The Homeless Mathematician

When I was growing up, an unusual houseguest would show up at our door every few years. With steeply-arched eyebrows, a mile-wide grin, gigantic ears that looked like they could flap in the wind, and a wild tousle of white hair, he seemed to my 8-year-old self to resemble nothing less than an oversized hamster or rabbit. In a distinctive, nasal-whiney voice he would utter words in some unintelligible language that nevertheless seemed related to English. He called me and my brother “epsilons” and spoke of a mysterious food called “pea-napple-uppsheed-did-doven-tosh.” After a couple of weeks, he would disappear as suddenly as he had shown up.

Only years later, as an adult, did I learn that this man was one of the most famous mathematicians in the world: Paul Erdős. Born in Hungary, he published over 1,500 mathematical papers, many of them groundbreaking proofs that nobody else could solve. Even more remarkably, he was homeless: for most of his life he had no permanent address, and all his possessions fit in a suitcase. Traveling the world constantly, he stayed with mathematicians for a few weeks at a time while he collaborated on solving problems and writing articles. My father was also a mathematician, and that’s why Erdős would visit us. So renowned and prolific was Erdős that mathematicians are now assigned an “Erdős number” based on whether they co-authored a paper with him. Kind of like “six degrees of separation” for mathematics, people who wrote an article with him (such as my father) are designated with an Erdős number of one, while those who wrote an article with one of his co-authors get the number two, and so on.

The unusual-sounding words Erdős spoke to us were part of a private vocabulary that he invented, an amalgam of Hungarian, English, and mathematical terms: “epsilon” (a Greek letter used to represent a small mathematical quantity) was Erdős’ word for “child”. And “pea-napple-uppsheed-did-doven-tosh” was his rendering of “pineapple upside-down cake”. I learned much more about this fascinating man—and you can too!—by reading two excellent biographies from The Seattle Public Library: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth and My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdős. The library also has a wonderful documentary available through our Kanopy streaming service: N Is A Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős. There’s even a children’s book about him: The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős. How I wish I could have read that book when I was a child and this unusual, charming man would show up on our doorstep!

Although the type of homelessness that Paul Erdős experienced is quite different from that currently affecting many people in Seattle (and other cities around the country), Erdős’ life serves as an important reminder: Homelessness takes many forms, there are many different life stories behind houseless individuals, and you might be surprised to learn who in your life is insecurely-housed.

~posted by Chris


November Literary Holidays

November marks twelve months of literary holidays! So to finish it off, here are three November literary holidays.

The entire month is Picture Book Month, an international initiative to support literacy and encourage the use of picture books. There are blogs dedicated to championing the importance of picture books throughout the month. So in honor of picture books, here are some recommendations for you.

  • Blue Frog by Dianne de la Casas is a fun book of a native Central American legend. How the gods first shared chocolate with humans.
  • A Different Pond by Bao Phi is gorgeous book about a boy who fishes with his father, with context that goes so much deeper. It’s worth sharing with your children.
  • Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk follows Juna whose friend, Hector, has moved away and she starts to put items in her special kimchi jar to try to find Hector.

Blue Frog A Different Pond Juna's Jar Continue reading “November Literary Holidays”

November is for transgender and intersex awareness

This November marks an important time for transgender and intersex communities — not only as a crucial moment for intersex political organizing, but also as a period of celebration and remembrance: Intersex Solidarity Day is celebrated on November 8th, the birthday of Herculine Barbin.  Barbin was a French intersex woman who was forcibly assigned male by a court after her affair and medical examinations were made public.  Transgender Awareness Week is the second week of the month, leading up to Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th. This international observance honors the lives of trans people, and remembers those who have been killed due to transphobic violence. As nonbinary library employees of color, we’ve compiled this list of books that center the lives and experiences of intersex, transgender, and non-binary people.

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shreya
This short volume of essays is a deeply vulnerable examination of masculine violence in our society. The essays are accessible, profoundly honest, and they serve to help us all think more deeply about gendered violence. Content warning for self-harm, transmisogyny (violence against trans women), abuse. Continue reading “November is for transgender and intersex awareness”

Celebrating Transgender Awareness Month

Back by popular demand! The University Branch will be hosting the third annual Trans Shorts and Speed Friending event on November 12th from 6 – 7:30 p.m. to coincide with Transgender Awareness Month and Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th. We’re partnering with Three Dollar Bill Cinema and TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival to make this event possible, and along with Three Dollar Bill, we’ll also have Seattle Nonbinary Collective, Lavender Rights Project, and Camp Ten Trees on hand to share information about their organizations during the event.

Trans Shorts & Speed Friending will be a fun evening consisting of film shorts made by transgender filmmakers followed by Speed Friending.  If you’re looking for a low-stress and fun way to meet other queer/trans folks in a friendly environment then this is the event for you. This is a welcoming environment with refreshments and entertaining discussion prompts that will be sure to help facilitate connections and promote lively conversation.   Folks with accessibility needs can be buzzed into the building on the north side of the library and there are several single occupancy restrooms in the building. Continue reading “Celebrating Transgender Awareness Month”

New Nonfiction Roundup – November 2018

11/6: Born to Be PosthumousEdward Gorey’s macabre stories and illustrations have influenced Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket, and Mark Dery’s biography looks at the eccentric author’s private life.

11/6: Churchill. Andrew Roberts chronicles the life of Winston Churchill; extensive new content make this a standout biography of the one of the twentieth century’s foremost leaders.

11/6: Holiday & Celebration Bread in Five Minutes a DayBaking during the holidays? The latest entry from Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg present 100 quick and easy bread recipes from around the world. Continue reading “New Nonfiction Roundup – November 2018”