After one of my lectures a few weeks ago, a student came up to me and asked whether I had an Erdős number and, if so, what it was. I didn’t actually know what he was talking about but was yesterday reminded of it, so tried to find out.
In case you didn’t know, Paul Erdős (who died in 1996) was an eccentric Hungarian mathematician who wrote more than 1000 mathematical papers during his life but never settled in one place for any length of time. He travelled between colleagues and conference, mostly living out of a suitcase, and showed no interest at all in property or possessions. His story is a fascinating one, and his contributions to mathematics were immense and wide-ranging. The Erdős number is a tiny part of his legacy, but one that seems to have taken hold. Some mathematicians appear to take it very seriously, but most treat it with tongue firmly in cheek, as I certainly do.
So what is the Erdős number?
It’s actually quite simple to define. First, Erdős himself is assigned an Erdős number of zero. Anyone who co-authored a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1. Then anyone who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 2, and so on. The Erdős number is thus a measure of “collaborative distance”, with lower numbers representing closer connections.
I say it’s quite easy to define, but it’s rather harder to calculate. Or it would be were it not for modern bibliographic databases. In fact there’s a website run by the American Mathematical Society which allows you to calculate your Erdős number as well as a similar measure of collaborative distance with respect to any other mathematician.
A list of individuals with very low Erdős numbers (1, 2 or 3) can be found here.
Given that Erdős was basically a pure mathematician, I didn’t expect first to show up as having any Erdős number at all, since I’m not really a mathematician and I’m certainly not very pure. However, his influence is clearly felt very strongly in physics and a surprisingly large number of physicists (and astronomers) have a surprisingly small Erdős number. According to the AMS website, mine is 5 – much lower than I would have expected. The path from me to Erdős in this case goes through G.F.R. Ellis, a renowned expert in the mathematics of general relativity (as well as a ridiculous number of other things!). I wrote a paper and a book with George Ellis some time ago.
However, looking at the list I realise that I have another route to Erdős, through the great Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold, who has an Erdős number of 3. Arnold wrote a paper with Sergei Shandarin with whom I wrote a paper some time ago. That gives me another route to an Erdős number of 5, but I can’t find any paths shorter than that.
I guess many researchers will have links through their PhD supervisors, so I checked mine – John D. Barrow. It turns out he also has an Erdős number of 5 so a path through him doesn’t lower my number.
I used to work in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, and it is there that I found some people I know well who have lower Erdős numbers than me. Reza Tavakol, for example, has an Erdős number of 3 but although I’ve known him for 20 years, we’ve never written a paper together. If we did, I could reduce my Erdős number by one. You never know….
This means that anyone I’ve ever written a paper with has an Erdős number no greater than 6. I doubt if it’s very important, but it definitely qualifies as Quite Interesting.