The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 08 Aug 2017

That time I met Erdős

I should have written about this sooner, by now it has been so long that I have forgotten most of the details.

I first encountered Paul Erdős in the middle 1980s at a talk by János Pach about almost-universal graphs. Consider graphs with a countably infinite set of vertices. Is there a "universal" graph !!G!! such that, for any finite or countable graph !!H!!, there is a copy of !!H!! inside of !!G!!? (Formally, this means that there is an injection from the vertices of !!H!! to the vertices of !!G!! that preserves adjacency.) The answer is yes; it is quite easy to construct such a !!G!! and in fact nearly all random graphs have this property.

But then the questions become more interesting. Let !!K_\omega!! be the complete graph on a countably infinite set of vertices. Say that !!G!! is “almost universal” if it includes a copy of !!H!! for every finite or countable graph !!H!! except those that contain a copy of !!K_\omega!!. Is there an almost universal graph? Perhaps surprisingly, no! (Sketch of proof.)

I enjoyed the talk, and afterward in the lobby I got to meet Ron Graham and Joel Spencer and talk to them about their Ramsey theory book, which I had been reading, and about a problem I was working on. Graham encouraged me to write up my results on the problem and submit them to Mathematics Magazine, but I unfortunately never got around to this. Graham was there babysitting Erdős, who was one of Pách's collaborators, but I did not actually talk to Erdős at that time. I think I didn't recognize him. I don't know why I was able to recognize Graham.

I find the almost-universal graph thing very interesting. It is still an open research area. But none of this was what I was planning to talk about. I will return to the point. A couple of years later Erdős was to speak at the University of Pennsylvania. He had a stock speech for general audiences that I saw him give more than once. Most of the talk would be a description of a lot of interesting problems, the bounties he offered for their solutions, and the progress that had been made on them so far. He would intersperse the discussions with the sort of Erdősism that he was noted for: referring to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as “Sam” and “Joe” respectively; his ever-growing series of styles (Paul Erdős, P.G.O.M., A.D., etc.) and so on.

One remark I remember in particular concerned the $3000 bounty he offered for proving what is sometimes known as the Erdős-Túran conjecture: if !!S!! is a subset of the natural numbers, and if !!\sum_{n\in S}\frac 1n!! diverges, then !!S!! contains arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. (A special case of this is that the primes contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions, which was proved in 2004 by Green and Tao, but which at the time was a long-standing conjecture.) Although the $3000 was at the time the largest bounty ever offered by Erdős, he said it was really a bad joke, because to solve the problem would require so much effort that the per-hour payment would be minuscule.

I made a special trip down to Philadelphia to attend the talk, with the intention of visiting my girlfriend at Bryn Mawr afterward. I arrived at the Penn math building early and wandered around the halls to kill time before the talk. And as I passed by an office with an open door, I saw Erdős sitting in the antechamber on a small sofa. So I sat down beside him and started telling him about my favorite graph theory problem.

Many people, preparing to give a talk to a large roomful of strangers, would have found this annoying and intrusive. Some people might not want to talk about graph theory with a passing stranger. But most people are not Paul Erdős, and I think what I did was probably just the right thing; what you don't do is sit next to Erdős and then ask how his flight was and what he thinks of recent politics. We talked about my problem, and to my great regret I don't remember any of the mathematical details of what he said. But he did not know the answer offhand, he was not able solve it instantly, and he did say it was interesting. So! I had a conversation with Erdős about graph theory that was not a waste of his time, and I think I can count that as one of my lifetime accomplishments.

After a little while it was time to go down to the auditorium for the the talk, and afterward one of the organizers saw me, perhaps recognized me from the sofa, and invited me to the guest dinner, which I eagerly accepted. At the dinner, I was thrilled because I secured a seat next to Erdős! But this was a beginner mistake: he fell asleep almost immediately and slept through dinner, which, I learned later, was completely typical.

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