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For those of you who dream of solving the math problem where a number N whose expression (N+x) can be connected to the subset of (N-y) umpteen-kazillion different ways but only six of them are primes, then run — do not walk — to the nearest video store to get a copy of N Is a Number, because finally someone has made a film for you.

... Not that there haven’t been some mainstream attempts in the recent past. There was A Beautiful Mind and Proof but they were dramas that only used mathematics as a plot device.

In N Is a Number we have the real hats-off-gentlemen-a-genius deal: and he is Paul Erdos the Hungarian mathematics legend of the 20th Century. You don’t have to be a mathematician to fall in love with this DVD... but it will help.

Roamin’ Numerals

Erdos was one of the cadre of intellectuals who came of age at a peak of European civilization, only to be dispersed or killed by the turmoil of the Second World War. But Erdos was a wanderer anyway. After he left Hungary, he never had a home again.

But in a sense Erdos had already begun his unconventional life when as a youngster he discovered his passion for solving problems about numbers. It was his mathematic talent that sent him to the United States in 1938 and probably saved his life.

Paul Erdos the man suffered during the war, not knowing what had happened to his mother and friends. Paul Erdos the mathematician soldiered on, writing proofs, postulating problems and publishing papers.

Indeed he authored or co-authored so many papers that he is credited with being the ‘most prolific mathematician that ever lived’. He was a scholar in the classic medieval sense traveling from university to university carrying the latest news. Several of his colleague credit him with being a ‘bee that carries the pollen of mathematics from flower to flower’.

The Erdos Defense

Director George Paul Csicsery chose to approach Erdos from a mathematical point of view rather than from a literary one. By that I mean we see Erdos foremost as a mathematician, with added details about his life as they pertain to his work, rather than the other way around. This may limit the N (so to speak) of the audience.

If Csicsery had done a traditional, literary biography of Erdos, I think he would have come across as a more tragic figure, one who was freakish and strange. But that hypothetical film would have missed the point of his successes. The fact that Erdos was an odd little man — if not a genuine eccentric — is apparent in the film. And really, any exceptional person — wether their genius be athletics, beauty, or brains — is out of the ordinary, a true freak of nature. Since the thing that is most important to understanding Paul Erdos was mathematics, it is appropriate that it takes center stage.

Erdos reminds me somewhat of Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin in Nabokov’s “The Luzhin Defense”. In the course of that story, Luzhin, who is a chess genius, begins to see the world in terms of chess moves. His life literally becomes a chess game. Likewise, Erdos seemed to have had a way of reducing his life to a problem of mathematics. For instance he had a charming term for the Devil as the ‘Supreme Fascist’ which he then expressed as the ‘SF’. He then explains that every time you do something bad, the SF gains a point. Curiously, when you do something good, you don’t get a point, but the SF’s gain is null. The purpose of one’s life is to keep the SF’s score as low as possible.

Luzin’s story ends tragically but Erdos seems to have led a satisfying life (he died in 1996) depriving the SF of as many points as he could. And as a result, Erdos was much beloved and had a large support system within the worldwide mathematics community. They recognized him for the treasure that he was and cared for him accordingly.

Math First

Csicsery makes a game attempt to soften the abstract world of mathematical constructs with some graphic animations ( slot machines that call up prime numbers and the like) but I’m afraid that will only annoy the real mathematicians in the audience, while not being enough to draw in the humanities majors. Still, Csicsery has made a solid but small film for a equally small but solid audience.

The person who really needs to see this film is a kid aged 10-12 who might have a knack for mathematics but may not realize the possibilities of a life centered on numbers. If you know of such a person, show them this film.

DVD Extras

There is a nice, if somewhat small, printed insert of tributes to Paul Erdos made after his his death. On the DVD itself there are 20 minutes of additional scenes with Erdos.

Picture and Sound

Good on both counts. This is a professional production.

How to Use this DVD

If you are not mathematically inclined, be sympathetic to Erdos’ passion and talent for mathematics. There is an engaging story here if you don’t let the math intimidate you. If you are a mathematician, sit back and enjoy the show.