In an age when genius is a mere commodity, it is useful to look at a person who led a rich life without the traditional trappings of success.
A man with no home and no job, Paul Erdös was the most prolific mathematician who ever lived. Born in Hungary in 1913, Erdös wrote and co-authored over 1,500 papers and pioneered several fields in theoretical mathematics. At the age of 83 he still spent most of his time on the road, going from math meeting to math meeting, continually working on problems. He died on September 20, 1996 while attending such a meeting in Warsaw, Poland.
The film opens at Cambridge University’s 1991 honorary doctorate ceremony, where Erdös received an award he says he would gladly trade for a “nice new proof.” For Erdös, the meaning of life is “to prove and conjecture.”
The structure of N is a Number is based on Erdös’s 50 years of perpetual wandering, “like a bumblebee,” carrying news and mathematical information from university to university. Erdös established himself as a serious mathematician at the age of 20 when he devised a more elegant proof for Chebyshev’s theorem, i.e., that there is always a prime number between any number and its double.
N is a Number is a one-hour 16mm documentary filmed over a four-year period in four countries between 1988 and 1991. The film was produced, directed and edited by George Paul Csicsery. Cinematography is by John Knoop and original music was composed by Mark Adler.