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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but lacks crucial information, August 24, 2003
This review is from: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth (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 oakland.edu/~grossman/erdoshp.html). 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. Erdos appears in these anecdotes as a person who cared dearly for his mother (he did not have his own family, not to mentioned he that he died a virgin according to his own words), mathematicians of all sorts regardless of their nationalities, children; as a person who despised anything that confined anyone's freedom, including God, or to put it in his words, SF, the "Supreme Fascist"; as a person who did not even have the ability to operate the most basic things, like operating air conditioners or even slicing a grapefruit with the right side of a knife (according to this book Erdos confessed that the first time he applied butter to bread was when he was in his 20s -- before Erdos' mother took care of him, and henceforth his friends/collaborators did); as a person whose earthly interest was zero (he never had a house -- he lived off at friends/collaborators), who gave everything he earned to any charity organization and every person in need (his entire possession fit into two suitcases); as a person whose love towards mathematics none equaled (he traveled incessantly to give lectures and worked 18 hours daily till he died); as a person who nevertheless feared death.
The book's format may have been just right for describing Erdos, whose life perhaps had no other way of being described of other than through mathematical problems. However for 1) the lack of information re. Erdos' "real" accomplishments (omitted most likely for general accessibility), 2) the author's occasional deviation from Erdos (for e.g. an entire chapter devoted to Fermat's last theorem which almost has nothing to do with Erdos; retelling of the most "popular" paradoxes of mathematics) which I felt catering to commercialism, I do not feel that the book depicted Erdos' life the best. The book is at best an entertaining read of one of the most interesting and influential mathematicians of the past century.
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S. Park
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Location: Bay Area, CA

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