The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Illustrated Story of Eccentric Genius and Lovable Oddball Paul Erdős

How a prodigy of primes became the Magician from Budapest before he learned how to butter his own bread.

The great Hannah Arendt called mathematics the “science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself.” Few minds have engaged in this glorious self-play more fruitfully than mathematician Paul Erdős (March 26, 1913–September 20, 1996), the protagonist of The Boy Who Loved Math (public library) by writer Deborah Heiligman and illustrator LeUyen Pham — a wonderful addition to the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book biographies of great artists and scientists, telling the story of the eccentric Hungarian genius who went on to become one of the most prolific and influential mathematicians of the twentieth century.

Tucked into Pham’s illustrations are a number of mathematical Easter eggs, such as the palindromic primes, dihedral primes, Leyland primes, and other prime varieties — a particular obsession for Erdős — she built into her Budapest cityscape.

Erdős was born in Budapest to Jewish parents who were both math teachers. His two sisters, ages three and five, died of scarlet fever the day of his birth and his father spent the first six years of little Paul’s life as a prisoner of war in Russia. It was his mother, Anna, who nurtured the young boy’s early love of math.

Even as a toddler — or an epsilon, a very small amount in math, as he would later come to call children — he was already doing complex calculations in his head.

One day, when he was 4, Paul asked a visitor when her birthday was. She told him.

What year were you born? he asked.
She told him.

What time?
She told him.

Paul thought for a moment.
Then he told her how many seconds she had been alive.

Paul liked that trick. He did it often.

But despite — or, rather, because of — his extreme intelligence, Paul didn’t do so well in school. His intellectual vigor paralleled his bodily restlessness — he simply couldn’t sit still in the classroom.

Paul told Mama he didn’t want to go to school anymore. Not for 1 more day, for 0 days. He wished he could take days away — negative school days! He pleaded with Mama to stay home.

Luckily, mama was a worrier. She worried about germs a lot. She worried Paul could catch dangerous germs from the children at school.

Anna finally relented and Paul was entrusted in the care of the stern Fraülein. She and his mother did everything for him — they cut his meat, buttered his bread, and dressed him. But while such attentive care gave the boy room to grow his genius — we do know, after all, that parental presence rather than praise is the key to a child’s achievement — it made for substantial social awkwardness later in life.

By the time time he was twenty, he was already a world-famous mathematician, known as The Magician from Budapest — but he still lived with his mom, who still did his laundry and cooked for him and buttered his bread.

Heiligman illustrates the magnitude of his everyday incapacity with an amusing anecdote:

When Paul was 21, some mathematicians invited him to go to England to work on his math.


They all went to dinner.

Everyone else talked and ate, but Paul stared at his bread. He stared at his butter. He didn’t know how to butter his bread.

Finally he took his knife, put some butter on it, and spread it on his bread. Phew. He did it! “It wasn’t so hard,” he said.

But the buttering of the bread was merely the trigger for a larger realization — young Paul saw that the traditional path of settling down in one place, with a wife and children, working at a nine-to-five job, wasn’t the right path for him, he who longed to do math for nineteen hours a day. Heiligman writes:

Here is what he did:

Paul would get on an airplane with two small suitcases filled with everything he owned — a few clothes and some math notebooks. He might have $20 in his pocket. Or less.

He flew from New York to Indiana and to Los Angeles. He flew across the world, from Toronto to Australia.

“I have no home,” he declared. “The world is my home.”

More than half a century before Airbnb, he began staying with mathematicians all over the world, who would take him into their homes and take care of him just like his mother had. He wasn’t the easiest of house guests — he would wake up at 4 in the morning to do math, and one time he caused a colorful kitchen explosion by stabbing a carton of tomato juice with a knife, having grown impatient with figuring out how to open it properly — but his friends around the world loved him dearly for his brilliant mind and generous collaborative spirit.

Indeed, for all his eccentricity — TIME famously called him “The Oddball’s Oddball” — Erdős was no lone genius. If Voltaire was the epicenter of the famous Republic of Letters, Erdős was the epicenter of a Republic of Numbers — over the course of his long life, he collaborated with more than 500 other mathematicians and greatly enjoyed his role as what Heiligman aptly terms a “math matchmaker,” introducing peers around the world to one another so they could cooperate in moving mathematics forward. These collaborations advanced the progress of computing and paved the way for modern search engines.

He became affectionately known as Uncle Paul and mathematicians came to talk of “Erdős numbers” to measure their collaborative distance from the beloved genius in degrees of separation — those who worked with him directly earned the number 1, those who worked with someone who had worked with him directly got 2, and so forth.

Paul said he never wanted to stop doing math. And he didn’t. To stop doing math, Paul said, was to die.

So Paul left this world while he was at a math meeting.

(His famous peer John Nash — who inspired the film A Beautiful Mind, was awarded the Nobel Prize, and bore the Erdős number 3 — wasn’t so lucky.)

Complement the warm and wonderful The Boy Who Loved Math with the illustrated life-stories of other celebrated minds, including Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Ibn Sina, and Maria Merian. For a grownup biography of Erdős, see the excellent The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

Published June 2, 2015




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