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The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth Hardcover – July 15, 1998
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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.
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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. But the book has a disjointed impressionistic tone that seems distracting. And while Hoffman gathered enough material for two fine magazine articles, he doesn't seem to have enough for a book. So it is diluted with superfluous, albeit interesting, material. These detract from the story. For example, there are discussions of Fermat's Last Theorem and Andrew Wiles contribution. There is a discussion of infinity and set cardinality similar to what would be found in a discrete math textbook published ten years ago (and sadly missing from most textbooks today). Gödel's incompleteness theorem is presented. But donations by Erdös to these things is given little discussion mostly because, I suppose, his contributions to those topics is tangential.
Hoffman has a fascination with Erdös's brilliance, portraying him as an uncanny wizard. There is no denying he had an incredible mind. It's possible that all of the book's anecdotes are true. But still, they seem to miss the target. This is not how Erdös really was. His mind was human. He could interchange maximums and minimums and mix up quantifiers. He sometimes had trouble (as many great minds do) with arithmetic. I recall once asking him about an important theorem he proved with Endre Szemérdi. He didn't recall the result and seemed surprised by its existence. On one occasion he asked me to reproduce a proof he had previously shown me. We went through it twice when he asked to be left alone for half an hour. On my return he said, "I am sorry for being such a stupid old man. Yes, you are right. This proof is correct." No doubt, part of his success rested on natural talent. But much rests on his passion and dedication to mathematics.
But again, I can forgive these problems. My most serious concern is the way this book reduces a kindhearted loveable human to caricature. While Hoffman interviewed many people, including Erdös, Hoffman's account seems to have missed the flesh and blood and left us with a wacko schematic. Nobody will deny that Erdös was a special man with a special personality. He warmly gave so much to so many; especially to young mathematicians and graduate students who would go on to owe much of their careers to his generosity. But portrayed here is something freakish, something best left to carnival sideshows and wax museums. Fascination with his personality seems to be growing; drawn in grotesque proportions. Time Magazine profiled him under the heading "The Oddball's Oddball." His eccentricities are outlined in "Strange Brains and Genius," Clifford Pickover's book on twisted brilliant minds. One wonders how much responsibility Hoffman's writing has in contributing to this persona. The reduction extends even to the title. Paul Erdös did not love only numbers. He loved history, politics, philosophy, science. He loved ideas in just about any area. But most of all, he loved people
Besides being a mathematical genius, Erdosh was a very unique person, who had his very outstanding ways of approaching life. One would find his habits very interesting and the way he treats the money, unbelievably weird. Call it bravery or carelessness, he travelled from the US to Australia, UK, Hungary and so on with no money, no credit cards, nothing at all but his bag and his mind. He is the person who most likely published the most amount of joint papers with other mathematicians. Thats where Erdosh's number came from. (Will not spoil this part for the reader.) He invented his own terminology and his jokes would be understandable only to ones who would become familiar with it. Feels like I will never get tired talking or writing about him.
This book is a must read. This particular publication I find great! Some additional pictured and letters are included. Definitely recommend to everyone!
Hoffman does relate part of the family story, of Erdos deep attachment to his mother, and his devastating grief at her death. He also tells some of the story of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry including many members of Erdos's family.
He gives us too an insight into the way Mathematicians think about themselves and their own world, with the focus being on how they consider themselves to be the true elite of all intellectual workers, those whose 'truths' are not confined to our earth or even our Universe but rather are eternal.
Erdos had a vocabulary of his own in which children ( Who he had a great fondness for - being kind to many of the children of his colleagues) were called 'epsilons' , women (bosses) men (slaves) ordinary human beings ( trite people) and God (SF) for 'Supreme Fascist'. Erdos came from a Jewish family but had no religious feeling or connection except to Mathematics about which he was as indicated passionately obsessed.
The great paradox of his life was that he the supreme individual loner was also a supreme social person who through his work connected Mathematicians with one another. He was much admired and loved in his lifetime and though obsessed with Death from an early age surprised himself by outliving most of his contemporaries and living to the age of eighty- one.
He is one of those creative geniuses of the kind that enhance and enrich our sense of what it means to be human.
PS I listened to an hour long talk about the book by its author and realized that I in my reading missed important points. One of these is Hoffman's emphasizing how much Erdos had to overcome in his life. The loss of his sisters from scarlet fever at the time his mother was in the hospital giving birth to him explains the way she confined him to not going out, and learning by himself alone. The fact that his father was in a prisoner- of- war camp for six years also was a major event in his childhood. He knew many losses of relatives and friends. He had periods when he was persona non grata in East and West, and only Israel took him in. Hoffman explains that nonetheless Erdos so loved what he did , was so passionate about Mathematics that he radiated a happiness. People were eager to see him as he helped mathematicians with their work so generously. Hoffman makes it clear that Erdos was a giving person and that he tremendously enriched the world of Mathematics and the world of the people who knew him.