After one of my lectures a year or so 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 tried to find out and eventually posted about it.

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.

Anyway, my erstwhile PhD supervisor John D. Barrow recently emailed to point out that he had written a paper with Robin Wilson, who once co-authored a paper (on graph theory) with Erdős himself. That means John’s Erdős number is now 2, mine is consequently no higher than 3, and anyone I’ve ever written a paper with now has an Erdős number no greater than 4.

I’ll be making sure this new information is included in our forthcoming REF submission.

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