A leaf out of Paul Erdos’ biography: My Brain is Open: by Bruce Schechter


My Brain is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos by Bruce Schechter, a TouchStone Book, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York.

Amazon India link:


Chapter One: Traveling.

The call might come at midnight or an hour before dawn — mathematicians are oddly unable to handle the arithmetic of time zones. Typically, a thickly accented voice on the other end of the line would abruptly begin:

“I am calling from Berlin. I want to speak to Erdos.”

“He’s not here, yet.”

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you know!” Click!

Neither are mathematicians always observant of social graces.

For more than sixty years mathematicians around the world have been roused from their abstract dreams by such calls, the first of the many disruptions that constituted a visit from Paul Erdos. The frequency of the calls would increase over the next several days and would culminate with a summons to the airport, where Erdos himself would appear, a short, frail man in a shapeless old suit, clutching two small suitcases that contained all of his worldly possessions. Stepping off the plane he would announce to the welcoming group of mathematicians, “My brain is open!”

Paul Erdos’ brain, when open, was one of the wonders of the world, an Ali Baba’s cave, glittering with mathematical treasures, gems of the most intricate cut and surpassing beauty. Unlike Ali Baba’s cave, which was hidden behind a huge stone in a remote desert, Erdos and his brain were in perpetual motion. He moved between mathematical meetings, universities, and corporate think tanks, logging hundreds of thousands of miles. “Another roof, another proof,” as he liked to say. “Want to meet Erdos?” mathematicians would ask. “Just stay here and wait. He’ll show up.” Along the way, in borrowed offices, guest bedrooms, and airplane cabins, Erdos wrote in excess of 1600 papers, books and articles, more than any other mathematician who ever lived. Among them are some of the great classics of the twentieth century, papers that opened up entire new fields and became the obsession and inspiration of generations of mathematicians.

The meaning of life, Erdos often said, was to prove and conjecture. Proof and conjecture are the tools with which mathematicians explore the Platonic universe of pure form, a universe that to many of them is as real as the universe in which they must reluctantly make their homes and livings, and far more beautiful. “If numbers aren’t beautiful, I don’t know what is,” Erdos frequently remarked. And although, like all mathematicians, he was forced to make his home in the temporal world, he rejected worldly encumbrances. He had no place on earth called home, nothing resembling a conventional year-round, nine-to-five job, and no family in the usual sense of the word. He arranged his life with only one purpose, to spend areas many hours a day as possible engaged in the essential, life-affirming business of proof and conjecture.

For Erdos, the mathematics that consumed most of his waking hours was not a solitary pursuit but a social activity, a movable feast. One of the greatest mathematical discoveries of the twentieth century was the simple equation that two heads are better than one. Ever since Archimedes traced his circles in sand, mathematicians, for the most part, have laboured alone — that is, until some forgotten soul realized that mathematics could be done anywhere. Only paper and pencil were needed, and those were not strictly essential. A table-cloth would do in a pinch, or the mathematician could carry his equations in his head, like a chessmaster playing blindfolded. Strong coffee, and in Erdos’ case even more powerful stimulants, helped too. Mathematicians began to frequent the coffeehouses of Budapest, Prague, and Paris, which led to the quip often attributed to Erdos:”A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Increasingly, mathematical papers became the work of two, three, or more collaborators. That radical transformation of how mathematics is created is the result of many factors, not the least of which was the infectious example set by Erdos.

Erdos had more collaborators than most people have acquaintances. He wrote papers with more than 450 collaborators —- the exact number is still not known, since Erdos participated in the creation of new mathematics until the last day of his life, and his collaborators are expected to continue writing and publishing for years. The briefest encounter could lead to a publication — for scores of young mathematicians a publication that could become the cornerstone of their life’s work. He would work with anyone who could keep up with him, the famous or the unknown. Having been a child prodigy himself, he was particularly interested in meeting and helping to develop the talents of young mathematicians. Many of the world’s leading mathematicians owe their careers to an early meeting with Erdos.

Krishna Alladi, who is now a mathematician at the University of Florida, Gainesville, is one of the many young mathematicians whom Erdos helped. In 1974, when Alladi was an undergraduate in Madras, India, he began an independent investigation of a certain number theoretic function. His teachers could not help Alladi with his problem, nor could his father, who was a theoretical physicist and head of Madras Institute of Mathematics. Alladi’s father told some of his knowledgeable friends about his son’s difficulty, and they suggested that he write to Erdos.

Because Erdos was constantly on the move, Alladii sent a letter to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In an astonishingly short time, Alladi heard from Erdos, who said he would soon be lecturing in Calcutta. Could Alladi come there to meet him? Unfortunately, Alladi had examinations and could not attend, so he sent his father in his place to present the results of his research. After his father’s talk, Alladi recounts, “Erdos walked up to him and told him in very polite terms that he was not interested in the father but in the son.” Determined to meet with the promising young mathematician, Erdos, who was bound for Australia, rerouted his trip to stop briefly in Madras, which lies about 860 miles south of Calcutta.

Alladi was astonished that a great mathematician should change his plans to visit a student. He was nervous when he met Erdos at the airport, but that soon passed. “He talked to me as if he had known me since childhood,” Alladi recalls. The first thing Erdos asked was, “Do you know my poem about Madras?” And then he recited:

This the city of Madras

The home of the curry and the dhal,

Where Iyers speak only to Iyengars

And Iyengars speak only to God.

The Iyers and Iyengars are two Brahmin sects. The Iyers worship Shiva the Destroyer but will also worship in the temples of the Iyengars, who worship only Lord Vishnu, the Protector. Erdos explained that this was his variation on the poem about Boston and the pecking order among the Lowells, the Cabots, and God. Having put Alladi at ease, Erdos launched into a discussion of mathematics. Erdos was so impressed with Alladi, who was applying to graduate schools in the United States, that he wrote a letter on his behalf. Within a month, Alladi received the Chancellor’s Fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A celebrated magazine article about Erdos was called, “The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.” While it is true that Erdos loved numbers, he loved much more. He loved to talk about history, politics, and almost any other subject. He loved to take long walks and to climb towers, no matter how dismal the prospective view, he loved to play ping-pong, chess, and Go, he loved to perform silly tricks to amuse children and to make sly jokes and thumb his nose at authority. But, most of all, Erdos loved those who loved numbers, mathematicians. He showed that love by opening his pocket as well as his mind. Having no permanent job, Erdos also had little money, but whatever he had was at the service of others. If he heard of a graduate student who needed money to continue his studies, he would sent a cheque. Whenever he lectured in Madras, he would send his fee to the needy widow of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan; he had never met Ramanujan or his wife, but the beauty of Ramanujan’s equations had inspired Erdos as a young mathematician. In 1984, he won the prestigious Wolf prize, which came with a cash reward of $at 50000, easily the most money Erdos had ever received at one time. He gave $30000 to endow a postdoctoral fellowship in the name of his parents at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and used the remainder to help relatives, graduate students, and colleagues:”I kept only $720,” Erdos recalled.

In the years before the internet, there was Paul Erdos. He carried a shopping bag crammed with latest papers, and his brain was stuffed with the latest gossip as well as an amazing database of the world of mathematics. He knew everybody: what they were interested in; what they had conjectured, proved, or were in the midst of proving; their phone numbers; the names and ages of their wives, children, pets; and, much more. He could tell off the top of his head on which page in which obscure Russian journal a theorem similar to the one you were working on was proved in 1922. When he met a mathematician in Warsaw, say, he would immediately take up the conversation where they had left it two years earlier. During the iciest years of the Cold War Erdos’s fame allowed him freely to cross the Iron Curtain, so that he became vital link between the East and the West.

In 1938, with Europe on the brink of war, Erdos fled to the United States and embarked on his mathematical journeys. This book is the story of those adventures. Because they took Erdos everywhere mathematics is done, this is also the story of the world of mathematics, a world virtually unknown to outsiders.. Today perhaps the only mathematician most people can name is Theodore Kacznyski. The names of Karl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, Georg Cantor and Leonhard Euler, who are to Mathematics what Shakespeare is to literature and Mozart to music, are virtually unknown outside of the worlds of math and science.

For all frequent flier miles Erdos collected, his true voyages were journeys of the mind. Erdos carefully constructed his life to allow himself as much time as possible for those inward journeys, so a true biography of Erdos should spend almost as much time in the Platonic realm of mathematics as in the real world. For a layman this may seem to be a forbidding prospect. Fortunately, many of the ideas that fascinated Erdos can be easily grasped by anyone with a modest recollection of high school mathematics. The proofs and conjectures that made Erdos famous are, of course, far more difficult to follow, but that should not be of much concern to the reader. As Ralph Boas wrote, “Only professional mathematicians learn anything from proofs. Other people learn from explanations.” Just as it is not necessary to understand how Glenn Gould fingers a difficult passage to be dazzled by his performance of thee “Goldberg Variations,” one does not have to understand the details of Erdos’s elegant proofs to appreciate the beauty of mathematics. And, it is the nature of Erdos’s work that while his proofs are difficult, the questions he asks can be quite easy to understand. Erdos often offered money for the solution to problems he proposed. Some of those problems are enough for readers of this book to understand — and, perhaps, even solve. Those who decide to try should be warned that, as Erdos has pointed out, when the number of hours it takes to solve one of his problems is taken into account, the cash prizes rarely exceed minimum wage. The true prize is to share in the joy that Erdos knew so well, joy in understanding a page of the eternal book of mathematics.

— shared by Nalin Pithwa (to motivate his students and readers.)

Diophantus of Alexandria: some trivia, some tidbits

The name/word Diophantine equation honours the mathematician Diophantus, who initiated the study of such equations. Practically, nothing is known of Diophantus as an individual, save that he lived in Alexandria sometime around 250 A.D. The only positive evidence as to the date of his activity is that the Bishop of Laodicea, who began his episcopate in 270, dedicated a book on Egyptian computation to his friend Diophantus. Although Diophantus’ works were written in Greek and he displayed the Greek genius for theoretical abstraction, he was most likely a Hellenized Babynolian. The only personal particulars we have of his career come from the wording of an epigram-problem (apparently dating from the 4th century). His boyhood lasted 1/6 of his life; his beard grew after 1/12 more; after 1/7 more he married; and his son was born 5 years later, the son lived to half his father’s age and the father died 4 years after his son. If x was the age at which Diophantus died, these data lead to the equation:

\frac{1}{6}x + \frac{1}{12}x + \frac{1}{7}x + 5 + \frac{1}{2}x + 4=x

with solution x=84. Thus, he must have reached an age of 84, but in what year or even in what century is not certain.

The great work upon which the reputation of Diophantus rests is his Arithmetica, which may be described as the earliest treatise on algebra. Only six Books of the original thirteen have been preserved. It is in the Arithmetica that we find the first systematic use of mathematical notation, although the signs employed are of the nature of abbreviations for words rather than algebraic symbols in the sense with which we use them today. Special symbols are introduced to represent frequently occurring concepts, such as the unknown quantity in an equation  and the different powers of the unknown up to the sixth power. Diophantus also had a symbol to express subtraction, and another for equality.

It is customary to apply the term Diophantine equation to any equation in one or more unknowns that is to be solved in the integers. The simplest type of Diophantine equation is the linear Diophantine equation in two variables:


where a, b, c are given integers and a, b are not both zero. A solution of this equation is a pair of integers x_{0}, y_{0} that, when substituted in to the equation, satisfy it; that is, we ask that ax_{0}+by_{0}=c. Curiously enough, the linear equation does not appear in the extant works of Diophantus (the theory required for its solution is to be found in Euclid’s Elements), because he viewed it as trivial, most of his problems deal with finding squares or cubes with certain properties.


Elementary Number Theory, David M. Burton, 6th edition, Tata McGraw Hill Edition.

More such interesting information about famous mathematical personalities is found in the classic, “Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell”.

— Nalin Pithwa

Richard Feyman: colourful life.


Thanks to Hindustan Times and Rachel Lopez.


Remembering Richard Feynman on his 100th birth centenary


Thanks to Hindustan Times and Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya, TIFR, Mumbai.

Co-ordinate geometry practice for IITJEE Maths: Ellipses

Problem 1:

Find the locus of the point of intersection of tangents to the ellipse \frac{x^{2}}{a^{2}} + \frac{y^{2}}{a^{2}}=1, which are at right angles.

Solution I:

Any tangent to the ellipse is y = mx + \sqrt{a^{2}m^{2}+b^{2}}….call this equation I.

Equation of the tangent perpendicular to this tangent is y=-\frac{-1}{m}x+\sqrt{\frac{a^{2}}{m^{2}}+b^{2}}…call this equation II.

The locus of the intersection of tangent lines (i) and (ii) is obtained by eliminating m between these equations. So, squaring and adding them, we get


\Longrightarrow (1+m^{2})(x^{2}+y^{2})=(1+m^{2})(a^{2}+b^{2})

\Longrightarrow x^{2}+y^{2}=a^{2}+b^{2}

which is a circle with its centre at the centre of the ellipse and radius equal to the length of the line joining the ends of the major and minor axis. This circle is called the director circle of the ellipse.

Problem II:

A tangent to the ellipse x^{2}+4y^{2}=4 meets the ellipse x^{2}+2y^{2}=6 at P and Q. Prove that the tangents at P and Q of the ellipse x^{2}+2y^{2}=6 at right angles.

Solution II:

Let the tangent at R(2\cos {\theta}, \sin{\theta}) to the ellipse x^{2}+4y^{2}=4 meet the ellipse x^{2}+2y^{2}=6 at P and Q.

Let the tangents at P and Q to the second ellipse intersect at the point S(\alpha,\beta). Then, PQ is the chord of contact of the point S(\alpha,\beta) with respect to ellipse two, and so its equation is

\alpha x + 2\beta y=6….call this “A”.

PQ is also the tangent at R(2\cos {\theta}, \sin{\theta}) to the first ellipse and so the equation can be written as (2\cos{\theta})x+(4\sin{\theta})y=4….call this “B”.

Comparing “A” and “B”, we get \frac{2\cos{\theta}}{\alpha} = \frac{4\sin{\theta}}{2\beta} = \frac{4}{6}

\Longrightarrow \cos{\theta}=\frac{\alpha}{3} and \sin{\theta}=\frac{\beta}{3}

\Longrightarrow \frac{\alpha^{2}}{9} + \frac{\beta^{2}}{9}=1 \Longrightarrow \alpha^{2}+\beta^{2}=9

The locus of S( \alpha, \beta) is x^{2}+y^{2}=9, or x^{2}+y^{2}=6+3, which is the director circle of the second ellipse.

Hence, the tangents at P and Q to the ellipse (ii) are at right angles (by the solution to the previous example).

Problem 3:

Let d be the perpendicular distance from the centre of the ellipse \frac{x^{2}}{a^{2}} + \frac{y^{2}}{b^{2}}=1 to the tangent drawn at a point P on the ellipse. If F_{1} and F_{}{2} are the two foci of the ellipse, then show that (PF_{1}-PF_{2})^{2}=4a^{2}(1-\frac{b^{2}}{d^{2}})

Solution 3:

Equation of the tangent at the point P(a\cos {\theta}, b\sin{\theta}) on the given ellipse is \frac{x\cos{\theta}}{a} + \frac{y\sin{\theta}}{b}=1. Thus,

d= |\frac{-1}{\sqrt{\frac{\cos^{2}{\theta}}{a^{2}}+\frac{\sin^{2}{\theta}}{b^{2}}}}|

\Longrightarrow d^{2}=\frac{a^{2}b^{2}}{b^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta}+a^{2}\sin^{2}{\theta}}

We know PF_{1}+PF_{2}=2a

\Longrightarrow (PF_{1}-PF_{2})^{2}=(PF_{1}+PF_{2})^{2}-4PF_{1}PF_{2}…call this equation I.

Also, (PF_{1}.PF_{2})^{2}=[ (a\cos{\theta}-ae)^{2}+(b\sin{\theta})^ {2}].[(a\cos{\theta}+ae)^{2} + (b\sin{\theta})^{2}], which in turn equals,

[a^{2}(\cos{\theta}-e)^{2}+a^{2}(1-e^{2})\sin^{2}{\theta} ]. [a^{2}(\cos{\theta}+e)^{2}+a^{2}(1-e^{2})\sin^{2}{\theta} ], that is,

a^{4}[ (\cos^{2}{\theta}+e^{2}) -2e\cos{\theta}+\sin^{2}{\theta} - e^{2} \sin^{2}{\theta} ]. [ (\cos^{2}{\theta}+e^{2}) + 2e \cos{\theta} + \sin^{2}{\theta} - e^{2}\sin^{2}{\theta}] = a^{4}[ 1-2e\cos{\theta}+e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta} ] [1+ 2e \cos{\theta} + e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta} ]

that is,

a^{4}[ (1+e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta})^{2}-4e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta}] = a^{4}(1-e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta})^{2}

\Longrightarrow PF_{1}. PF_{2}=a^{2}(1-e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta})

Now, from I, we get (PF_{1} - PF_{2})^{2} = 4a^{2}-4a^{2}(1-e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta}) = 4a^{2}e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta},

also, 1-\frac{b^{2}}{a^{2}} = 1 - \frac{b^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta} + a^{2}\sin^{2}{\theta}}{a^{2}} = \frac{(a^{2}-b^{2})\cos^{2}{\theta}}{a^{2}} = e^{2}\cos^{2}{\theta}

Hence, (PF_{1} - PF_{2})^{2} = 4a^{2}(1-\frac{b^{2}}{d^{2}})

we will continue later,


Nalin Pithwa

B.S. in Mathematics: IIT Bombay program:


Note that the admission is through IITJEE Advanced only.

Nalin Pithwa.

Co-ordinate Geometry problems for IITJEE : equations of median, area of a triangle, and circles

Problem I:

If A(x_{1}, y_{1}), B(x_{1}, y_{1}) and C(x_{3}, y_{3}) are the vertices of a triangle ABC, then prove that the equation of the median through A is given by:

\left | \begin{array}{ccc} x & y & 1 \\ x_{1} & y_{1} & 1 \\ x_{2} & y_{2} & 1  \end{array}\right | + \left | \begin{array}{ccc} x & y & 1 \\ x_{1} & y_{1} & 1 \\ x_{3} & y_{3} & 1 \end{array}\right |=0

Solution I:

If D is the mid-point of BC, its co-ordinates are ( \frac{x_{2}+x_{3}}{2}, \frac{y_{2}+y_{3}}{2} )

Therefore, equation of the median AD is \left | \begin{array}{ccc}x & y & 1 \\ x_{1} & y_{1} & 1\\ \frac{x_{2}+x_{3}}{2} & \frac{y_{2}+y_{3}}{2} & 1 \end{array} \right|=0, which in turn, implies that,

\left | \begin{array}{ccc}x & y & 1 \\ x_{1} & y_{1} & 1 \\ x_{2}+x_{3} & y_{2}+y_{3} & 2 \end{array}\right |=0

Now apply the row transformation R_{3} \rightarrow 2R_{3} to the previous determinant. So, we get

\left | \begin{array}{ccc}x & y & 1 \\ x_{1} & y_{1} & 1 \\ x_{2} & y_{2} & 1 \end{array}\right | + \left | \begin{array}{ccc}x & y & 1 \\ x_{1} & y_{1} & 1 \\ x_{3} & y_{3} & 1 \end{array} \right |=0, using the sum property of determinants.

Hence, the proof.

Problem 2:

If \triangle_{1} is the area of the triangle with vertices (0,0), (a\tan {\alpha},b\cot{\alpha}), (a\sin{\alpha}, b\cos {\alpha}), and \triangle_{2} is the area of the triangle with vertices (a,b), (a\sec^{2}{\alpha}, b\csc^{2}{\alpha}), and (a+a\sin^{2}{\alpha}, b+b\cos^{2}{\alpha}), and \triangle_{3} is the area of the triangle with vertices ( 0, 0), ( a\tan{\alpha}, -b\cos{\alpha}), (a\sin{\alpha},b\cos{\alpha}). Then, prove that there is no value of \alpha for which the areas of triangles, \triangle_{1}, \triangle_{2} and \triangle_{3} are in GP.

Solution 2:

We have \triangle_{1}=\frac{1}{2}|\left | \begin{array}{ccc}0 & 0 & 1 \\ a\tan{\alpha} & b\cot {\alpha} & 1 \\ a \sin{\alpha} & b\cos{\alpha} & 1 \end{array}\right ||=\frac{1}{2}ab|\sin{\alpha}-\cos{\alpha}|, and

\triangle_{2}=\frac{1}{2}|\left | \begin{array}{ccc}a & b & 1 \\ a\sec^{2}{\alpha} & b\csc^{2}{\alpha} & 1 \\ a + a\sin^{2}{\alpha} & b + b\cos^{2}{\alpha} & 1 \end{array} \right | |.

Applying the following column transformations to the above determinant, C_{1} \rightarrow -aC_{3} and C_{2}-bC_{3}, we get

\triangle_{2}=\frac{1}{2}ab\left | \begin{array}{ccc}0 & 0 & 1 \\ \tan^{2}{\alpha} & \cot^{2}{\alpha} & 1 \\ \sin^{2}{\alpha} & \cos^{2}{\alpha} & 1 \end{array}\right | = \frac{1}{2}ab(\sin^{2}{\alpha}-\cos^{2}{\alpha}) and \triangle_{3}=\frac{1}{2}|\left | \begin{array}{ccc} 0 & 0 & 1 \\ a\tan{\alpha} & -b\cot{\alpha} & 1 \\ a\sin{\alpha} & b\cos{\alpha} & 1 \end{array} \right | |=\frac{1}{2}ab |\sin {\alpha}+\cos{\alpha}|

so that \triangle_{1}\triangle_{3}=\frac{1}{2}ab\triangle_{2}.

Now, \triangle_{1}, \triangle_{2} and \triangle_{3} are in GP, if \triangle_{1}\triangle_{3}=\triangle_{2}^{2} \Longrightarrow \frac{1}{2}ab\triangle_{2}=\triangle_{2}^{2} \Longrightarrow \triangle_{2}=\frac{1}{2}ab

\Longrightarrow \triangle_{2}=\frac{1}{2}ab(\sin^{2}{\alpha}-\cos^{2}{\alpha})=\frac{1}{2}ab \Longrightarrow (\sin^{2}{\alpha}-\cos^{2}{alpha})=1, that is,

\alpha = (2m+1)\pi/2, where m \in Z. But, for this value of \alpha, the vertices of the given triangles are not defined. Hence, \triangle_{1}, and \triangle_{2} and \triangle_{3} cannot be in GP for any value of \alpha.

Problem 3:

Two points P and Q are taken on the line joining the points A(0,0) and B(3a,0) such that AP=PQ=QB. Circles are drawn on AP, PQ, and QB as diameters. The locus of the point S, the sum of the squares of the length of the tangents from which to the three circles is equal to b^{2}, is

(a) x^{2}+y^{2}-3ax+2a^{2}-b^{2}=0

(b) 3(x^{2}+y^{2})-9ax+8a^{2}-b^{2}=0

(c) x^{2}+y^{2}-5ax+6a^{2}-b^{2}=0

(d) x^{2}+y^{2}-ax-b^{2}=0.

Ans. b.

Solution 3:

Since AP=PQ=QB, the co-ordinates of P are (a,0) and of Q are (2a,0), equations of the circles on AP, PQ, and QB as diameters are respectively.

Please draw the diagram.

So, we get




So, if (h,k) be any point of the locus, then 3(h^{2}+k^{2})-9ah+8a^{2}=b^{2}.

So, the required locus of (h,k) is 3(x^{2}+y^{2})-9ax+8a^{2}-b^{2}=0.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa.

Bill Gates returns to Harvard to talk: Math 55


How to solve equations: Dr. Vicky Neale: useful for Pre-RMO or even RMO training

Dr. Neale simply beautifully nudges, gently encourages mathematics olympiad students to learn to think further on their own…

Stephen Hawking in his own words: excerpts: My Brief History

I. Another early memory was getting my first train set. Toys were not manufactured during the war, at least not for the home market. But, I had a passionate interest in model trains. My father tried making me a wooden train, but that didn’t satisfy me, as I wanted something that moved on its own. So, he got a secondhand clockwork train, repaired it with a soldering iron, and gave it to me for Christmas when I was nearly three. That train didn’t work very well. But my father went to America just after the war, and when he came back on the Queen Mary he bought my mother some nylons, which were not obtainable in Britain at that time. He bought my sister Mary a doll that closed its eyes when you laid it down. And he brought me an American train, complete with a cowcatcher and a figure-eight track. I can still remember my excitement as I opened the box.

Clockwork trains, which you had to wind up, were all very well, but I really wanted were electric trains. I used to spend hours watching a model railway club layout in Crouch End, near Highgate. I dreamed about electric trains. Finally, when both my parents were away somewhere, I took the opportunity to draw out of the Post Office bank all of the very modest amount of money that people had given me on special vacations, such as my christening. I used the money to buy an electric train set, but frustratingly enough, it didn’t work very well either. I should have taken the set back and demanded that the shop or the manufacturer replace it, but in those days the attitude was that it was a privilege to buy something and it was just your bad luck, if it turned out to be faulty. So, I paid for the electric motor of the engine to be serviced, but it never worked very well, even then.

Later on, in my teens, I built model aeroplanes and boats. I was never very good with my hands, but I did this with my school friend John McClenahan, who was much better and whose father had a workshop in their house. My aim was always to build working models that I could control. I didn’t care what they looked like. I think it was the same drive that led me to invent a series of very complicated games with another school friend, Roger Ferneyhough. There was a manufacturing game, complete with factories in which units of different colours were made, roads and railways on which they were carried, and a stock market. There was a war game, played on a board of 4000 squares, and even a feudal game, in which each player was a whole dynasty, with a family tree. I think these games, as well as the trains, boats, and aeroplanes, came from an urge to know how systems worked and how to control them. Since I began my PhD, this need has been met by research into cosmology. If you understand how the universe operates, you control it, in a way.

II. When I was thirteen, my father wanted me to try for Westminister School, one of Britain’s main public schools (what in the United States are called private schools). At that time, there was a sharp division in education along class lines, and my father felt that the social graces such a school would give me would be an advantage in life. My father believed that his own lack of poise and connections had led to him being passed over in his career in favour of people of less ability. He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he felt that other people who were not as good but who had the right background and connections had got ahead of him. He used to warn me against such people.

Because my parents were not well-off, I would have to win a scholarship in order to attend Westminister. I was ill at the time of the scholarship examination, however, and did not take it. Instead, I remained at St. Albans School, where I got an education that was as good as, if not better than, the one I would have had at Westminister. I have never found that my lack of social graces has been a hindrance. But I think physics is a bit different from medicine. In physics it doesn’t matter what school you went to or whom you are related. It matters what you do.

I was never more than about halfway up the class (it was a very bright class.) My classwork was untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But, my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never amount to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided.

I had six or seven close friends, most of whom I’m still in touch with. We used to have long discussions and arguments about everything from radio-controlled models to religion and from parapsychology to physics. One of the things we talked about was the origin of the universe and whether it had required a God to create it and set it going. I had heard that light from distant galaxies was shifted towards the red end of the spectrum and that this was supposed to indicate that the universe was expanding. (A shift towards the blue would have meant it was contracting.) But, I was sure there must be some other reason for the red shift. An essentially unchanging and everlasting universe seemed so much more natural. Maybe light just got tired, and more red, on its way to us, I speculated. It was only after about two years of PhD research that I realized that I had been wrong.

I was always very interested in how things operated, and I used to take them apart to see how they worked, but I was not so good at putting them back together again. My practical abilities never matched up to my theoretical inquiries. My father encouraged my interest in science, and he even coached me in mathematics until I got to a stage beyond his knowledge. With this background and my father’s job, I took it as natural that I would go into scientific research.

When I came to the last two years of school, I wanted to specialize in mathematics and physics. There was an inspiring maths teacher, Mr. Tanta, and the school had also just built a new maths room, which the maths set had as their classroom. But my father was very much against it because he thought there wouldn’t be any jobs for mathematicians except as teachers. He would really have liked me to do medicine, but I showed no interest in biology, which seemed to me to be too descriptive and not sufficiently fundamental. It also had a rather low status at school. The brightest boys did mathematics and physics; the less bright did biology.

My father knew I wouldn’t do biology, but he made me do chemistry and only a small amount of mathematics. He felt this would keep my scientific options open. I am now professor of mathematics, but I have not had any formal instruction in mathematics since I left St. Albans School at the age of seventeen. I have had to pick up what I know as I went along. I used to supervise undergraduates at Cambridge and kept one week ahead of them in the course.

Physics was always the most boring subject at school because it was so easy and obvious. Chemistry was much more fun because unexpected things, such as explosions kept happening. But physics and astronomy offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we are here. I wanted to fathom the depths of the universe. Maybe I have succeeded to a small extent, but there’s still plenty I want to know.

III. My early work showed that classical general relativity broke down at singularities in the Big Bang and black holes. My later work has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time. It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe.

A humble tribute to Professor Hawking …to understand him from a layman’s viewpoint…by Nalin Pithwa.

Reference: My Brief History by Stephen Hawking, Bantam Press.

Amazon India link: