and discovering math. This was an empowering revelation when it came to me later, comparable to the time I was assigned a teaching staff mailbox at San Diego State University and discovered that I shared the mailroom with Vernor Vinge (a computer scientist and science fiction author who is another one of my heroes).
Paul Erdos did math roughly 20 hours per day for most of his long adult life. You might say a few sacrifices were made along the way. Paul never owned anything, never kept any money (whatever he made or was gifted he gave away to scholarship funds), and never could take care of himself. After his mother died, he was helpless to do so much as butter his own bread. He traveled from city to city with all his belongings in two suitcases (which were half empty). Fortunately there was always some cutting edge mathematics department willing to take ol’ Paul in, and the faculty members, who catered to his every need, considered it a rare and priceless opportunity to be connected with this gem of the mathematical community.
If you asked ol’ Paul what his secret was, you might have gotten him to tell you it was being addicted to speed (one of those suitcases typically contained a pharmacopeia to rival that of Hunter S. Thompson). But, he would have added, don’t tell the kids–they shouldn’t do it.
Why he’s my hero: Paul lived a life of total passion and total selfless contribution. He was also a great inspirer, a great connector, and lived fruitfully to a ripe old age. Here’s to you Paul, for being weird and loved for it.
Here are a couple of biographies of Paul Erdos: