The Erdos Effect

The other night, I watched a documentary about the Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdos. He was one of the most prominent mathematicians in the twentieth century and  is the most published mathematician in history.

How’d he do it? First he was born into a family of mathematicians and grew up in a supportive math community.

He got his PhD at 21. He was brilliant, but so were other mathematicians. For most mathematicians, their significant contributions to their field usually drop off before they’re forty, but Erdos was productive until he died at 83 – still working with collaborators around the world.

Erdos lived for math, he had no fixed address and few possessions. He’d stay with friends while they were tackling a math problem together. Then Erdos would move in with another friend who he thought was a good fit for the next math problem he wanted to explore. He traveled all over the world like this, doing math as others managed his affairs for him.

I think he was putting into practice some of the processes that Steven Johnson uncovered while researching clues for his book “Where Good Ideas Come From.”

Forming  loose, informal networks enable discoveries. Erdos made and maintained productive network of friendships in math spanning decades, and coauthoring papers with them.

Sometimes good ideas take years before gelling into a workable idea, the slow hunch. Because of his longevity and his wide-ranging network of colleges, some problems Erdos worked on had far horizons and took a long time.

I’m not a mathematician, but I’d imagine many blind alleys and wrong turns sometimes pivoted to another, productive, idea. Johnson found that coming up with good ideas is a messy process in which serendipity is a factor, wrong ideas pivot to become the force behind good ideas and good ideas often build on repurposed and reworked already good ideas.

Johnson also noted that the rise of salons and coffeehouses stimulated the exchange of ideas vs bad drinking water encouraging the widespread consumption of alcohol acting to suppress good ideas. So it’s interesting that after Erdos was treated with amphetamines for depression after his mother’s death, he took a shine to them and used them until he died. He didn’t discuss this much; my I guess is it was like college kids abusing Adderall these days to study better.