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Was Paul Erdos highly eccentric?

  1. Dec 22, 2016 #1
    He was one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time. Yet he's a bit odd. He was a vagabond without much normal interests. He was completely obsessed with math.

    Could it be due to the fact that he was on amphetamines long term? Could this be an explanation for the extreme compulsive behavior?

    That being said, he's still one of the best.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 22, 2016 #2


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  4. Dec 22, 2016 #3
    I phrased it as a question. It's a known fact that he was obsessed with math and also did amphetamines.
  5. Dec 22, 2016 #4


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    That's fine, please post your sources for the rest of us. Thank you.
  6. Dec 22, 2016 #5
    here is a quote from the wikipage:


    Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of "Erdős problems" (see below). He would typically show up at a colleague's doorstep and announce "my brain is open", staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

    His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems",[16] and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős,[17] but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi[18]). After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month.[19] Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper." After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use."
  7. Dec 22, 2016 #6


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    None of this is about Erdos, please post the source that discusses what you said about Erdos. You have links to coffee, and amphetamines and theorems etc... Perhaps you just do not know how to post links?

    Also, I'm afraid you'll need a bit more than a blurb on wikipedia.
  8. Dec 22, 2016 #7
    Well, I just have the wikipage.

    There be no reason to discuss this if I have a good source that analyzed this completely.

    I'm just trying to put 2 and 2 together, and I could be wrong. I'm clearly not certain about this. But he's interesting enough of a character for this to be discussed.
  9. Dec 22, 2016 #8


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    Ok, let's see if anyone has something of more substance, he is an interesting person, and this is a slow time of year. Also, the link is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Erdős
  10. Dec 23, 2016 #9
  11. Dec 23, 2016 #10
    First of all I suggest the OP revise the overly sensationalistic thread title. His post speaks only of obsession & compulsion; nothing about insanity.

    Beyond that, as far as I know, the definitive biography of Erdős (and perhaps the only?) was done by Paul Hoffman, a prolific science writer & educator (also a chess and math puzzle aficionado). I happen to know Paul fairly well, having lived a few houses over from him in Woodstock NY for several years; he has since moved to NYC and is currently President & CEO of Liberty Science Center, a K-12 educational museum/center in Liberty Park near the Statue of LIberty. More about Paul can be found in the bio on his web site.

    The biography is called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth; I had actually read it before running into Paul for the first time at a party; and only later did I realize to my extreme embarrassment that I had mispronounced "Erdős" throughout our entire conversation (I'd never heard the name said aloud by anyone). I remember Paul saying he had not only met & interviewed Erdős in depth, but had also hung out with him quite a bit; but I don't remember much more than that.

    i don't have my copy of the book handy, but if you find its https://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Loved-Only-Numbers/dp/0786884061 on Amazon & search for keywords in the preview, yes, you will find several references to Erdős's use of amphetamines & the concern this caused his friends. I don't remember the book in great detail just now - it's nearly 20 years since I first read it - but I do remember that Erdős had a complicated history and there was a lot more to him than just amphetamine abuse. Obviously his odd personality has the potential to fascinate - hence the title of Paul's book; and yet he was in his way a funny & highly social man; and as far as I remember, his obsession with math to the exclusion of other interests predated his drug use. In his own view (and I see that he is quoted in the book about this), speed was merely an aid to his obsession, not the cause of it.

    @FallenApple, if you are really interested in either the man himself or the effects of long-term amphetamine use in the context of highly productive intellectual lives, I suggest you do some further research. Wikipedia is an excellent resource, but a single article, highly abbreviated (albeit decorated here & there with anecdotes that seem taken from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers), is never going to be enough to plumb the depths of a long & fruitful life; and neither should we rely on our vague stereotypes of drug use if we wish to investigate how long-term drug addictions might actually play out in particular social contexts. For information on Erdős, I can highly recommend going directly to Paul Hoffman's very well-researched & written book; and for information on amphetamines in various social contexts, you can probably do a targeted lit search & come up with at least some sources, perhaps sociological in nature.

    - -

    P.S. I see that Chapter 1 of the book can be found online, along with the NYT review of the book. Here is chapter 1 - http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/h/hoffman-man.html - and here is the review - http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/27/reviews/980927.27alexant.html
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  12. Dec 23, 2016 #11
    Having thought about the OP's question a little longer, I will add that in general, the use of stimulants to excess is so common among intellectuals as to be unremarkable by itself - by no means an automatic indication of a degraded personality; more likely an indication of a love of the work & a desire to keep doing it for very long periods of time.

    E.g. I've known other intellectuals who also favored amphetamines - notably, writers. My fiction-writing mentor/advisor at grad school, a very highly respected individual whom I won't name, was quite open about having abused amphetamines early in his writing career; it was only when the concomitant physical ravages really set in that he forced himself to quit.

    And of course many writers (my advisor; me, alas; and probably some sort of majority of all the professional writers I've known) have been addicted to caffeine. I once wrote a small gift book (work for hire) on caffeine and quoted from Balzac's coffee essay as to his lifelong reliance on it while cranking out 57 novels and many plays. In fact it's a frequent speculation that Balzac's coffee excesses contributed to the health issues that eventually killed him. And me, even at age 59, with my useful writing days now in the past, I am still struggling to quit coffee before it does further damage to my health. It can be a very hard drug to get off.

    - - -

    P.S. And remember that even without an addiction in sight, intellectuals and artists often get accused of being too single-minded & having too few outside interests.

    P.P.S. What my brain tells me it will look like if I skip coffee in the morning:

    Last edited: Dec 23, 2016
  13. Dec 23, 2016 #12
    I have seen his youtube documentary and observed him interacting with many people and students (through the video) he is far from insane, a little eccentric, but seemingly normal and functioning well socially etc. He is just eccentric genius and thinks differently.

    I have never done amphetamines so cannot speak for their effects.

    Mr Paul was a tremendous hard worker, usually workign from 8 to 1 every day, this before he even started doing drugs.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2016
  14. Dec 23, 2016 #13


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    I don't know that I've ever heard of him before. But from the little I've read over the last 30 minutes, I would describe him as one of the most interesting people that ever lived. Far from insane, and delightfully eccentric.
  15. Dec 23, 2016 #14
    Yeah, I probably should have used a different title( not sure how to change it). I didn't mean to offend anyone that's a fan/friend/colleague of his. I suppose chances are that someone on this forum has to be within a short Erdos Distance of him.

    I'm just curious whether long term amphetamine usage for intellectual pursuits could alter one's personality. I haven't found any longitudinal studies regarding this, which makes sense, I mean look at how incredibly long it took for smoking/cancer connections to be established. It's a valid concern since high level math/physics requires much focus and so amphetamine usage could appeal to many professionals in the field.

    Although I do see how he could have been naturally inclined to be obsessed with math even before usage.
  16. Dec 23, 2016 #15
    I know one of things he took was Ritalin, and you will find no shortage of this in universities, legally prescribed or otherwise.

    -Dave K
  17. Dec 23, 2016 #16
    Yes, the question itself seems pertinent in a general way. It seems to vary quite a bit. Lots of people have taken stimulants without getting addicted or seeing marked personality changes; and yet we all know about the problems some folks (esp. young people, e.g. college students) have had with Adderall; and supposedly Ritalin can cause similar issues. I used a generic version of Ritalin for a month a few years ago; this was for a deadline project when I had already become disabled and wasn't sure I could make the deadline without help. I made deadline, but the drug was very wearing and I was glad to get off. I had no problem psychologically with quitting and never felt cravings. And I know someone who regularly uses Adderall for narcolepsy with no evidence of personality changes, unless you count being able to stay awake during the day as a personality change.

    So in my extremely limited experience, for those who don't experience euphoria or other troubling side effects, I'd guess the strain on metabolism would be the worst aspect. That's why my advisor quit. Heart, excessive activation of sympathetic nervous system, possible effect on sleep, etc. Coffee, although a more complicated drug chemically and metabolically, can have similar harmful effects with chronic use; and for whatever reason I find it a much more difficult drug to wean off of. A well-researched and argued book on the relative risks of all psychoactive prescription drugs (albeit much disliked by pro-drug psychiatrists) is Robert Whitaker's https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Epid...coding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=ENQ2NNEBYAJQYJZE3CSF.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  18. Dec 23, 2016 #17
    This site says long term amphetamine use can lead to:

  19. Dec 23, 2016 #18


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    A long, and fascinating life can alter one's personality, IMHO.

    Air, is my favorite drug. :-p
  20. Dec 23, 2016 #19


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    Erdos wasn't the first mathematician to ride the one legged rocking horse. Carl Gauss [known as the Prince of Mathematicians], true to his motto of 'few, but, ripe', was notorious for his OCD of incessantly rewriting his own papers prior to publication. He also requested a heptadecagon engraving on his tombstone, much to the chagrin of his undertaker. Georg Cantor, of set fame, spent his latter years in and out of sanatoriums, Isaac Newton was as famed for occult dabbling as for mathematical acumen, and the venerable Pythagoras founded his own religion and was widely regarded as 'special' in his own time. These are but a few of the living examples of why I'm not the only one who believes diffEQ is the harbinger of insanity.
  21. Dec 23, 2016 #20
    Pythagoras was indeed special and different, he was a vegeterian, believed in abstinence, formed his own island where he practiced this with people along with abandoning money. He didn't even want the grass or plants to be harmed and is reported to have told animals not to trample the grass. xD :)

    cantor suffered from debilitating depressions, though much of it can be attributed to the scathing attacks of his fellow mathematicians on his set theory and views on infinity. Newton practiced alchemy and poked himself in the eye while spending time in a dark room with a slit and a prism to study light xD
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