A man with no home and no job, Paul Erdos was the most prolific mathematician who ever lived. Born in Hungary in 1913, Erdos wrote and co-authored over 1,500 papers and pioneered several fields in theoretical mathematics. At the age of 83 he still spent most of his time on the road, going from math meeting to math meeting, continually working on problems. He died on September 20, 1996 while attending such a meeting in Warsaw, Poland. *N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos* was filmed between 1988 and 1991.

The film opens at Cambridge University's 1991 honorary doctorate ceremony, where Erdos received an award he says he would gladly trade for a "nice new proof." For Erdos, the meaning of life is "to prove and conjecture."

In an age dominated by technical wizardry and high tech communications, Erdos was an unusual human link connecting hundreds of people. As he traveled from country to country, Erdos carried with him the latest in mathematical thinking, inspiring others to develop new ideas and, sometimes, entire new fields. In turn, the mathematical community supported this repository of centuries of mathematical knowledge and lore. Every mathematician in the world has an "Erdos Number"-the number of people he or she is removed from having co-authored a paper with Erdos.

To pursue this life of wandering and pure scholarship, Erdos relied on a network of other renowned mathematicians-all of whom regarded him as an international treasure. Wherever he touched down, whether in Hungary, Australia or Kalamazoo, Erdos immediately began working on problems with his colleagues. They, in turn, took care of his everyday needs. Ronald Graham, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Center at AT&T Laboratories, keeps an "Erdos Room" at his home in New Jersey. From here, Graham managed Erdos's financial affairs and coordinated his travels and lectures, trying to maintain a semblance of order in the life of a man who kept no bank accounts and gave money to anyone he felt needed it. In Cambridge, England, Bela Bollobas, an ex-Erdos student, provided another oasis. As the film progresses it becomes clear that mathematicians around the world had more than a professional stake in caring for Erdos. In different ways, each of the many prominent mathematicians in the film expresses dedication to and love for Erdos.

The structure of *N is a Number* is based on Erdos's 50 years of perpetual wandering, "like a bumblebee," carrying news and mathematical information from university to university. Erdos established himself as a serious mathematician at the age of 20 when he devised a more elegant proof for Chebyshev's theorem, i.e., that there is always a prime number between any number and its double. He was at the center of an informal clique of gifted young mathematicians in Hungary, known as the Anonymous Group, because they would meet in a Budapest park under the statue of a medieval historian named Anonymous.

Show More

If you are a student or a professor:

Watch nowIf you are a librarian or a professor:

porridge pulleys and Pi

A portrait of two very different mathematicians, porridge pulleys and Pi features Fields medalist Vaughan Jones, one of the world's foremost knot theorists and an avid windsurfer, and Hendrik lenstra, a number theorist with a passion for Homer and all things classical. Porridge pulleys and Pi poses the question: how…

Proofs and Proof Writing

The beauty of geometry is that each result logically builds on the others. Mathematicians demonstrate this chain of deduction using proofs. Learn this step-by-step process of logic and see how to construct your own proofs.

I Want To Be A Mathematician: A Conversation with Paul Halmos

A 44-minute interview with mathematician Paul Halmos that touches on the Moore Method, becoming a mathematician, great teachers, designing a course, writing, and the state of education in the United States. The interview conducted in 1999 by Peter Renz and George Csicsery was released by the Mathematical Association of America…

Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem

Julia Robinson, a pioneer among American women in mathematics, rose to prominence in a field where often she was the only woman. Julia Robinson was the first woman elected to the mathematical section of the National Academy of Sciences, and the first woman to become president of the American Mathematical…

Go Forth and Multiply

Delve into the secrets of easy mental multiplication: Professor Benjamin's favorite mathematical operation. Once you've mastered how to quickly multiply any two-digit or three-digit number by a one-digit number, you've mastered the most fundamental operations of mental multiplication and added a vital tool to your mental math tool kit.

Plato's Heaven - A User's Guide with Professor James Robert Brown of the University of Toronto

What do mathematicians actually do? Just move symbols around or search to uncover undying truths? Most mathematicians shy away from addresing the question, but James Robert Brown, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto plunges straight in to describe his implacable Platonist beliefs.

The Classification of Triangles

Continue the work of classification with triangles. Find out what mathematicians mean when they use words like scalene, isosceles, equilateral, acute, right, and obtuse. Then, learn how to use the Pythagorean theorem to determine the type of triangle (even if you don't know the measurements of the angles).

The Geometry of a Circle

Explore the world of circles! Learn the definition of a circle as well as what mathematicians mean when they say things like radius, chord, diameter, secant, tangent, and arc. See how these interact, and use that knowledge to prove the inscribed angle theorem and Thales' theorem.

Solving Sudoku

What's the key to solving Sudoku problems when you're at your wits' end? Training your mind to look for patterns and to use careful logic, just like mathematicians. This episode is packed with helpful techniques and strategies for overcoming even the most difficult Sudoku grids. Among those you'll learn about:…

Logic and Mathematics

See how all that you have learned in the course relates to mathematics--and vice versa. Trace the origin of deductive logic to the ancient geometrician Euclid. Then consider the development of non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century and the puzzle this posed for mathematicians.

Complex Numbers in Geometry

In lecture 6, you saw how 17th-century mathematician Rene Descartes united geometry and algebra with the invention of the coordinate plane. Now go a step further and explore the power and surprises that come from using the complex number plane. Examine how using complex numbers can help solve several tricky…

Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-Shen Chern

Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern examines the life of a remarkable mathematician whose formidable mathematical contributions were matched by an approach and vision that helped build bridges between China and the West. The biographical documentary follows Shiing-shen Chern through many of the most dramatic events of…

Log in

## Comments (1)

It is not easy to make a film about a man who spends most of his time asking questions. Now that the film is finished, I am delighted that audiences are able to find in the film what I could never articulate in words--Erdös's ability to inspire and transmit the legacy of centuries of ...Read more

It is not easy to make a film about a man who spends most of his time asking questions. Now that the film is finished, I am delighted that audiences are able to find in the film what I could never articulate in words--Erdös's ability to inspire and transmit the legacy of centuries of mathematics and philosophy, his humor, and his deep human connection to ideals of ethical behavior and truth.

Read less