The Great Mathematician Paul Erdős on Possessions and Coffee

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Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle.

Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes.

He spent most of his life traveling between scientific conferences, universities, and the homes of colleagues all over the world.

He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards, to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of “Erdős problems”.

He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems“,[22] and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős,[23] but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi[24]).

Erdős signed his name “Paul Erdos P.G.O.M.” When he became 60, he added “L.D.”, at 65 “A.D.”, at 70 “L.D.” (again), and at 75 “C.D.”

  • P.G.O.M. represented “Poor Great Old Man”
  • The first L.D. represented “Living Dead”
  • A.D. represented “Archaeological Discovery”
  • The second L.D. represented “Legally Dead”
  • C.D. represented “Counts Dead”
Café de Flore tôt le matin, Paris 1976
Photography by Jeanloup Sieff