“My brain is in town”
Paul Erdős was in many ways a mathematician’s mathematician – the most prolific researcher in mathematics in terms of article number, and legendary for the number of his collaborations. There is a reason why the best-known measure of collaborative distance is the Erdős number (someone who co-authored a research paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1; if the minimum Erdős number of those with whom you yourself have co-authored research papers is n, then your own Erdős number is n+1).
It is said that, whenever Erdős was visiting a city, some mathematician or other would receive a phone call by the great man stating “My brain is in town”. More often than not, this would lead to another fruitful collaboration.
I’ve been a blogger for two of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings (2010 and 2012), and, not surprisingly, I’ve spent some time thinking about similarities and differences with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. My tentative conclusion is that a key difference is encapsulated in the Erdős quote. When you invite mathematicians and, to a certain extent, computer scientists, what you get is what has been doing all that exciting work: Their minds.
Of course top physicists, chemists, biologists and medical researchers need to have first-rate minds as well, but for most of them (some theoreticians excepted) their (or somebody else’s) data, laboratory, equipment played a key role in the advances of human knowledge on which their reputation is built. Invite them, and you will only get part of the picture.
With the mathematicians and computer scientists, chances are good that you will get pretty much the whole package. And that, for me, is one of the most exciting aspects of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. Starting September 22, many interesting brains will be in town.