The eighteenth of February, 2011: lie back, close your eyes, and work

I’ve begun reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Paul Hoffman’s book about the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös (4th Estate, 1998). Erdös wrote or co-authored 1,475 academic papers. That’s just unreasonable.

Erdös was known for his willingness to share his genius with the intellectually limited (relatively speaking: mere MIT maths postdocs, and so on). Nevertheless, he lived in a mental world inaccessible to practically anybody else – and, to the vast majority, not only inaccessible but incomprehensible.

This sort of anecdote fills me with wonder and envy:

“There was a time at Trinity College, in the 1930s I believe, when Erdös and my husband, Harold, sat thinking in a public place for more than an hour without uttering a single word,” recalled Anne Davenport, the widow of one of Erdös’s English collaborators. “Then Harold broke the long silence, by saying, ‘It is not nought. It is one.’ Then all was relief and joy. Everyone around them thought they were mad. Of course, they were.”

A chemist or physicist needs experimental data, an historian needs evidence, a literary scholar needs texts to study – even most branches of philosophy require, if not dialogue, then at least linguistic expression. I’m hugely envious of the mathematician’s limitless capacity for work. “That’s the beauty of it,” mathematician Ron Graham comments in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. “You can lie back, close your eyes, and work.”


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