The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth

“MY BRAIN IS OPEN,” Paul Erdős announced from a colleague’s doorstep. Five foot six, frail with white hair, a gray jacket, and thick glasses, Erdős had arrived, perhaps without warning, holding a half-empty suitcase and a plastic bag. Together these containers held almost all of his possessions. Here was the world’s most prolific mathematician with, by the end of his life, roughly 1,500 mathematical papers to his name. It was time to do math. In Paul Hoffman’s book, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and The Search for Mathematical Truth, Louise Straus, wife of late Ernst Straus, describes him like this:

“We never knew how many days he was going to stay. I remember during the night hearing crashing sounds. The windows had no sash cords. If you opened the lock, they’d come crashing down. He was such an intelligent man but he could never figure out how to gently lower the windows. He was the real absent-minded professor. He couldn’t figure out how to manage the shower. He could never shut the faucets off. Water ran out on the floor. The linoleum buckled, and the door wouldn’t shut again. He’d go outside to the pay phone and drop coins in it all night, calling mathematicians around the world and asking nearby friends to come over to our place. ‘I’m at the Straus house,’ he’d tell them. He never asked us first if we wanted more guests. He’d just invite all the mathematicians over. But, I must say, my husband loved it. They knocked all sorts of ideas around. A lot of good mathematics came out of it.”

Erdős was always doing math. At conferences, he’d skip the lectures, gathering mathematicians into a hotel room to orchestrate multifaceted problem-solving sessions. Hoffman, who had the pleasure of attending one of these sessions, describes a scene of mathematicians “sprawled across two double beds and the floor,” while Erdős, seated in a chair, spurted “flashes of insight,” trying to squeeze every last drop of mathematical truth from their brains. Erdős had a knack for pairing mathematicians with the perfect problem, a problem that lay at the edge of his or her ability. To add incentive, he put bounties on problems: five bucks to answer this easy question, but a thousand for this one here because it involves a complex arithmetic progression. “We had this problem that had gotten under our skin,” his good friend and fellow mathematician Ronald Graham recounts, “and at first we couldn’t do anything to it. Well, at least do something, Paul would urge. Crack it. Break it open a little bit. Then someone else will figure out how to break it open a little bit more.”

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