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Paul Erdos Among the Dancing Saints

By Gerald L. Alexanderson

A shorter version of this article was published in the December 2010 - January 2011 issue of MAA FOCUS.

Coming across a picture of the Hungarian mathematician Paul ErdÅ‘s in a procession of dancing saints seems an unlikely event, but it can happen at St. Gregory of Nyssa, an Episcopal church on the northern slopes of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. With its name and the configuration of the building, one might expect this to be a church with Eastern European connections—a large, three-story, octagonal rotunda surrounding the altar with an area for seating extending to the north.

Around the interior of the rotunda, the two levels above the main floor are devoted to a series of murals showing a procession of 90 larger than life-size “dancing saints.” For mathematicians, the most interesting of them is Paul ErdÅ‘s, dancing between Gandhi and Martin Luther. All the saints have golden halos in the Byzantine style, reminding us of the relevance of the name of the church: St. Gregory was a fourth-century A.D. bishop in Cappadocia, a region in what is now central Turkey.

Erdős is not alone as a scientist honored in an Episcopal church in San Francisco: Albert Einstein has his own stained glass window in Grace Cathedral (the seat of the Episcopal bishop of California) on Nob Hill. There he stands next to his formula, E = mc2, in a high window immediately to the left as you enter the cathedral from the narthex.

At St. Gregory’s, ErdÅ‘s is not the only mathematician. Hypatia, the fourth-century A.D. scholar is there (though we cannot say whether it is a good likeness!). She is well known currently as the subject of a popular film, Agora, with Rachel Weisz playing this leader of the legendary library at Alexandria. According to the booklet accompanying the murals, she was martyred “at the hands of Christian monks” and is honored in this church for her learning and courage, a “witness to intellectual curiosity and honest inquiry, which are closer to God than the angry certainties of fundamentalism.” 

ErdÅ‘s, on the other hand, is described as an itinerant mathematical angel, “traveling constantly” and working with other mathematicians to solve problems. He is also described as someone who lived “very simply,” a phrase supported by the fact that to a great extent his worldly possessions consisted of the contents of a single suitcase.

St. Gregory’s list of saints will be viewed by some as unusual. The short biographies do not resemble the usual “Lives of the Saints” and seldom read anything like traditional hagiographies. The list includes many of the expected names (Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas), of course, but also Shakespeare and Dante, Emily Dickinson and Fyodor Dostoievski, Charles Darwin and Lady Godiva (with her horse), Queen Elizabeth and Queen Liliuokalani, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane (with his saxophone), Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X, Martha Graham and Mother Lucy Wright of the Shakers, William Blake and Casper David Friedrich, children Anne Frank and Iqbal Masih, the architect Julia Morgan, the naturalist John Muir, Bishop Desmond Tutu, John XXIII, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

From right: Thomas Merton, Martin Luther, Paul ErdÅ‘s, Gandhi, and Seraphim with a bear. Seraphim was a Russian Orthodox mystic of joy (1759-1833), whose love for all God’s creatures led him to share his fasting rations with a bear, saying, “The poor bear can’t know it is Lent.”

And there are others with mathematical connections: Simone Weil (sister of André Weil), Florence Nightingale (at one time a student of J. J. Sylvester), and the 20th-century statistician, W. Edwards Deming. So there are lots of saints for us to admire.

The murals are the work of Mark Dukes, a San Francisco iconographer; the work was completed in 2008. An illustrated descriptive booklet makes a case of each of the saints depicted.

The church is at 500 De Haro Street, not far from downtown San Francisco, just south of AT&T Park (home of the San Francisco Giants) and close to the new biomedical research campus of the University of California, San Francisco. Visiting mathematicians may think they have seen all the obvious sights in this popular city, but they haven’t really done San Francisco until they stop by to see the mural showing ErdÅ‘s, perhaps with a little side trip to see Einstein in stained glass.

Full list of saints and further details about the murals.

Gerald Alexanderson teaches at Santa Clara University in California. He is a former president of the MAA.