On March 26th, 1913, Paul Erdos was born in Budapest, Hungary, one of the greatest unknown mathematical minds of the 20th century. Upon birth, baby Erdos was immediately exposed to a number-rich environment, and with math practically a fundamental building block of his DNA, Erdos raced straight out of the womb and into the entrancing world of calculations.
Indeed, at the wee age of 3, Erdos was multiplying two, 3-digit numbers together with ease, and at age 4, the child grasped the concept of negative numbers without wincing. It is clear that Erdos was prolific in math from the get-go. However, his love for numbers stems from somewhat somber origins.
As a child, Erdos spent countless hours exploring his parents’ math books in solitude, as his father was thrown into a Russian POW camp for several years, and his mother’s job often meant that she was out of the house for prolonged periods of time. In the absence of human company, Erdos formed a very special bond with numbers, even stating that:
“I fell in love with numbers at a young age, they were my friends. I could depend on them to always be there and always behave in the same way.”
A true numberphile, the trajectory of Paul Erdos is not difficult to predict. Indeed, he studied mathematics at the Péter Pázmány University in Budapest, and later completed his PhD in the field.
Throughout his studies, Erdos was smitten with prime numbers, and as a Jew, he not only believed in God, but he strongly conjectured that God (whom he called the Supreme Fascist, or SF), possessed a “transfinite book,” which held the key to all mathematical problems in the existence of the universe.
If such a book did exist, Erdos was the mathematician who could find it. Why? Well, for starters, he was a computational machine. In fact, he famously stated that:
“A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.”
His incredible friendship with numbers and lightning-speed brain enabled Erdos to crank out a flabbergasting 1,500 mathematical works in his lifetime. Having produced such a massive volume of texts, it is no wonder, then, that Erdos alludes to coffee as being his magic helper. Indeed, day-in and day-out, he was fueled with a potent mixture of caffeine and amphetamines. Though clearly this diet is far from healthy, his endless calculus and feverish passion towards mathematics lead to the achievement of numerous amazing feats.
During his college years, Erdos and his Jewish college buddies banded together, and created the Ramsey Theorem, which states that absolute disorder is impossible and that patterns can always be found. Additionally, Erdos and a colleague derived the Prime Number Theorem in 1949, which describes the frequency of primes in ever larger numbers. He even co-created the mathematical branch of probabilistic number theory, and made important contributions across the spectrum of mathematics, mostly notably in number theory and combinatorics.
Due to rampant anti-semitism in Hungary, Erdos fled to England in the early 1930s, where he completed his post-doc at the University of Manchester. Eventually, he wound up in the US, where he would play a game of leapfrog with universities, hopping from Princeton to Purdue, and Stanford to the next.
Because Erdos wasn’t chained to a single faculty position, and because he had no wife or kids of his own, Erdos transformed into a rogue mathematician who was free to work on whatever problems he wanted, whenever he wanted. In fact, he would show up at the doorstep of his colleagues without warning, and proclaim:
“My brain is open.”
As a result of his immense contributions to mathematics, Erdos received the Wolf Prize in 1984, which is the most honorable gift that one in his field could receive. He continued to work fervently until 1986, when at the age of 83, he was stopped dead in his tracks by a heart attack.
Beyond mathematics, the story of Paul Erdos is that of a man who embodied passion in the flesh. His childhood entrancement with all things number (and perhaps a tad too much coffee), crowned Erdos a mathematical king–and one who deserves to be known as well as Albert Einstein.