Double Erdos kudos for Manchester!

Posted on September 30, 2008 by

In recent years, blogs and webpages on the other side of the pond have been kept humming with the rivalry of linguists vying to establish who has the lowest Erdős number: see for example this post or this webpage. However, Manchet has just learnt that Manchester has a unique double claim to Erdős kudos.

Paul Erdős (1913–1996) was a prolific Hungarian mathematician who authored no fewer than 1,525 works in his lifetime–a staggering achievement second only to Euler‘s.  Even in his seventies, Erdős would put in nineteen-hour days, fuelled by a cocktail of amphetamines, caffeine tablets, and coffee. But what more than anything else made him pass into mathematical legend was his extraordinary penchant for academic collaboration: he wrote joint papers with no fewer than 485 coauthors! Fellow mathematicians joked that Erdős could not travel on a train without ending up coauthoring a paper with the conductor.

It was Erdős’s unique ability to turn mathematical research into a social pursuit that launched the idea of the Erdős number into mathematical folklore. In brief, your Erdős number is determined by the number of links in a chain of coauthorship leading from Erdős to you: Erdős himself is assigned the number 0; each of his 485 coauthors gets an Erdős number of 1; his coauthors’ coauthors get a 2; and so forth. If there is no link between you and Erdős, your Erdős number is infinity.

Among linguists, it appears that Hungarian mathematical linguist András Kornai boasts the lowest Erdős number (2), followed closely by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum (both with 3).  Through his collaboration with Pullum, however, our very own John Payne gets an Erdős number of 4, which, according to researchers at the Erdős Number Project, is lower than the median (5) and the mean (4.65) for professional mathematicians. In turn, our colleagues Kersti Börjars and Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero get a pretty decent 5 through their respective coauthorships with Payne: see this and this.  Colleague Andrew Koontz-Garboden, via the string of co-authorships described here earns a respectable (at least for a linguist) 6 for his work with John Beavers on the colloquial American English “your ass” pronoun (see here).

This is not the whole story, however. It turns out that Manchester has another, more unique, claim to Erdős kudos. In 1934, Erdős fled Hungary, escaping from the rising tide of anti-Semitism and Fascism which was engulfing that country.  And what University sheltered Erdős with a four-year postdoctoral fellowship that was to prove the beginning of a uniquely peripatetic academic career?  Yes, you’ve got it: Manchester.  In fact, Manchet has obtained a copy of a photograph (which appears in Schechter 1998) showing Erdős surrounded by fellow mathematicians in Manchester (see below).  Erdős is the only one not wearing a necktie. The setting, by the way, is the University’s Old Quad, just behind the Whitworth Hall, which featured in a recent Manchet post. The sooty walls show that this photograph of Erdős was taken before the Clean Air Act 1956 and some vigorous cleaning restored the building to its original glory.

So: double Erdős kudos for Manchester!