Paul Erdos, the wandering dervish

It’s 1999 and I am reading in a special issue of Time magazine about the geniuses of the second millennium: Einstein, Einstein, Einstein and finally a short article about this “mad looking” guy and W O W…I discovered a wandering dervish, a nomadic mathematician: Paul Erdos!

Both his parents were high school mathematics teachers. Erdos (pronounced AIR-dosh) was as generous as he was brilliant with his ideas—never hoarding them and always sharing them with whoever was ready to give him a place to stay and work with him on the joyous and collaborative activity of mathematics: he would show up at their doorstep and say:” My Mind is Open!”

And this is how the myth of the Erdos Number or the “collaborative distance” between an author and Erdos was created: Erdos himself is assigned Erdos number 0. Mathematicians who have written papers with Erdos (511 by 2007) receive Erdos number 1. Writing a paper with someone having Erdos Number 1 earns the author Erdos Number 2, etc…
I made this image of the name of the 8,162 people with the Erdos Number of 2:

Addicted to coffee and amphetamines he was most of the time, super alert, achingly lucid. He wrote papers with more than 500 people, the optimum” intellectual promiscuity”…

Finding  that “property is nuisance,” Erdos had no home, no car, no checks to write and no income taxes to pay; a mathematical pilgrim with no home and no job: the real wandering dervish who founded the field of discrete mathematics, which is the foundation of computer science. “In the years before the Internet, there was Paul Erdos.”

To check out the funny side of the ‘collaborative distance” visit

Here are some funny quotes by Erdos:

“Finally I’m becoming stupider no more…”

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

“There are three signs of senility. The first sign is that a man forgets his theorems. The second sign is that he forgets to zip up. The third sign is that he forgets to zip down.”

To see Erdos tell a funny joke go here

To see parts of N is a number, a documentary about him by George Paul Csicsery, go here

Today is my blog’s third anniversary!

6 thoughts on “Paul Erdos, the wandering dervish

  1. Dear Michele

    This incisive and rivetting. Brilliant. Thank you for Sharing with us.

    I would certainly like to see this Documentary.

    Regard s


  2. salam az e_mailhaye shoma khyli lezat mibaram va tashakor mikonam.

    beshoma tabrik migam bsyar honarmand hastin.

    doustdare shoma

  3. I read and enjoyed your piece on Paul Erdos. I spent several minutes looking for my name in the display of those with Erdos number 2, looking for it in small print, before realizing that it was in LARGE print (Thank you. I guess it pays to have a personal connection with the artist 😉 I thought the documentary on Erdos by Csicsery was very well done, showing his life, the nature of mathematics, the impact of his work, and also the human being behind it (warts and all). I know most of the people that were on camera. Ron Graham was a grad student at Berkeley when I was an undergrad and the coauthor that connected me to Erdos. I particularly liked Bollobas’s comments about the letters he got from Erdos with problems and conjectures. In one of my encounters with Erdos, at a conference in Rome in the early seventies, he gave me an insight that turned out to be very important for my work. It extended something in one of my earlier papers, showing that he had read and appreciated it. I had not realized that he did the same with everybody else.

  4. Dear Michele

    Thanks for introducing and sharing insight on Paul Erdos.. I may add his this Quote:
    “If number’s aren’t beautiful, I don’t know what is.”

    Paul Erdos: An Infinity of Problems

    “One never knew where Erdos was, not even the country,” Richard Bellman wrote in Eye of the Hurricane. “However, one could be sure that during the year … Erdos was everywhere. He was the nearest thing to an ergodic particle that a human being could be.”

    “This would imply that the primes contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions,” Erdos remarked. “This would be really nice. And I don’t expect to have to pay this money, but I should leave some money for it in case I leave.”

    He continued parenthetically, “There I mean leave on the trip for which one doesn’t need a passport.”

    Erdos had once remarked that mathematics is eternal because it has an infinity of problems. In the same spirit, his own contributions have enriched mathematics. Erdos problems — solved and unsolved — abound in the mathematical literature, lying in wait to provoke thought and elicit surprise.

    By- Ivars Peterson.- MAA.Org

    In case any one wish to pursue- List of topics named after Paul Erdős

  5. Erdős Pali was a good friend although he never had an apartment of his own but a battered suitcase. He parachuted himself on people offering a math puzzle to be solved. His hosts were of course
    mathematicians. He published with them over a thousand papers, all important and arcane at the same time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *