N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös

N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul ErdösIn an age when genius is a mere commodity, it is useful to look at a person who led a rich life without the traditional trappings of success.

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.

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."

The structure of N is a Number is based on Erdös's 50 years of perpetual wandering, "like a bumblebee," carrying news and mathematical information from university to university. Erdös 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.

N is a Number is a one-hour 16mm documentary filmed over a four-year period in four countries between 1988 and 1991. The film was produced, directed and edited by George Paul Csicsery. Cinematography is by John Knoop and original music was composed by Mark Adler.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist - 58 minutes)

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Ratings: 7.69/10 from 13 users.
  • Sam

    Great doc!! =) Unfortunate I had already seen it...

  • http://esmuziq.blogspot.com esmuziq

    nice post

    nice guy as well

  • Epicurean_Logic

    Funny guy. If Erdos was more prolific than Euler (pronounced Oiler)then he truly deserves the title great.

  • mike

    nice, thanks for sharing !

  • Epicurean_Logic

    Oh one more thing. Euler, when he died, he simply collapsed and said 'i am finished', and when i told this story somebody callously remarked ' well another conjecture of Euler was proven true!' ---Paul Erdos.

    What a funny guy. And a world class mind to boot.

  • Nikk

    WOW! Seriously, this guy is one of my new heroes. I never had heard about him before watching this. Truly a man that I would show to extraterrestrials visiting our planet as the apex of what it means to be human. A man dedicated to the search for knowledge, whose accomplishments benefit us all but who is truly spurred by the search for ultimate knowledge and nothing more. But beyond that, I really admire his lifestyle; traveling about the world and sewing knowledge like a modern day Saint Peter or Bhodisattva.

    I'm SO envious of all those great mathematicians that got to be in his 'clique' whether it was when he was in his school years in Budapest or living with those Harvard mathematicians in America. Those people have got to be some of the luckiest people ever to live.

  • esma

    its soothing to see people like paul erdos also exist in this world...

  • Simon

    What an absolute legend. I've never heard of anyone just wandering around all different countries and being welcomed by every university he passes. The man is the best.

  • Mox G

    Funny, how Erdös' heavy use of amphetamines is completely censored out in this "documentary"...

    Consider:
    Erdös's drug use worried his friends. Once Ron Graham tried to get him to quit by betting him five hundred dollars that he could not stop taking pills for a month. Erdös went cold-turkey for a month. Accepting Graham's check he said: "You've showed me I'm not an addict. But I didn't get any work done. I'd get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I'd have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You've set mathematics back a month." He began taking amphetamines again and mathematics once more progressed at his frenetic pace.

    But also:
    In an article by Paul Hoffman published in November 1987, Atlantic Monthly profiled Erdös and discussed his Benzedrine habit. Erdös liked the article, "...except for one thing...You shouldn't have mentioned the stuff about Benzedrine. It's not that you got it wrong. It's just that I don't want kids who are thinking about going into mathematics to think that they have to take drugs to succeed."

  • TigersPaw

    All I can say is WOW.
    Such a great mind and humble man.
    Loved what the one gentleman said about that He did not care about WHO solved a problem, but the idea we all win when it is.
    Wish today's politicians could see in that light.
    Makes me want to sing the scarecrows song from wizard of OZ.....If I only Had A Brain!

  • musta

    after seeing this my interest in maths grew more. Can i find documentry on zorn's lemma nd fermat's last theorem

  • http://twitter.com/oldivory OLD IVORY

    You sing it quite well.

  • Robert Chambers

    :0 top additional info. Were those the amphetamines in the pill box he performed his reflex trick with?

  • Rocky Racoon

    I wonder why he could use speed like this and be a productive member of the world and look at what we get with th epeople who use meth....how much is self fulfilling prophesy how much is draino and how much is pharmacological. This guy should have been in th efunny farm a long time ago had he been true to "script" Interesting aside.
    RR

  • Constantinos Bikos

    Enjoyed this documentary very much. I also noticed how his voice reminds Einsteins voice. Not exactly the same but quite similar. Great minds "talk" alike I guess..! Thanks for this film.