Paul Erdős, the greatest mathematician ever lived

Paul Erdős with his mother

Paul Erdős (26 March 1913 – 20 September 1996) was a Hungarian mathematician. Erdős published more papers than any other mathematician in history, working with hundreds of collaborators. He worked on problems in combinatorics, graph theory, number theory, classical analysis, approximation theory, set theory, and probability theory. He is also known for his "legendarily eccentric" personality. Via Wikipedia.

The most interesting part of his life story for me was his ability to work with dozens or even a hundred people at the same time. Yes, he didn't have a job or even a home to speak of. All his earthly belongings could fit into a suitcase and he didn't accumulate any money whatsoever despite his celebrated status in his field. He was a guy was a great sense of humor who traveled a lot all around the world meeting other mathematicians. He traveled and lived with his mother, who he loved and cared for all his life. He didn't have a wife or any serious relationships. He was open about the fact that he had an extremely rare condition which prevented him to enjoy sexual pleasures. He was completely devoted to mathematics all his long and successful life.

I have read and watched several biographies about people who were excellent in their various fields. Recently I read books about Steve Jobs and Richard Dawkins. In every single case with almost no exception these people made significant sacrifices to achieve excellence in their fields. Some of them didn't have a typical family life or any time consuming hobbies. They gave up willingly all their time and resources to their professions.

I think it is generally true that if you want to achieve excellence you have to give up certain things. I think both Einstein and Stephen Hawking said in various forms that they didn't consider themselves particularly smart. The reason they achieved breakthroughs in physics was their ability to stay with problems longer than other people. It's all about devoting time and being persistent on solving particular problems.

My two lessons from all this are the following:

  1. One should not judge somebody for his strangeness or peculiar lifestyle, he may be onto something extraordinary.
  2. To achieve something in life one has to make time and resources for it, something has to give.

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