Thursday, November 18, 2010
Paul Erdós was a Hungarian mathematician who was kept indoors for the majority of his formative years where his only entertainment were the math and physics books left lying around by his professor parents. By the age of 21 he already had a doctorate in mathematics.
Not too much later he became a vagabond, carrying all his possessions with him in one suitcase. He would arrive at the houses of colleagues who were working on something particularly interesting to him and exclaim "my brain is open." Although he was exceptionally brilliant he could do very little else. While staying with you you would have to cook for him, clean up after him, and wash his silk clothing (which he wore due to a skin condition). He was addicted to methamphetamine and therefore did math nearly 20 hours a day, often waking his hosts up with pots and pans to join him.
Erdós had a number of other quirks such as calling children "epsilons" and God the "Supreme Fascist." Every mathematician in the world knows their "Paul Erdós Number." If you published a paper with him you have a number of 1. Publishing a paper with someone with a number of 1 would give you a number of 2, and so forth.
There are brilliant minds like his scattered throughout history whom we owe a little bit of remembrance to even just to realize how utterly strange they were. Erós died in 1996 at the age of 83.
(all this information was gleaned from wikipedia and the RadioLab "numbers" podcast)