The eternal language of numbers is reborn as a form of communication that people all over the world can use—and, increasingly, must use
BRILLIANCE with numbers is a curious thing. Paul Erdos, a Hungarian who died in 1996, used to travel the world and stop briefly at the offices and homes of fellow mathematicians. “My brain is open,” he would announce as, with uncanny intuition, he suggested a problem that, without realising it, his host was already half-way to solving. Together they would find the solution.
In a discipline-wide joke, grateful mathematicians still use “Erdos numbers” to indicate how close they were to contact with the great man: “Erdos 1” describes his co-authors, “Erdos 2” indicates their co-authors, and so on. And in all seriousness, the fruits of Erdos’s 83-year life include more than 1,500 jointly authored publications, and a network that extends via his collaborators not only into most areas of mathematics but into many other fields—physics, biology, linguistics and more.