June 20, 2009

Paul Erdos

The name “Paul Erdos” sent the search engines buzzing yesterday and I have to admit that it caused a little wry amusement around my way. The cause was this slightly obscure joke in the web comic XKCD. Slightly obscure to non-mathematicians that is. For Paul Erdos is rightly famous amongst that select breed.

Erdos was an Hungarian emigree mathematician who was famous for co-operating with all and sundry on any number of mathematical problems. Someone would explain a problem from just about any area of science, Erdos would elucidate the maths of it, provide a solution and then, usually at least, leave the original questioner to write up the solution as a proper paper. He co-operated in this manner with so many people that there’s an almost parlour game (perhaps that should be faculty room game) of working out what one’s Erdos number is. If you co-authored a paper with the Great Man himself then your Erdos number is 1. If you’ve written one with someone whose number is 1, then yours is 2, if with someone with a 2 then 3 and so on. If you think this sounds a little like the Kevin Bacon game then that’s no surprise, for it’s based upon the same sort of idea. In fact, there is an arcane variation of both, where you calculate the Erdos/Bacon number, looking at who has authored a maths paper and who has been in a movie. Apparently the winner of this is Brian Greene.

But recently, following a spate of mathematical films such as “Good Will Hunting”, an elite group of people have emerged, namely those who have appeared in films and written mathematical papers, and therefore qualify for Erdos-Bacon numbers. For a long time, the physicist Brian Greene had a clear lead with score of 5. He appeared in “Frequency” with John Di Benedetto, who was in ““Sleepers” with Kevin Bacon. And he wrote a paper with Shing-Tung Yau, who wrote a paper with Ronald Graham, who wrote a paper with Erdos. This gives a combined number of 2 + 3 = 5.

That isn’t what caused my mild amusement though. It was that upon being presented with this, to non-mathematicians, obscure joke, thousands of people (if not tens of thousands, at least, the sort of number required to get Google Trends to note what is happening) decided to hunt around and try to understand the joke.

Which is a little bit odd, for of course a joke that needs explaining is no longer funny, is it?

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