Paul Erdös (1913-1996) was a Hungarian mathematician who spent much of his life traveling and working with colleagues around the world on mathematical problems of many kinds. He published some 1500 papers, making him the most prolific major mathematician of the twentieth century, and had more than 450 collaborators and authors. He worked on problems in combinatorics, graph theory, number theory, classical analysis, approximation theory, set theory, and probability theory. He is also known for his “legendarily eccentric” personality. He had his own idiosyncratic vocabulary. Although an atheist, he spoke of “The Book”, an imaginary book in which God had written down the best and most elegant proofs for mathematical theorems. Lecturing in 1985 he said, “You don’t have to believe in God, but you should believe in The Book.” This later inspired a book entitled Proofs from THE BOOK.
Other idiosyncratic elements of Erdős’s vocabulary include:
- Children were referred to as “epsilons” (because in mathematics, particularly calculus, an arbitrarily small positive quantity is commonly denoted by the Greek letter
- Women were “bosses”
- Men were “slaves”
- People who stopped doing mathematics had “died”
- People who physically died had “left”
- Alcoholic drinks were “poison”
- Music was “noise”
- People who had married were “captured”
- People who had divorced were “liberated”
- To give a mathematical lecture was “to preach”
- To give an oral exam to a student was “to torture” him/her.
Also, all countries which he thought failed to provide freedom to individuals as long as they did no harm to anyone else were classified as imperialist and given a name that began with a lowercase letter. For example, the U.S. was “samland” (after Uncle Sam), the Soviet Union was “joedom” (after Joseph Stalin), and Israel was “isreal”.