Paul Erdos: Model Academic

17 Apr

I get that it’s hard to avoid jumping on the apparent irony in Paul Krugman accepting roughly 1/4 mil. per annum for a non-teaching faculty position at CUNY, where he will be focusing his efforts on the study of income inequality

Fair enough.

Frankly, though, I’d rather they give him a cool million and cut ex-Chancellor Goldstein’s emeritus salary, which will see him take home over $500,000/yr for the next seven years, after which he will continue to receive a substantial pension.

Let’s also keep in mind that Krugman is almost certainly taking a substantial pay cut here. He was a tenured faculty member at Princeton where he easily stood out among even that apex university’s most distinguished professors. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, the crown jewel of a generally awe-inspiring CV. He has a regular column in the New York Times, a platform from which he’s established himself as our foremost public voice of reason on political and economic matters and as an often admirable scourge of the ruling classes. Is that a justification for exorbitant pay? No. But given the funding major research universities dole out to hire MBAs for ever-expanding administrative bureaucracies and athletics, I’d rather they start bringing up faculty pay across the board while gutting the rest of the budget. 

While we should by no means accept the deplorable state of American academe, as things stand it’s all-but-axiomatic that to be a successful academic in the US is to take a healthy bourgeois salary from an institution which saddles students with crippling debt and breaks the backs of criminally underpaid adjunct faculty. To single out Krugman and not your favorite academic celebrity simply on account of his research interests is symptomatic of the click-driven ephemeral outrage cycle that draws ire away from more deserving—but less readily digestible/apparent—targets.

That said, it’s worth considering the exceptions and asking why academics don’t do more to emulate them.

Like Krugman, the Hungarian mathematician and peripatetic couch crasher Paul Erdős had a storied and academically fruitful stint at Princeton.

But unlike Krugman, Erdős lacked a suitable disposition to plant his feet there. From Joshua Hill’s wonderful essay, ‘Paul Erdős: Mathematical Genius, Human (In That Order)’:

Erdos at Princeton - Edited

And unlike the vast preponderance of successful academics, Erdős gave away most of his inessential earnings and prize money to humanitarian causes, friends in need, and as rewards for answers to mathematical problems he didn’t have time to solve.

By most accounts, his only regular personal expenses were food, housing (for when he’d get booted from friends’ apartments), stationary, and amphetamines. Paul Hoffman relates the following in his biography of ErdősThe Man Who Loved Only Numbers

At five foot six, 130 pounds, Erdös had the wizened, cadaverous look of a drug addict, but friends insist he was frail and gaunt long before he started taking amphetamines. His hair was white, and corkscrew-shaped whiskers shot out at odd angles from his face. He usually wore a gray pinstriped jacket, dark trousers, a red or mustard shirt or pajama top, and sandals or peculiar pockmarked Hungarian leather shoes, made especially for his flat feet and weak tendons. His whole wardrobe fit into his one small suitcase, with plenty of room left for his dinosaur of a radio. He had so few clothes that his hosts found themselves washing his socks and underwear several times a week. “He could buy more,” one of his colleagues said, “or he could wash them himself. I mean, it takes zero IQ to learn how to operate a washing machine.” But if it wasn’t mathematics, Erdös wouldn’t be bothered. “Some French socialist said that private property was theft,” Erdös recalled. “I say that private property is a nuisance.”

The only possessions that mattered to him were his mathematical notebooks. He filled ten of them by the time he died. He always carried one around with him, so that he could record his mathematical insights on a moment’s notice. “Erdös came to my twins’ bar mitzvah, notebook in hand,” said Peter Winkler, a colleague of Graham’s at AT&T. “He also brought gifts for my children–he loved kids–and behaved himself very well. But my mother-in-law tried to throw him out. She thought he was some guy who wandered in off the street, in a rumpled suit, carrying a pad under his arm. It is entirely possible that he proved a theorem or two during the ceremony.”

All of his clothes, including his socks and custommade underwear, were silk, because he had an undiagnosed skin condition that was aggravated by other kinds of fabric. He didn’t like people to touch him. If you extended your hand, he wouldn’t shake it. Instead, he’d limply flop his hand on top of yours. “He hated it if I kissed him,” said Magda Fredro, a first cousin who was otherwise very close to him. “And he’d wash his hands fifty times a day. He got water everywhere. It was hell on the bathroom floor.”

Although Erdös avoided physical intimacy, and was always celibate, he was friendly and compassionate. “He existed on a web of trust,” said Aaron Meyerowitz, a mathematician at Florida Atlantic University. “When I was a graduate student and we had never met before, I gave him a ride. I didn’t know the route and asked him if he wanted to navigate with a map. He didn’t want to [and probably didn’t know how to]. He just trusted that I, a total stranger, would get him there.”

What little money Erdös received in stipends or lecture fees he gave away to relatives, colleagues, students, and strangers. He could not pass a homeless person without giving him money. “In the early 1960s, when I was a student at University College London,” recalled D. G. Larman, “Erdös came to visit us for a year. After collecting his first month’s salary he was accosted by a beggar on Euston station, asking for the price of a cup of tea. Erdös removed a small amount from the pay packet to cover his own frugal needs and gave the remainder to the beggar.” In 1984 he won the prestigious Wolf Prize, the most lucrative award in mathematics. He contributed most of the $50,000 he received to a scholarship in Israel he established in the name of his parents. “I kept only seven hundred and twenty dollars,” Erdös said, “and I remember someone commenting that for me even that was a lot of money to keep.” Whenever Erdös learned of a good cause–a struggling classical music radio station, a fledgling Native American movement, a camp for wayward boys–he promptly made a small donation. “He’s been gone a year,” said Graham, “and I’m still getting mail from organizations he gave donations to. Today I got a postcard from an Israeli girls’ home.”

In the late 1980s Erdös heard of a promising high school student named Glen Whitney who wanted to study mathematics at Harvard but was a little short of the tuition. Erdös arranged to see him and, convinced of the young man’s talent, lent him $1,000. He asked Whitney to pay him back only when it would not cause financial strain. A decade later Graham heard from Whitney, who at last had the money to repay Erdös. “Did Erdös expect me to pay interest?” Whitney wondered. “What should I do?” he asked Graham. Graham talked to Erdös. “Tell him,” Erdös said, “to do with the thousand dollars what I did.”

And for a glimpse into how this heterodox lifestyle cashed out in his scholarly routine, this is the Erdős entry from Mason Curry‘s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work:

Screenshot 2014-11-24 at 1.44.54 PM


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