Paul Erdös was an amazing and prolific mathematician whose life as a world-wandering numerical nomad was legendary. He published almost 1500 scholarly papers before his death in 1996, and he probably thought more about math problems than anyone in history. Like a traveling salesman offering his thoughts as wares, Erdös would show up on the doorstep of one mathematician or another and announce, "My brain is open." After working through a problem, he'd move on to the next place, the next solution.
Hoffman's book, like Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, reveals a genius's life that transcended the merely quirky. But Erdös's brand of madness was joyful, unlike Nash's despairing schizophrenia. Erdös never tried to dilute his obsessive passion for numbers with ordinary emotional interactions, thus avoiding hurting the people around him, as Nash did. Oliver Sacks writes of Erdös: "A mathematical genius of the first order, Paul Erdös was totally obsessed with his subject--he thought and wrote mathematics for nineteen hours a day until the day he died. He traveled constantly, living out of a plastic bag, and had no interest in food, sex, companionship, art--all that is usually indispensable to a human life."
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is easy to love, despite his strangeness. It's hard not to have affection for someone who referred to children as "epsilons," from the Greek letter used to represent small quantities in mathematics; a man whose epitaph for himself read, "Finally I am becoming stupider no more"; and whose only really necessary tool to do his work was a quiet and open mind. Hoffman, who followed and spoke with Erdös over the last 10 years of his life, introduces us to an undeniably odd, yet pure and joyful, man who loved numbers more than he loved God--whom he referred to as SF, for Supreme Fascist. He was often misunderstood, and he certainly annoyed people sometimes, but Paul Erdös is no doubt missed. --Therese Littleton
From Scientific American
The peripatetic Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos (19131996) was renowned for his almost total concentration on his work. Hoffman describes him as "a mathematical monk" who renounced physical pleasure and material possessions for an ascetic, contemplative life, a life devoted to uncovering mathematical truth. This he did in 1,475 papers that he wrote or co-authored with 485 collaborators--more than any other mathematician has produced and a landmark that has given rise to the cherished "Erdos number." An Erdos co-author's number is 1; a mathematician who has published with someone who was an Erdos co-author is a 2, and so on in widening circles to infinity for everyone who has never written a mathematical paper. Hoffman is among those at infinity, but he describes Erdos's life and eccentricities engagingly and deals comprehensively with the great man's mathematical work.