Biography of Paul Erdos

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Paul Erdos


Mathematics is the oldest science and the foundation of all human knowledge. The earliest efforts to ascend from superstition to reason came about because men discovered mathematics while studying the stars. Isaac Newton said that mathematics is the language of nature and he was surely right.

Therefore the contributions of Paul Erdos, a Jewish mathematician born in Hungary, may well be unknown to the vast majority of us, yet are of great importance to that queen of sciences.

Erdos wrote over 1,000 papers on various aspects of number theory . Therefore, he is regarded as the most prolific (proles = children in Latin) of mathematicians by his colleagues. He collaborated with numerous other mathematicians, so that those who had the honor of doing so were given the Erdos number 1 by their colleagues and those who collaborated with someone who had actually written a paper with Erdos were given the Erdos number 2.

Erdos started his career at the age of 20 when he discovered that for each integer greater than 1, there is always at least one prime number between it and its double. Thereafter, Erdos astounded the mathematical world with an elementary proof of the Prime Number Theorem.

Utterly uninterested in money, Erdos gave away prize money that he won as a result of his great ability. For example, in 1983 he won the Wolf Prize, which paid him $50,000. The Wolf prize honors lifetime achievement. He gave all but $750 to other mathematicians.

 Paul Erdos was born in Buda-Pest, Hungary, in 1913 and died in Warsaw, Poland while attending a conference in 1996. Both his mother and his father were mathematics teachers.  At age three he amused people by multiplying three digit numbers in his head. That same year he discovered the negative numbers for himself. Taught at home by his mother, he nevertheless earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest in 1933 at the age of 20. From there he went to England for one year and then came to the U.S.  By 1934 Hungary had become a Nazi-style dictatorship under Admiral Horty, a collaborator with Hitler who imposed anti-Jewish laws on the Hungarian community as early as 1934. Therefore Erdos never returned to his native land.

Erdos seldom stayed long in one place. He spent all of his time traveling from one mathematical conference to another or visiting mathematicians all over the U.S. and Europe. In all of these encounters he solved innumerable mathematical problems, working 19 hour days. He used coffee, Benzedrine and caffeine tablets to stay awake.

Numerous other Jews have contributed immensely to mathematics. Included in that long list is Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), born in the United States and one of the earliest American contributors to control theory, which he called cybernetics. The word “Cyber” is Greek and may be translated as “steerer” or “pilot”. The word “government” is derived from it.

Kenneth Appel solved the most famous of all mathematical problems, the so-called “four color” theorem .This showed, with the use of computers, that any two dimensional map can be filled in with four colors without any adjacent countries showing the same color.

There are many more Jewish contributions to this fascinating enterprise. There may be those who will ask what good this is and how much use one can make of all these theories. Here is the answer. In 1850 the British mathematician George Boole (1815-1864) invented Boolean algebra. For years this seemed no more than the idiosyncrasy of a benighted professor. Yet today, every college teaches Boolean algebra because it is the basis of computer science.

Mathematics is a storehouse of knowledge. It may not seem of any use now or next year. Nevertheless, we take from that storehouse when we need what it contains. It is mankind’s greatest invention. Enjoy it.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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