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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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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
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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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Great story. I love this man who loved only numbers. Anybody into math needs to know about him and the enormous service he did to mathematics in the 20th century.Published 2 months ago by Sarah Danielle Taraz
I bought this book for my daughter - a math major. I decided to read it so I would understand her passion for mathematics. Read morePublished 3 months ago by M Live
Paul Hoffman gave us a fantastic gift with this amazing book about Paul Erdos. The text moves gracefully, mixing delicious mathematical morsels with facts about this unique and... Read morePublished 4 months ago by F. G. Nobrega
I picked up this book because of its really cool cover, and learned that sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. Read morePublished 9 months ago by A Southern Reader
I originally bought this for a class but it is actually such a wonderful book. It made me really appreciate math so much more and I think everyone should read this.Published 10 months ago by Mindy Vega
A great book about a fascinating man. Hoffman seemlessly weaves number theoretic concepts into the story of Erdos's remarkable life. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Elizabeth
this was a wedding gift for my husband, I had it signed by someone who worked closely and in charge of anything erdos and my husband loved it so much, he started only reading a few... Read morePublished 12 months ago by Janelle Green
Although the book does a good job of explaining basic mathematical concepts, this isn't a book about mathematics, it is a book about mathematicians, how they collaborate, and who... Read morePublished 14 months ago by Matthew B.