Lunch Conversations

In the middle of lunch yesterday, Peter, who was sitting next to me said “… when I wrote the book with Erdös …”.  Erdös was a very famous mathematician.  He also happened to be one of the most prolific.  He has over 1500 publications in total.  In fact, everyone who publishes in math (as well as related fields I believe) knows their Erdös number, that is, the number of degrees in publications between you and Erdös.  Mine is three:  I published a paper with Herbert who published a paper with six people (Boris Aranov, Janos Pach, Richard Pollack, Paval Valtr, Douglas Brent West, and Foong Francis Yao), each of whom have published with Erdös.

Peter elaborated on the collaboration with Erdös:

During a conversation, Erdös said “well, I had a result once.  I don’t remember what i it was, when it was written, or where it was published. However, I think it might have been in a Polish journal sometime in the 1940s though.”  Peter said that he spent a week trying to find the result.

During another visit to Vienna, Erdös went to visit Peter at his house, but arrived before Peter was home.  So, he went around back and sat in a chair to wait.  When Peter’s wife was setting the table, she noticed a strange man sitting outside.  When she stepped outside, he introduced himself as Erdös to her relief.  Then, he asked her for some money.  Wondering why he needed money, she asked for how much?  Turns out he wanted coins to play games with the kids, as he loved children.

Hearing these stories was quite remarkable. The mathematicians whose names I associate with theorems, books, and papers, I often do not have a face or a personality to place with them. But, talking to some of the mathematicians here, I am able to put a personality to Erdös, to Delaunay, to Voronoi, and to several others who I will never have the pleasure of meeting myself.

Today’s lunch conversation included the following story:

I met a man once from Göttingen.  I asked him if he knew that Göttingen was a center of mathematics (the man was not a mathematician).  He said, that in fact, he was aware of this.  And, the reason that he knew this was because of what he found in his office.  When he moved into an old office, there were still items left behind by the previous occupant.  After being there for a few months, he took a look inside the desk, and found Carl Frederich Gauss’s brain.

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