May 24, 2004

Games with numbers  

Some disgruntled academic is auctioning off (through eBay) his name as a co-author on an academic paper, apparently along with at least some of the research assitance co-authorship implies. No surprise here: there've been any number of more bizarre auctions on eBay, and I even have some sinister schemes of my own to use their service for profit and amusement. What caught my eye was this amusement having to do with Paul Erdös:

The idea builds on the reputation of Erdös, a Hungarian mathematician who died in 1996. A prolific researcher, with more than 1,400 published papers, he spent the last several decades of his life moving from one colleague's house to another's, staying for extended periods at each place and collaborating on solving problems.

In honor of the eccentric researcher, many mathematicians started calculating the intellectual connections that separated them from Erdös -- the scholarly equivalent of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. A person who has written a paper directly with Erdös has an Erdös number of 1. A researcher who published with an Erdös co-author would have an Erdös number of 2, and so on.

These numbers are taken quite seriously. The winner of the auction bid more than $1000 to prevent the devaluing of Erdös numbers. The fellow auctioning his name and services has an Erdös number of 4.


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