If you haven't read many math articles you may not be familiar with Paul Erdős, which is your loss.

Although he was famous and the recipient of many awards, worldly goods meant little to him; and as a philanthropist, he donated most of the money he got from awards or other sources to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a "vagabond," travelling 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 he (Erdős) should visit next. His working style has been humorously compared to traversing a linked list.

As his colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems,” and Erdős drank plenty of it. After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, who bet him $500 that he could not stop taking amphetamines for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that mathematics had been set back by a month. He complained, "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." The bet won, he promptly resumed his habit.

He had his own idiosyncratic vocabulary: 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), but accused the SF of hiding his socks, Hungarian passport, and the best equations. When he saw a particularly beautiful mathematical proof he would exclaim, "This one's from The Book!". Other idiosyncratic elements of Erdős' vocabulary include: children were referred to as "epsilons"; women were "bosses"; men were "slaves"; people who stopped doing math had "died"; people who died had "left"; alcoholic drinks were "poison"; music was "noise"; and, to give a mathematical lecture was "to preach." 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 Imperialism 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 referred to as "israel." For his epitaph he suggested the saying "Finally I am becoming stupider no more" (Hungarian: "Végre nem butulok tovább").

Truly a strange and invaluable man. Also of interest may be the Erdős number: because Paul Erdős published more than 1500 articles, most with co-authors, modern mathematicians keep track of the degrees of authoring that separate them from his prodigious record (similar to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).



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