Issue 11 - July 2004
William Tozier, a scientific consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan has been surprised at the popularity of an auction he started partly as a joke on eBay.
He's selling the chance to work with him on a mathematical research project. What makes this prospect so special is that Tozier worked with famous maths genius Paul Erdös. Erdös was a Hungarian mathematical prodigy who died in 1996. For many years, he worked with mathematicians all over the world. He collaborated with over 500 other researchers,
Regarded as a legend, mathematicians around the world have tried to acquire what they call Erdös numbers. These are like the degrees of separation people refer to when associating themselves with a famous person. Someone with an Erdös number of 1 for example is someone who worked directly with Erdös. Someone with an Erdös number of 2 worked with someone who worked with Erdös and so on.
Tozier, with an Erdos number of 5, has been inundated with so many bids for the chance to work with him, he is planning an on-line community to facilitate collaborations between maths experts and lay persons. The popularity of his initiative may have backfired however. Jose Burillo, a mathematician at the Polytechnic University of Barcelona in Spain with an Erdös number of 3, deliberately sabotaged the sale by pretending to offer the winning bid of $1,031. He then announced he had no intention of paying.
Burillo explained his actions by saying "I don't want to see the system by which I am going to be evaluated tarnished by the possibility that people can buy or sell their co-authorships. Joint papers have to be worked and earned, not sold, auctioned, or bought." Tozier now plans to resume the auction and intends to go ahead with his plans to start the collaborative mathematical on-line community.
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