N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös

“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.” —Sir Isaac Newton

A man with no home and no job, Paul Erdös was the most prolific mathematician who ever lived. Born in Hungary in 1913, Erdös 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 Erdös was filmed between 1988 and 1991.

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

In an age dominated by technical wizardry and high tech communications, Erdös was an unusual human link connecting hundreds of people. As he traveled from country to country, Erdös 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 “Erdös Number”-the number of people he or she is removed from having co-authored a paper with Erdös. (Excerpt from main website)

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