“I… I th… thought you’d left,” I stammered.
“I came back,” he replied nonchalantly. “It’s not as if I died.” He looked at me accusingly.
Such lively eyes staring at me from a deathly face were unnerving. I gave in, and went to get some textbooks.
“Let’s work on something together,” he suggested. “My brain is open.” Indeed it was, but I tried not to look.
Uncertain though I was about the feasibility of living and undead working together, I could not refuse his offer of collaboration. And that’s how I got a late Erdős number of one.
I wrote this on the way home from Budapest, where Paul Erdős was born and buried. I couldn’t find much information on anything Erdős-related apart from the location of his grave, and since I was only there for around 28 hours I didn’t particularly want to spend an hour or so to visit that. But as you can see from the story, I’m glad I did. [Note: I actually didn’t.]
In case you’re not aware, Paul Erdős was a machine for converting caffeine and other stimulants into mathematical theorems, until he ‘left’ in 1996. He was known for collaborating with a lot of people; indeed, he’d travel from one mathematician’s house to another, each time announcing ‘my brain is open’ and staying with them just long enough to co-author a few papers, and presumably tire them out. This gave rise to the ‘Erdős number‘, a measurement of the collaboration distance to Erdős. Erdős himself had the Erdős number of 0, anyone who co-wrote a paper with him has an Erdős number of 1, anyone who co-authored a paper with them has an Erdős number of at most 2, and so on.
He had a few interesting quirks of language; central to this story are his use of the word ‘left’ to mean ‘died’, and ‘died’ to mean ‘stopped doing mathematics’. Now that you know that, which character in the story was undead?
This is my first drabble, which is a story of exactly 100 words. If you want to check this, don’t be fooled by the count given by a word-counting program; ‘th… thought’ is really only a rendering of one word. If you think it’s two words, feel free to remove the ‘th…’ or one of the dozen other unnecessary words. This is not a particularly tight drabble; it started off at about 70 words and I had to pad it out a bit. Some of the padding was useful (‘My brain is open’, the doubts about living/undead collaboration, and the ambiguous ‘late’ were added at that stage) and some not so much; I should probably have spent more time making sure every word had a purpose before posting it. Consider it a draft.
The title, of course, is a line from Jonathan Coulton’s Re: Your Brains.
I’ve just read that today is Martin Gardner‘s birthday. If you don’t want to ‘die’, you could try some of his recreational mathematics, or watch Vi Hart making hexaflexagons.