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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sunday Reflection

A conjecture both deep and profound
Is whether the circle is round.
In a paper of Erdös
Written in Kurdish
A counterexample is found.

      -- by a colleague of Paul Erdös

This Sunday I've been thinking about that worshiper of the Supreme Fascist, Paul Erdös

I often recall Doug Hofstadter's words in tribute to Martin Gardner, noting how peculiar it was that someone who wrote such a large, excellent body of work as Martin, and had such a devoted following, was nonetheless unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Although they were widely different individuals, the same could be said of Paul Erdös, who I suspect is unknown to 99% of Americans. Even if his contributions to mathematics were more average (instead of being the most prolific math paper author in history), he ought be better known for the sheer entertaining eccentricity of his life. A novelist couldn't invent Paul Erdös and have him be a believable figure, so odd/unique a character was he.

The classic popular work on his life is Paul Hoffman's "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers," a volume every math buff should read.
There is also a more recent award-winning volume geared especially to young people entitled, "The Boy Who Loved Math: the improbable life of Paul Erdös" by Deborah Heiligman.

Anyway, just a few reflective quotes from Paul for this Sunday morn:

"God may not play dice with the universe, but something strange is going on with the prime numbers."

"Why are numbers beautiful? It's like asking why is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don't see why, someone can't tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren't beautiful, nothing is."

"The purpose of life is to prove and to conjecture."

By the way, the epitaph Erdös purportedly suggested for his grave was, "I've finally stopped getting dumber" -- now, ya gotta love that! [...can't you just imagine that as the new American euphemism for dying... instead of the NY Times reporting that "So-and-So passed away last week at the age of...." it would be "So-and-So stopped getting dumber last week at the age of...."]

For all his brilliance, Erdös was also one of those famous mathematicians who had difficulty with the "Monty Hall puzzle" when it first hit the scene, believing Marilyn vos Savant had blown the answer. It took computer simulations to finally convince him of her answer's correctness.

Erdős was also known for his own idiosyncratic terminology which included the following:

Children were "epsilons"
Women were "bosses"
Men were "slaves"
(...ahhh, so bosses and slaves sometimes had epsilons together)
People who stopped doing mathematics had "died"
Music (other than classical) was "noise"
People who married were "captured"
People who divorced were "liberated"
Giving a mathematics lecture was "preaching"
And, as indicated above, God was "the Supreme Fascist" who retained "the BOOK" of great math proofs (Erdös was actually an agnostic-atheist)

As we celebrate the Centennial of Martin Gardner's birth this year, worth noting that a little over a year ago was the centennial of Erdös' birth (he died in 1996... and no doubt by now has peeked at, and committed to memory, all chapters of the BOOK ;-).

Lastly, here's a 10-min. clip from an Erdös documentary:

[p.s… I tend to just stumble across topics I use here for Sunday "meditations" or "reflections"… But if YOU have a favorite passage, quotation, or subject to share that you think mathematics lovers might enjoy contemplating on a Sunday morning please send it along to me (sheckyr@gmail.com) for consideration, and if used, I'll note the contributor.]

quick ADDENDUM: Fawn Nguyen just passed along to me mention of a second Erdös biography that I was unaware of, but looks great: "My Brain Is Open" by Bruce Schecter (title coming from a famous phrase of Erdös).

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