Paul Erdös

b. Budapest, 26-Mar-1913
d. Warsaw, 20-Sep-1996

On September 20, 1996, at the age of 83, Paul Erdös, one of the foremost and one of the more interesting mathematicians of this century, died.

Paul Erdös was associated with the mathematics department at the Technion since 1955 when he was appointed a “Permanent Visiting Professor”. This position permitted him to come to the Technion whenever he wanted, for as long as he wished, and to be paid a regular salary during these visits. He came frequently and these visits were of great value to the department, and hopefully also to him. There was, to my knowledge, never any talk of retirement or benefits. This was convenient both for him and for us. Paul often came every year for a month of so, however during the last 10 years he probably only came 6 or 7 times.

He held this position until his death, and I understand that Paul even wrote a day or two before his death that he planned to visit here again in March, 1997.

When this position was “arranged”, Paul was asked to write a CV of sorts. He wrote, by hand (and with his grammatical oddities), the following:

“I Paul Erdös was born on March 16, 1913. I studied at the University of Budapest, I got my Ph D at the University of Budapest in 1934. From 1934 to 1938 I had a research fellowship at the University of Manchester. I got the degree of D Sc at Manchester in 1939 (in absentia). From 1938 to 1948 I was at various American universities, including the Institute for Advanced Study, Univ of Pennsylvania, Purdue Univ, Univ Michigan, Stanford, Univ of Syracuse. In 1948-49 I gave lectures at various universities in Holland, England and Hungary. In 1949-50 I lectured at various American universities and in 1950-51 I was at the Univ of Aberdeen in Scotland and 1951-52 I was at University College London. 1952-53 I was at the American University in Washington and was connected with the Bureau of Standards and the Institute of Numerical Analysis at Los Angeles. In 1953-54 I was visiting professor at the Univ of Notre Dame. I was supposed to be visiting professor there this year but was prevented to return there by circumstances beyond my control. I am supposed to be visiting lecturer at the American Mathematical Society in 1955-56 but it is not yet certain I will be able to take up the appointment.”

[The uncertainty alluded to in the above lines had to do with his re-entry visa to the United States being denied (this was during the McCarthy era). The story is that Paul was asked by the immigration officials what he thought of Karl Marx, and he answered: “I'm not competent to judge, but no doubt he was a great man.”]

Paul Erdös was a legend in his lifetime for a variety of reasons. One reason was his amazing productivity. It is said that he has co-authored over 1400 papers, and that there are still many yet in the mill. Moreover, Paul was known as much for the questions and conjectures he posed as for the problems he solved.

Paul Erdös was the classic eccentric mathematician. Almost all his possessions could be packed in one suitcase, and often were. He was constantly travelling. From conferences to friends to confreres to workshops. He was a naive person in the formal sense of the word. That is, he was artless and unaffected. He almost never put up a false face.

In 1984 Paul Erdös was awarded the prestiguous Wolf Prize. From the $50,000 prize money he donated $30,000 to the math department in the Technion for the establishment of a memorial fund in the name of his mother Anna. Most of the rest of the prize money he gave to relatives for various reasons. He himself kept a mere pittance.

Paul was famous for his various stories and anecdotes about mathematics and mathematicians. One of them I like best is the following. Paul and his best friend Paul Turan once went to visit the mathematician Sidon. Sidon who was far from being a social animal, and in fact was of questionable sanity, said to them from the other side of the closed door, “please come at some other time, and to someone else.” I assume that that is what Erdös said to death when it came knocking at his door. But the angel of death rarely listens to requests.

We will miss Paul, as a mathematician, but even more so as a person.

Allan Pinkus
Department of Mathematics

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$Date: 2002-07-04 10:48:29+03 $