February 28, 2007

Worth Watching

Dr. X posts this from Buda, or Pest:

"KCSM is running a feature tonight, N is a Number, an excellent documentary on the brilliant and eccentric number theorist Paul Erdős. He was one of the most prolific mathematical researchers who ever lived, and perhaps the only math tramp the world has ever known. Just as Bronstein was a chess artist, Erdős was a math artist - utterly preoccupied with his work, and, like Bronstein, endlessly evading the grasp of authority. For most of his career he had no fixed address or institutional affiliation.

"He'd walk into people's offices, comin' out of nowhere, and say 'my mind is open'. Not just the big shots - grad students, too, anyone he thought might be interested in doing some work. He had a knack for figuring out which mathematicians would be most interested in a particular problem, and getting them involved in the solution.

"He did a lot of work on randomness, and how structure can emerge from it. But as time went on people figured out the questions and problems he was asking about weren't random. They were pieces of metatheories in his head, and as answers accumulated, entire new fields of mathematics began to emerge (light stuff, like Ramsey Theory and the probabilistic method).

"Where'd he come from? He born in Budapest in 1913, the child of two Jewish mathematicians. Life was hard, and then the Nazis showed up. He escaped Hungary in 1938 - when he came back ten years later his mother was still alive, but many friends and other family members had been killed.

"He had an interesting bit of theology. He called God 'The Supreme Fascist' or SF (not too far from Horgan's sympathy for the Gnostic view of things). He conceptualized life as a game, with the following rules:

"1) If you do something bad, the SF gets 2 points.
"2) If you don't do something good you should have done, the SF gets one point.
"3) The aim is to keep the SF's score low.
"4) You never score, so the SF always wins.

"Which doesn't seem that far off. There are many books and articles about him - the one I read was The Man Who Knew Only Numbers. It's pretty good."


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