Erdös Numbers and English

I had brunch yesterday with a secondary-school maths teacher I know. He was telling me about a Hungarian mathematician called Paul Erdös, who was one of the most prolific researchers ever. He had over 1100 papers to his name, most of them as coauthor. Mathematicians have devised something called the ‘Erdös number‘ to describe how many degrees of separation there are between any mathematician and Erdös’s output. So being Paul Erdös gives you an Erdös number of zero, being a coauthor on an Erdös paper gives you an Erdös number of one, working with someone who worked on an Erdös paper is two, and so on. You’ll probably get an Erdös number of eight or better by publishing a maths paper.

My maths-teacher friend is a great believer in collaboration when studying maths. He doesn’t think maths is about solitary geniuses: he likes to see groups of people huddled round a board or table pinging numbers and symbols around (this sounds like a great maths lesson to me). This may seem like another difference between maths and English: people often read books alone, come up with individual interpretations, and can’t work together to find the right answer because there is no right answer. To do well in English exams you need to stand out from the crowd, not join it. And so on.

But English studies would be nothing without collaboration. The humanities are where we learn how different people have lived and thought, and how they interact. Language is communication, and literature is a conversation. Readers and writers have a voice in that conversation, but that voice is always in dialogue, not a soliloquy. Studying literature has taught me, and many others, that my thoughts have all been had before. Original thoughts only happen because I’ve not read enough. My life is unique–no-one’s lived exactly the same life as I had–but my reflections on what it means to be human are nothing new. So I learn where I fit in, and discussion is vital to that. This means that English lessons, essays and exam scripts will do well to involve lively exchanges of ideas too.

Renaissance thinkers looking back to classical antiquity knew this, and so did English modernists (like T.S. Eliot). We may not have Erdös numbers in the humanities, but there is not much space for lone geniuses either. Conferences, seminars and research projects show collaboration in action in humanities research (there are scholars who team up too). As the questions we’re asking as researchers become more complicated and specialized, team-work is going to become more and more necessary (Jonah Lehrer has written a good piece about solitary scientists– I think his point will become relevant for the humanities over time too). We can make progress in learning about history, language and human experience, but collaboration also helps us learn about our limitations, about what we can’t know.