N is a Number : A Portrait of Paul Erdős is one of the most delightful, endearing and probably one of the best documentaries I have seen on an individual. I have always regarded Paul Erdős as one of my personal heroes and hence It seems weird that I had not seen this rather old documentary earlier. Especially given it’s extremely high quality, appeal and not to mention the character it is based on. However, it is never late to discover something so good.
There is an extremely good wikipedia entry on Paul Erdős. However I would still write a few words on him before linking to the videos.
A Mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.
— An extremely famous quote attributed to Alfréd Rényi. It was originally intended for Hungarian mathematicians and the mathematical-circles culture that flourished there giving the world so many mathematical giants.
Erdős was an extremely prolific and famously eccentric mathematician, producing more papers and collaborating with more people than anybody in history. His eccentricity made him an extremely lovable character, and he made a fair share in contributing to human comedy.
He had no home and no full time job, he traveled around the world for half a century. Surviving on living with collaborators, fees from lectures and other appearances. His dis-interest in anything carnal or materialistic was almost Zen like I would dare say. Just having two pairs of half empty suitcases as his only belongings as he moved along from one location onto another.
It is often said (and quite correctly) that if you finish all bees in the world, the world would not survive for long. We could use that as an allegory for the sciences /mathematics as well. Erdős was essentially a bee. Brilliant in many areas of mathematics, he traveled from place to place using one idea from one area into another, cross-pollinating them, generating interest with his lovable anecdotes and enriching Mathematics as a consequence. A welcome departure from the so called purists.
His mathematical output was so prolific that a tribute is the famous Erdős number that gives the collaborative distance of a mathematician with him. The reason for such astounding output was not just his love for only mathematics but a brilliant memory. Colleagues have remarked that he could remember problems discussed years ago and exactly what the details that were talked about. If a mathematical problem was left half way, he could still remember where was the point they stopped, even if revisited after years. Not just that, he had this knack of knowing the mind of other mathematicians in where their interests lay. So he knew who would like to work on what kind of problems.
Though Mathematics was his only love, his knowledge was extremely wide and he could talk with most people about most things they might be interested in. Almost educated in the classical European style, with interests spreading across other basic sciences, politics, history. literature etc.
His work was not rich just in quantity. He displayed an extremely good taste in choosing and posing problems. The solutions to some of which have resulted in entirely new areas of Mathematics. Paul Erdős had been a towering figure even while he was alive, but as more time passes by, he only grows taller.
N is a Number : A Portrait of Paul Erdős – Videos
Total Runtime : 57 Minutes
– Based on the book “The man who only loves numbers” by Paul Hoffman.
– Made by George Paul Csicsery 1993
– Narrated by James Locker
– Music by Mark Adler (I have to mention the music as I thought it was pretty beautiful, especially towards the end)
Hat Tip : To Dr Vitorino Ramos’ ever thoughtful blog