Category Archives: pure mathematics

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.)

B.S. in Mathematics: IIT Bombay program:

Note that the admission is through IITJEE Advanced only.

Nalin Pithwa.

Happy “e” day via Math: thanks to PlusMaths :-)

Architecture and Math: Fibonacci and Golden ratio

On seashells, spirals and solids.

Just sharing for motivation towards math especially…

Nalin Pithwa.


The infinite hotel paradox : due Jeff Dekofsky

This hardcore stuff about “infinity” , quite nicely, explained was pointed out to me by my ISC XII student, Mr. Utkarsh Malhotra! 🙂


Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan

  1. In December 1914, Ramanujan was asked by his friend P.C. Mahalanobis to solve a puzzle that appeared in Strand magazine as “Puzzles at a Village Inn”. The puzzle stated that n houses on one side of the street are numbered sequentially starting from 1. The sum of the house numbers on the left of a particular house having the number m, equals that of the houses on the right of this particular house. It is given that n lies between 50 and 500 and one has to determine the values of m and n. Ramanujan immediately rattled out a continued fraction generating all possible values of m without having any restriction on the values of n. List the first five values of m and n.
  2. Ramanujan had posed the following problem in a journal: \sqrt{1+2\sqrt{1+3\sqrt{\ldots}}}=x, find x. Without receiving an answer from the readers, after three months he gave answer as 3. This he could say because he had an earlier general result stating 1+x=\sqrt{1+x\sqrt{1+(x+1)\sqrt{1+(x+2)\sqrt{1+\ldots}}}} is true for all x. Prove this result, then x=2 will give the answer to Ramanujan’s problem.

Try try until you succeed!!

Nalin Pithwa.

Limits that arise frequently

We continue our presentation of basic stuff from Calculus and Analytic Geometry, G B Thomas and Finney, Ninth Edition. My express purpose in presenting these few proofs is to emphasize that Calculus, is not just a recipe of calculation techniques. Or, even, a bit further, math is not just about calculation. I have a feeling that such thinking nurtured/developed at a young age, (while preparing for IITJEE Math, for example) makes one razor sharp.

We verify a few famous limits.

Formula 1:

If |x|<1, \lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}x^{n}=0

We need to show that to each \in >0 there corresponds an integer N so large that |x^{n}|<\in for all n greater than N. Since \in^{1/n}\rightarrow 1, while |x|<1. there exists an integer N for which \in^{1/n}>|x|. In other words,

|x^{N}|=|x|^{N}<\in. Call this (I).

This is the integer we seek because, if |x|<1, then

|x^{n}|<|x^{N}| for all n>N. Call this (II).

Combining I and II produces |x^{n}|<\in for all n>N, concluding the proof.

Formula II:

For any number x, \lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}(1+\frac{x}{n})^{n}=e^{x}.

Let a_{n}=(1+\frac{x}{n})^{n}. Then, \ln {a_{n}}=\ln{(1+\frac{x}{n})^{n}}=n\ln{(1+\frac{x}{n})}\rightarrow x,

as we can see by the following application of l’Hopital’s rule, in which we differentiate with respect to n:

\lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}n\ln{(1+\frac{x}{n})}=\lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}\frac{\ln{(1+x/n)}}{1/n}, which in turn equals

\lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}\frac{(\frac{1}{1+x/n}).(-\frac{x}{n^{2}})}{-1/n^{2}}=\lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}\frac{x}{1+x/n}=x.

Now, let us apply the following theorem with f(x)=e^{x} to the above:

(a theorem for calculating limits of sequences) the continuous function theorem for sequences:

Let a_{n} be a sequence of real numbers. If \{a_{n}\} be a sequence of real numbers. If a_{n} \rightarrow L and if f is a function that is continu0us at L and defined at all a_{n}, then f(a_{n}) \rightarrow f(L).

So, in this particular proof, we get the following:

(1+\frac{x}{n})^{n}=a_{n}=e^{\ln{a_{n}}}\rightarrow e^{x}.

Formula 3:

For any number x, \lim_{n \rightarrow \infty}\frac{x^{n}}{n!}=0

Since -\frac{|x|^{n}}{n!} \leq \frac{x^{n}}{n!} \leq \frac{|x|^{n}}{n!},

all we need to show is that \frac{|x|^{n}}{n!} \rightarrow 0. We can then apply the Sandwich Theorem for Sequences (Let \{a_{n}\}, \{b_{n}\} and \{c_{n}\} be sequences of real numbers. if a_{n}\leq b_{n}\leq c_{n} holds for all n beyond some index N, and if \lim_{n\rightarrow \infty}a_{n}=\lim_{n\rightarrow \infty}c_{n}=L,, then \lim_{n\rightarrow \infty}b_{n}=L also) to  conclude that \frac{x^{n}}{n!} \rightarrow 0.

The first step in showing that |x|^{n}/n! \rightarrow 0 is to choose an integer M>|x|, so that (|x|/M)<1. Now, let us the rule (formula 1, mentioned above), so we conclude that:(|x|/M)^{n}\rightarrow 0. We then restrict our attention to values of n>M. For these values of n, we can write:

\frac{|x|^{n}}{n!}=\frac{|x|^{n}}{1.2 \ldots M.(M+1)(M+2)\ldots n}, where there are (n-M) factors in the expression (M+1)(M+2)\ldots n, and

the RHS in the above expression is \leq \frac{|x|^{n}}{M!M^{n-M}}=\frac{|x|^{n}M^{M}}{M!M^{n}}=\frac{M^{M}}{M!}(\frac{|x|}{M})^{n}. Thus,

0\leq \frac{|x|^{n}}{n!}\leq \frac{M^{M}}{M!}(\frac{|x|}{M})^{n}. Now, the constant \frac{M^{M}}{M!} does not change as n increases. Thus, the Sandwich theorem tells us that \frac{|x|^{n}}{n!} \rightarrow 0 because (\frac{|x|}{M})^{n}\rightarrow 0.

That’s all, folks !!


Nalin Pithwa.

Cauchy’s Mean Value Theorem and the Stronger Form of l’Hopital’s Rule

Reference: Thomas, Finney, 9th edition, Calculus and Analytic Geometry.

Continuing our previous discussion of “theoretical” calculus or “rigorous” calculus, I am reproducing below the proof of the finite limit case of the stronger form of l’Hopital’s Rule :

L’Hopital’s Rule (Stronger Form):

Suppose that


and that the functions f and g are both differentiable on an open interval (a,b) that contains the point x_{0}. Suppose also that g^{'} \neq 0 at every point in (a,b) except possibly at x_{0}. Then,

\lim_{x \rightarrow x_{0}}\frac{f(x)}{g(x)}=\lim_{x \rightarrow x_{0}}\frac{f^{x}}{g^{x}} ….call this equation I,

provided the limit on the right exists.

The proof of the stronger form of l’Hopital’s Rule is based on Cauchy’s Mean Value Theorem, a mean value theorem that involves two functions instead of one. We prove Cauchy’s theorem first and then show how it leads to l’Hopital’s Rule. 

Cauchy’s Mean Value Theorem:

Suppose that the functions f and g are continuous on [a,b] and differentiable throughout (a,b) and suppose also that g^{'} \neq 0 throughout (a,b). Then there exists a number c in (a,b) at which

\frac{f^{'}(c)}{g^{'}(c)} = \frac{f(b)-f(a)}{g(b)-g(a)}…call this II.

The ordinary Mean Value Theorem is the case where g(x)=x.

Proof of Cauchy’s Mean Value Theorem:

We apply the Mean Value Theorem twice. First we use it to show that g(a) \neq g(b). For if g(b) did equal to g(a), then the Mean Value Theorem would give:

g^{'}(c)=\frac{g(b)-g(a)}{b-a}=0 for some c between a and b. This cannot happen because g^{'}(x) \neq 0 in (a,b).

We next apply the Mean Value Theorem to the function:

F(x) = f(x)-f(a)-\frac{f(b)-f(a)}{g(b)-g(a)}[g(x)-g(a)].

This function is continuous and differentiable where f and g are, and F(b) = F(a)=0. Therefore, there is a number c between a and b for which F^{'}(c)=0. In terms of f and g, this says:

F^{'}(c) = f^{'}(c)-\frac{f(b)-f(a)}{g(b)-g(a)}[g^{'}(c)]=0, or

\frac{f^{'}(c)}{g^{'}(c)}=\frac{f(b)-f(a)}{g(b)-g(a)}, which is II above. QED.

Proof of the Stronger Form of l’Hopital’s Rule:

We first prove I for the case x \rightarrow x_{o}^{+}. The method needs no  change to apply to x \rightarrow x_{0}^{-}, and the combination of those two cases establishes the result.

Suppose that x lies to the right of x_{o}. Then, g^{'}(x) \neq 0 and we can apply the Cauchy’s Mean Value Theorem to the closed interval from x_{0} to x. This produces a number c between x_{0} and x such that \frac{f^{'}(c)}{g^{'}(c)}=\frac{f(x)-f(x_{0})}{g(x)-g(x_{0})}.

But, f(x_{0})=g(x_{0})=0 so that \frac{f^{'}(c)}{g^{'}(c)}=\frac{f(x)}{g(x)}.

As x approaches x_{0}, c approaches x_{0} because it lies between x and x_{0}. Therefore, \lim_{x \rightarrow x_{0}^{+}}\frac{f(x)}{g(x)}=\lim_{x \rightarrow x_{0}^{+}}\frac{f^{'}(c)}{g^{'}(c)}=\lim_{x \rightarrow x_{0}^{+}}\frac{f^{'}(x)}{g^{'}(x)}.

This establishes l’Hopital’s Rule for the case where x approaches x_{0} from above. The case where x approaches x_{0} from below is proved by applying Cauchy’s Mean Value Theorem to the closed interval [x,x_{0}], where x< x_{0}QED.

The Sandwich Theorem or Squeeze Play Theorem

It helps to think about the core concepts of Calculus from a young age, if you want to develop your expertise or talents further in math, pure or applied, engineering or mathematical sciences. At a tangible level, it helps you attack more or many questions of the IIT JEE Advanced Mathematics. Let us see if you like the following proof, or can absorb/digest it:

Reference: Calculus and Analytic Geometry by Thomas and Finney, 9th edition.

The Sandwich Theorem:

Suppose that g(x) \leq f(x) \leq h(x) for all x in some open interval containing c, except possibly at x=c itself. Suppose also that \lim_{x \rightarrow c}g(x)= \lim_{x \rightarrow c}h(x)=L. Then, \lim_{x \rightarrow c}f(x)=c.

Proof for Right Hand Limits:

Suppose \lim_{x \rightarrow c^{+}}g(x)=\lim_{x \rightarrow c^{+}}h(x)=L. Then, for any \in >0, there exists a \delta >0 such that for all x, the inequality c<x<c+\delta implies L-\in<g(x)<L+\in and L-\in<h(x)<L+\in ….call this (I)

These inequalities combine with the inequality g(x) \leq f(x) \leq h(x) to give

L-\in <g(x) \leq f(x) \leq h(x)<L+\in

L-\in <f(x)<L+\in

-\in <f(x)-L<\in….call this (II)

Therefore, for all x, the inequality c<x<c+\delta implies |f(x)-L|<\in. …call this (III)

Proof for LeftHand Limits:

Suppose \lim_{x \rightarrow c^{-}} g(x)=\lim_{x \rightarrow c^{-}}=L. Then, for \in >0 there exists a \delta >0 such that for all x, the inequality c-\delta <x<c implies L-\in<g(x)<L+\in and L-\in<h(x)<L+\in …call this (IV).

We conclude as before that for all x, c-\delta <x<c implies |f(x)-L|<\in.

Proof for Two sided Limits:

If \lim_{x \rightarrow c}g(x) = \lim_{x \rightarrow c}h(x)=L, then g(x) and h(x) both approach L as x \rightarrow c^{+} and as x \rightarrow c^{-} so \lim_{x \rightarrow c^{+}}f(x)=L and \lim_{x \rightarrow c^{-}}f(x)=L. Hence, \lim_{x \rightarrow c}f(x)=L. QED.

Let me know your feedback on such stuff,

Nalin Pithwa

Mobius and his band

There are some pieces of mathematical folklore that you really should be reminded about, even though they are “well-known” — just in case. An excellent example is the Mobius band.

Augustus Mobius was a German mathematician, born 1790, died 1868. He worked in several areas of mathematics, including geometry, complex analysis and number theory. He is famous for his curious surface, the Mobius band. You can make a Mobius band by taking a strip of paper, say 2 cm wide and 20 cm long, bending it around until the ends meet, then twisting one end through 180 degrees, and finally, gluing the ends together. For comparison, make a cylinder in the same way, omitting the twist.

The Mobius band is famous for one surprising feature: it has only one side. If an ant crawls around a cylindrical band, it can cover only half the surface — one side of the band. But, if an ant crawls around on the Mobius band, it can cover the entire surface. The Mobius band has only one side.

You can check these statements by painting  the band. You can paint the cylinder so that one side is red and the other is blue, and the two sides are completely distinct, even though they are separated by only the thickness of the paper. But,, if you start to paint the Mobius band red, and keep going until you run out of band to paint, the whole thing ends up red.

In retrospect, this is not such a surprise, because the 180  degrees twist connects each side of the original paper strip to the other. If you  don’t twist before gluing, the two sides stay separate. But, until Mobius (and a few others) thought this one up, mathematicians didn’t appreciate that there are two distinct kinds of surface: those with two sides and those with one side only. This turned out to be important in topology. And, it showed how careful you have to be about making “obvious” assumptions.

There are lots of Mobius band recreations. Below are three of them:

  • If you cut the cylindrical band along the middle with two scissors, it falls apart into two cylindrical bands. What happens if you try this with a Mobius band?
  • Repeat, but this time, make the cut about one-thirds of the way across the width of the band. Now, what happens to the cylinder and to the band?
  • Make a band like a Mobius band but with a 360 degrees twist. How many sides does it have? What happens if you cut it along the middle?

The Mobius band is also known as a Mobius strip, but this can lead to misunderstandings, as in aLimerick written by a science fiction author Cyril Kornbluth:

A burleycue dancer, a pip

Named Virginia, could peel in a zip,

But she read science fiction

and died of constriction

Attempting a Mobius strip.

A more politically correct Mobius limerick, which gives away one of the answers, is:

A mathematician confided,

That a Mobius strip  is one-sided,

You’ll get quite a laugh

if you cut it to half,

For it stays in one piece when divided.

Ref: Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities.

Note: There are lots of interesting properties of Mobius strip, which you can explore. There is a lot of recreational and pure mathematics literature on it. Kindly Google it. Perhaps, if explore well, you might discover your hidden talents for one of the richest areas of mathematics — topology. Topology is a foundation for Differential Geometry, which was used by Albert Einstein for his general theory of  relativity. Of course, there are other applications too…:-)

— Nalin Pithwa.