Mathematical truth is immutable; it lies outside physical reality … This is our belief; this is our core motivating force. Yet our attempts to describe this belief to our nonmathematical friends are akin to describing the Almighty to an atheist. Paul embodied this belief in mathematical truth. His enormous talents and energies were given entirely to the Temple of Mathematics. He harbored no doubts about the importance, the absoluteness, of his quest.
This is how American mathematician Joel Spencer remembers the now legendary late Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős (1913–1996). Throughout his life, the nomadic Erdős was known for many things, not least of all his personal eccentricities, unimaginable cognitive abilities and purity of mission.
Born in Austria-Hungary two years before the breakout of World War I, he thought himself mathematics from books and could multiply three-digit numbers in his head before the age of four. Living out of a suitcase traveling from university to university, throughout his life he survived off speaking fees and modest endowments from various universities. As a teenager, he reproved Chebyshev’s theorem before the age of 20. He was awarded a doctorate in mathematics in addition to his undergraduate degree at age 21. In his 83 years of life, he published over 1500 academic papers with more than 500 collaborators, making him the most prolific mathematician in history, comparable only with Leonard Euler.
Here’s to Paul Erdős, who dedicated his life solely to mathematics — and his friends.