This year is the centennial of Paul Erdős’s birth. Erdős lived most of his adult life as a traveling mathematician, “couchsurfing,” as we would say now, from place to place and from mathematical conference to mathematical conference. He wrote more than 1,500 papers with more than 500 different coauthors, introduced the probabilistic method and was the defining figure of the “Hungarian approach” to combinatorics. He died at age 83 while attending a mathematical conference.
Last year, we celebrated the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth. Turing and Erdős have become such iconic figures both for the impact of their work and for the fascinating facts of their lives. I would like to argue that the cultural archetype through which we interpret their lives is that of the saint. It is clearly that of the martyr saint in the case of Turing, while Erdős gave up material possessions and devoted his life to others, traveling everywhere and “preaching” to everybody, much in the mold of Saint Francis.
(A comparison of the Turing centennial celebration and Erdős’s, and a look at the frescoes of Medieval Catholic churches will show which kind of saint people are more interested in.)
The first step to become a saint of the Catholic church is to establish that the person exhibited “heroic virtues,” which is a great expression. This is an archetype that is not restricted to religion: you see it occurring in communist propaganda (Stakhanov, Lei Feng) and in every civil rights movement.
Saints were the “celebrities” of the Middle Ages, those whose life people liked to talk about. But contemporary celebrities come from a totally different archetype, that of the Greek God. Greek (and Roman) gods were petty and jealous, they cheated on their spouses, they were terrible parents, but there were good stories to be told about them. We don’t want (at least, I don’t) to live the life of a saint, but thinking about them is certainly inspirational and it makes us think that if someone can be so much better than us, maybe we can be a little better ourself in the practice of “virtues”, whatever this may mean to us. And we don’t admire gods, but, well, it’s probably fun to be one.
As usual, I have lost track of what I was trying to say, but I think that it speaks well of the academic community that we are more interested in saints than in gods, I will close by saying that my favorite saint of complexity theory is Avi Wigderson, I will keep to myself who my favorite god of complexity theory is, and I will leave it to the readers to contribute their picks.