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September 20: Paul Erdös, World Mathematician

September 20, 2013

Paul Erdös, one of the most prolific, collaborative, and peripatetic mathematicians in history, was born to two Jewish math teachers in Budapest on this date in 1913. He was a child prodigy and received his doctorate in mathematics at age 21. Driven from Hungary by anti-Semitism, he took a post at Princeton in 1938, but spent much of his career moving from university to university and conference to conference. His native country, although tightly controlled by a communist government, permitted him after 1956 to come and go as he pleased, but in the 1970s Erdös refused to enter Hungary as long as the country was denying entry to Israelis. He was also denied reentry to the U.S. during the McCarthy period, and boycotted the country and its institutions of higher learning until the government changed its mind in 1963. In his lifetime Erdös did mathematics in twenty-five different countries and published nearly 1,500 mathematical papers with more than 500 collaborators. He viewed math as a collaborative science and offered numerous cash prizes for the solutions to problems that he posed. Erdös referred to God as “the Supreme Fascist” and declared the purpose of life to keeping be the Supreme Fascist’s “score” low by acting in good conscience. He died at 83 in 1996. To see him telling a joke, look below.

“He lived out of a shabby suitcase and a drab orange plastic bag from . . . a large department store in Budapest. In a never-ending search for good mathematical problems and fresh mathematical talent, Erdös crisscrossed four continents at a frenzied pace, moving from one university or research center to the next. His modus operandi was to show up on the doorstep of a fellow mathematician, declare, ‘My brain is open,‘work with his host for a day or two, until he was bored or his host was run down, and then move on to another home.” —Paul Hoffman