Paul Erdos – N is a number

Oct 20, 2022 | Science, Videos

This guy was deeply plugged into the machinery of the universe, to an extent no-one has since been. His entire life revolved around maths. If he were alive today he would be diagnosed with aspergers, but he had fully productive aspergers.

He was quite eccentric, and never really owned his own house, he made most of his money by placing bets on mathematical problems with his friends, travelled the world all his life flying from university to university, and gave out awards for people who solved hard mathematical problems he set them.

A curious fact about Paul is that he was a daily user of amphetamine in his later years. After his mother’s death in 1971, Erdös became quite depressed. His physician prescribed amphetamines. Erdös took Benzedrine or Ritalin almost every day for the last twenty five years of his life. Sometimes he took both. Long-term use of amphetamines often exacerbates depression. When used chronically, too, amphetamines usually induce stereotyped thought and behaviour rather than creativity. But Paul Erdös seems to be an exception.

He felt living on speed helped him to create maths. At an age when most mathematicians have long since burnt out, his output was certainly prodigious. Strong dopaminergic drugs also tend to provoke or exacerbate obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Here their effect on Erdös may be more typical. Erdös hated to be touched; and he washed his hands some 50 times a day.

Colleagues worried that Erdös might have become addicted. In 1979, he accepted a $500 bet from his friend Ronald Graham. Graham challenged Erdös to abstain from speed for 30 days. Erdös met the challenge, but his output sank dramatically. Erdös felt the progress of mathematics had been held up by a stupid wager. In an article by Paul Hoffman published in November 1987, Atlantic Monthly profiled Erdös and discussed his Benzedrine habit. Erdös liked the article, “except for one thing…You shouldn’t have mentioned the stuff about Benzedrine. It’s not that you got it wrong. It’s just that I don’t want kids who are thinking about going into mathematics to think that they have to take drugs to succeed.”

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