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The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth Paperback – May 12, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books; 1st edition (1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786884061
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786884063
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I very much enjoyed this biography (Hoffman calls it "in large part a work of oral history") of the legendary Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös. Hoffman's relaxed style with his attention to detail and concrete expression makes it a pleasure to read. You don't need to know any mathematics. Hoffman mentions the math and occasionally goes lightly into it, but for the most part the focus is on the eccentric and loveable mathematician himself and his many friends and collaborators. In fact, the title is somewhat ironic since Erdös was very much a people person, a man who loved and was loved by others. It is only in the case of "romantic" love that Erdös loved only numbers.

By the way, Hoffman does indeed go into Erdös's sex life in a completely tasteful and PG-13 sort of way. He was a man who dearly loved his mother and children but practiced a deep and abiding celibacy all his life. His friends made many jokes about his uneasiness with "bosses" (his pet name for women) and once made a bet with him that he could not go to a burlesque show. He did however, but took off his glasses so he couldn't see anything.

Erdös was a pure mathematician, a child prodigy who fell in love with numbers at an early age and never lost his love while wandering over the entire globe searching for collaborators. He was himself a caricature of the absent-minded professor, a man who asked others to tie his shoes for him, a man who could not drive, who worked nineteen hours at day at mathematics, often calling his friends up at four in the morning to share an insight. He paid no attention to his appearance, cared nothing for literature, the arts, sports, etc., only for his beloved math.
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124 of 139 people found the following review helpful By J. G. Gimbel on September 20, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a disappointing book. Certainly Paul Hoffman should be commended for writing a math book that so many people find lively and informative. Probably it is the only profile of a mathematician that many people will read. But the author makes mistakes of several types. There are what might by typographical errors. For example, on page 252 we find a description of Béla Bolobás who "won Hungary's infamous student math competition..." If the competition is in fact infamous, the reader is never told why.

There are errors of fact. For example, a fainting episode described on pages 244 and 245 as having happened in Boca Raton actually happened in Baton Rouge and was later repeated in Kalamazoo. We learn in this book that Kurt Gödel was an Austrian. This will come as sad news to Czechs and Moravians.

There are less objective examples. For instance Erdös is credited with developing the probabilistic method. While Erdös certainly championed the method and demonstrated its power, it is overreaching to give him all the credit. I would not want to guess as to who first used it, although some attribute it to William Feller. Certainly Tibor Szele used the method in a paper published in 1943. The paper was reviewed by Erdös in Mathematical Reviews. He did not use it until his paper on Ramsey Theory in 1947.

But these sorts of problems are mostly minor and have been perhaps corrected in subsequent printings. There is a deeper problem with the structure of the book. Much of the book is based on the author's 1987 article which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Discover Magazine also published some of the book. As magazine articles, I thought they worked very well.
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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By S. Park on August 24, 2003
Format: Paperback
Paul Erdos' position in number theory of the 20th century is pretty much like Miles Davis' in jazz: in some way or another every important figure in number theory has worked with Erdos, much like every influential jazz musician collaborated with Davis at one point in their respective careers. This may explain the number theorists' obsession with calculating their "Erdos number" (a person is said to have Erdos number one if the person wrote a mathematical paper with Erdos; a person with Erdos number 2 is a person who wrote a paper with a person with Erdos number 1, and so on and so forth. For more information on Erdos number visit Erdos was a prolific mathematician. According to the statistics compiled in the site just mentioned, he was the one who authored the most papers in the entire history of mathematics, even surpassing Euler.
The book is a collection of anecdotes related to Erdos. I say "anecdotes" because the book does not follow the usual birth-till-death timeline approach for biographies. Each chapter roughly corresponds to a story surrounding important collaborators of Erdos for a certain type of mathematical problem, not necessarily ordered chronologically.
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