On Paul Erdos and Kim Kardashian

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.

8 thoughts on “On Paul Erdos and Kim Kardashian

  1. Have you read Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem”? In a parallel universe science is in the hands of atheistic monasteries, whose -very cool- “fras” refer to their greatests as “Saunts”. When someone from our universe visits, he readily tells them about Saunt Einstein and Saunt Gödel.

  2. It’s hard for me to associate this “preacher-monk” image you are portraying with sainthood (though I realize this is how some religions see it). I am missing the deep caring for humans (which is very different from caring for ideas and from preaching). It is not a statement of Paul Erdos, whose personal life is just a myth to me, but rather about the above description. Avi is a much better idol in my eye – endless caring (and fortunately no celibacy). I will try to force out your candidates for gods in person 😉

  3. @Andres: I should have mentioned that Richard Stallman is also Saint IGNUcius of the Church of Emacs, and although this is purely for fun, one notes that Stallman practices what he thinks as virtues in a really heroic manner.

    @Omer: your distinction would have been confusing to most Medieval and some contemporary Christians: if you really care about people, the best you can do for them is to make sure they go to Heaven, hence the preaching. (By the way, I have never met Erdos-the-person, but Erdos-the-myth cared very deeply about people, and those who knew him say the same is true about the Erdos-the-person.)

  4. I was just trying not to propagate medieval point of views 🙂 As I said, my statement does not reflect anything about Erdos, just my rejection of this image as an ideal.

  5. hey, kim kardashian has many admirable & “virtuous qualities” wink haha. you might enjoy this article…. Kardashian Kapture: Where Can We Find Stories of Ordinary People Facing Real Problems?
    We need more books, movies and TV shows about the 99 percent, told by the 99 percent.

    seriously though heres a blog on erdos as a “zen mathematical monk” (is that like a saint or not? arguably its somewhere between in your interesting Greek Gods vs Catholic Saints spectrum) … .with lots of links
    Erdös100—tribute to a brilliant contrarian

    “I will keep to myself who my favorite god of complexity theory is… ” is that because the person is still alive, or not? so you are not shy about naming a saint, but shy about naming a god? think you are taking this blog thing too seriously :-p

  6. Many figures (including gods) were tragic figures and not the sexual Aphrodite or the lustful Zeus. There was Hephaestos, Demetra, Hera, Hercules and many more, including lots of mortals who became lesser deities after a big cause (a lot like saints). Polytheistic religions used to worship different gods for each occassion and also different gods depending on where you lived. The closer we have is patron saints, but this is still too basic compared to the polytheistic practices.

  7. Yup.., people worship Greek god, the same thing happened to Kim Kardashian. They don’t have a long life happy marriage and most of the time, their kids are spoil with drug and stuff. Every where they go someone will take their pictures and posted them online. I will be crazy if that kind of thing happen to me,

  8. Pingback: Knuth Prize to Avi Wigderson | in theory

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