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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

N is a Number

I mentioned two days ago that I was going to watch N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős, a documentary that had been enthusiastically recommended to me by my former student, Kelly Mathislife. She writes that N is a Number is the “best movie ever” — although she does admit to a slight bias since Erdős is her hero.

So now I’ve watched it, with help from Netflix, which coincidentally delivered the DVD on Erdős’s birthday! This really was a genuine coincidence, since I had put it in my queue a couple of months ago with no idea when it would rise to #1. Anyway, Kelly knows that I certainly intend no disrespect toward her when I point out that of course she was exaggerating; N is a Number isn’t quite the “best movie ever.” It isn’t even even the best documentary ever. But it’s definitely a well-made, captivating documentary that should be watched by every math teacher, math student, and mathematician. It becomes totally clear that Erdős meets Paul Graham’s criteria that I discussed two days ago: absolute honesty and caring obsessively about his work.

Erdős, who died 12 years ago at age 83, was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th Century and certainly the most prolific; he is best known for his peripatetic life style, having had no fixed abode and collaborating extensively with hundreds of other mathematicians wherever he traveled. The movie is successful at vividly letting the viewer know the kind of person Erdős was, portraying him in person and through the eyes of his collaborators. Fortunately the filmmakers were willing to use subtitles extensively, since the accents of various Hungarian mathematicians (and others) could get in the way of ready understanding, even though almost everyone in the documentary was speaking English. As a math teacher, I thought there was a bit too much of an emphasis on anecdotes, but that’s a small cavil; I use anecdotes myself in similar ways, and I recognize that it’s the best way for the film to appeal to a general audience, who wouldn’t want to watch or listen to lots of mathematics.

I want to quote a couple of snippets out of N is a Number. One comes from Ron Graham — another Graham! but no relation to the aforementioned Paul Graham, as far as I know — who has a major role in the movie:
When mathematics appears in print, it’s theorem, proof, theorem, proof, but when we’re doing math it’s a completely different thing. It’s three or four people sitting around with cups of coffee, a pad of paper, throwing ideas back and forth, making a lot of conjectures, most of which turn out to be completely false.
That’s what should happen from time to time in our math classes, but it almost never does, even at Weston, except in last year’s Friday-afternoon optional after-school math get-togethers.

The other snippet comes from Erdős himself:
We’re trying to read the pages of The Book. We don’t create mathematics, we’re just trying to read the pages of The Book.
How Platonist can you get? This is clearly the right attitude toward the mathematical endeavor!

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