Saturday, March 27, 2010

Congratulations to Mr. Babbitt!

Albany Area Math Circle advisor Bill Babbitt has been accepted into the PhD program in Multidisciplinary Science at RPI.

This excellent news arrived yesterday, an especially auspicious and appropriate day, because it was the birthday of Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician who came out of the Hungarian tradition of math circles and whose life work embodied two central values of Albany Area Math Circle, collaboration and mentoring younger students.

Charles Krautheimer's tribute in the Washington Post describes Paul Erdős' devotion to those values especially well:

He seemed sentenced to a life of solitariness from birth, on the day of which his two sisters, age 3 and 5, died of scarlet fever, leaving him an only child, doted upon and kept at home by a fretful mother. Hitler disposed of nearly all the rest of his Hungarian Jewish family. And Erdös never married. His Washington Post obituary ends with this abrupt and rather painful line: "He leaves no immediate survivors."

But in reality he did: hundreds of scientific collaborators and 1,500 mathematical papers produced with them. An astonishing legacy in a field where a lifetime product of 50 papers is considered quite extraordinary.


Erdös was unusual in yet one other respect. The notion of the itinerant, eccentric genius, totally absorbed in his own world of thought, is a cliche that almost always attaches to the adjective "anti-social." From Bobby Fischer to Howard Hughes, obsession and misanthropy seem to go together.

Not so Erdös. He was gentle, open and generous with others. He believed in making mathematics a social activity. Indeed, he was the most prolifically collaborative mathematician in history. Hundreds of colleagues who have published with him or been advised by him can trace some breakthrough or insight to an evening with Erdös, brain open.


Erdös didn't just share his genius. He shared his money. It seems comical to say so because he had so little. But, in fact, it is rather touching. He had so little because he gave away everything he earned. He was a soft touch for whatever charitable or hard-luck cause came his way. In India, he once gave away the proceeds from a few lectures he had delivered there to Ramanujan's impoverished widow.

A few years ago, Graham tells me, Erdös heard of a promising young mathematician who wanted to go to Harvard but was short the money needed. Erdös arranged to see him and lent him $1,000. (The sum total of the money Erdös carried around at any one time was about $30.) He told the young man he could pay it back when he was able to. Recently, the young man called Graham to say that he had gone through Harvard and now was teaching at Michigan and could finally pay the money back. What should he do?

Graham consulted Erdös. Erdös said, "Tell him to do with the $1,000 what I did."

No survivors indeed.

Mr. Babbitt will be working under the direction of RPI Professors Ron Eglash and Mukkai Krishnamoorthy. Professor Eglash has an Erdos number of 3, via his collaboration with Albany Area Math Circle advisorProfessor Krishnamoorthy, who has an Erdos number of 2.

What a wonderful legacy and tradition.

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