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Johnny Carson (2) vs. Paul Erdos; Babe Didrikson Zaharias advances

OK, our last matchup wasn’t close. Adam Schiff (unseeded in the “people whose name ends in f” category) had the misfortune to go against the juggernaut that was Babe Didrikson Zaharias (seeded #2 in the GOATs category). Committee chair or not, the poor guy never had a chance. As Diana Senechal wrote, “From an existential standpoint, If Schiff won this match, life would be absurd. Perhaps it is, but I still look for interludes of logic and meaning: for instance, right here. Let this battle be such an interlude, and let Babe claim the victory she deserves.”

Next up is Johnny Carson #2 in the TV personalities category and arguably the best talk-show host ever, against Paul Erdos, one of the weirdest and prolific mathematicians of all time. I’m guessing that the commenters here will side with Erdos, but I dunno. From everything I’ve read about Erdos, he’s always seemed irritating to me. In some ways, I can relate to the guy: like me, he liked to solve research problems with lots of different collaborators, but there’s something about all those indulgent descriptions of the guy that rub me the wrong way. In contrast, Johnny Carson is just brilliant. But, in any case, it’s up to you, not me, to give the most compelling arguments on both sides.

Remember, the full bracket is here, and here are the rules:

We’re trying to pick the ultimate seminar speaker. I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I’ll decide each day’s winner not based on a popular vote but based on the strength and amusingness of the arguments given by advocates on both sides. So give it your best!


  1. Noah Motion says:

    Carson was great, but we can enjoy plenty of Carson on YouTube. And Erdos may have been a jerk, but he would almost certainly have some great stories for an academic seminar.

    Also, no one has a Carson number.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Agreed, except for “Erdos may have been a jerk.” I’ve actually heard him speak more than once, and remember chatting with him at a party. He just seemed like an eccentric little old man, but with a certain charm. So maybe another good reason to choose him is to give him an opportunity to show that he isn’ t a jerk!

      • Martha (Smith) says:


        “He was the Bob Hope of mathematics, a kind of vaudeville performer who told the same jokes and the same stories a thousand times. … When he was scheduled to give yet another talk, no matter how tired he was, as soon as he was introduced to an audience, the adrenaline (or maybe amphetamine) would release into his system and he would bound onto the stage, full of energy, and do his routine for the 1001st time.
        Melvyn Nathanson, as quoted in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers : The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth (1998), p. 11″

      • Noah Motion says:

        Just to clarify, I don’t have any reason to think Erdos actually was a jerk. I just wanted to respect Andrew’s mild irritation.

  2. From an environmental perspective, Erdos is the better choice; his surname is an adjectival form of the Hungarian erdő, “forest,” whereas “Carson” clearly means “son of a car.” Granted, the son of a car, being rebellious and all, might prove especially attentive to the quality of the air, but we have no evidence of this. Therefore I cast my lot for the eccentric foresty mathematician. Besides, he had a reputation for frequenting seminars, so he would presumably have a handle on the format.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      Just the sort of analysis that we’d expect from an Erdos supporter.

      “Carson” is actually from “garcon” the French word for “waiter” reflecting a social orientation and ability to handle a grapefruit completely lacking in Erdos.

      Plus, Carson new Ed Sullivan AND Sid Caesar. And Cyd Charisse.

      • By the same token, this is the sort of analysis that we’d expect from a Carson supporter. Just as the grammar of “Who Do You Trust” does not exactly elicit one’s trust, so the ambiguity of your second sentence leaves one wondering who lacks what and where the grapefruit lies. It could be that the grapefruit, not the grace (“social orientation”), is the thing completely lacking in Erdos; this possibility evokes the questions, “why doesn’t he have a grapefruit inside him?” and “what is so graceful about handling a grapefruit located outside of Erdos, anyway?” I would say that Erdos lacks a grapefruit inside him for one of three reasons: (1) he already digested it; (2) he has better things to eat; (3) he resisted the temptation to eat it. Any of these explanations is suggestive of an honorable disposition. As for the second question, “what is so graceful about handling a grapefruit outside of Erdos, anyway?” I would say that handling a grapefruit under any circumstances is commendable, but handling one *inside* Erdos would require greater skill than handling one outside him, since it (the grapefruit) would be harder to see and roll around. Such skill, moreover, is difficult to develop, since one doesn’t get to handle a grapefruit in Erdos every day. Therefore, by having Erdos lead the seminar, we would get to refine the garcon within ourselves; it would almost be like having Carson there too and would thus amount to the best of almost both worlds.

  3. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Carson emceed “Who Do You Trust?” Ignoring the grammatical infelicity (and focusing on the grammatical infelicity is why you wouldn’t want *me* to give the seminar), I’d love to know whom to trust. I trust Carson to tell me.

    Erdos is more likely to give me an existence proof of someone trustworthy. Not good enough.

  4. Ethan Bolker says:

    I have a good argument for Erdos but will save it for a later round. If he loses this one you’ll never know …

  5. Carl Sagan has a notably low Erdős–Bacon number, because he and Bacon both appeared with … Johnny Carson. [] In fact, I’d guess the showbiz supernode should have been Carson rather than Bacon, making Erdős the Johnny Carson of mathematics.
    So, Heeeere’s a vote for Johnny!

  6. Stephen Olivier says:

    Johnny Carson, because if Erdos gave a talk it would be overrun by mathematicians trying to get a paper with him

  7. Oliver says:

    As Bart Simpson said, “To Krusty, the greatest entertainer in world, except for that guy

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