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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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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!
Speaking as a former college "Mathlete" (Kappa Mu Epsilon), I used to (and still do) have an abiding love for mathematical 'truths', and this book gives readers a brief introduction to some of the many ways that a sense of wonder & curiosity, focused on the universe through the prism of mathematics, can fire one's soul on many levels, both intellectual and spiritual.
As for myself - after a promising start, I peaked early back in undergrad school, and eventually left the field after finishing a minor degree, and moved on to other studies. However, my sense of wonder has remained ... and it was this book that helped me to recall some of my old joys, and to relive some of the might-have beens, had I been able to stay with it.
In any case, the book is a fine read. However, I have some nits that I've ranked them from most to least annoying:
1) MISSING PROOFS: The author, during his tale, mentions in passing many interesting mathematical problems and theorems that both Paul Erdos, and other mathematicians, helped to solve ... but in the vast majority of instances, the author anti-climactically fails to include the details of those proofs for the benefit of interested & proficient readers. IMHO, proofs of less than, say, 5 pages, could and should have been included in an appendix, and the author could have referred readers to appropriate AMS publications for those proofs that are longer and more involved. Instead, the author leaves the reader with nadda in all but a few trivial instances. It always irks me off when an author (or editor) dumbs down a book because they think readers can't keep up. Very annoying, and very anti-climactic. I mean come on - what's the point of spending pages and pages telling about the quest for a solution, only to finish lamely that yes, they solved it ... but omit all the details. Feh.
2) FOCUS: The author did a commendable job assembling and integrating a large array of verbal and historical accounts into a fairly coherent whole ... but he also has a mildly irritating tendency to meander around, in his focus, somewhat like a runaway horse cart. First forwards in time, then backwards, then sideways across various topics, then in the middle of nowhere we're talking about Fibonacci, Gödel, Gauss, then back to the present, and then to his childhood again, etc. In other words, the flow of the book is a bit uneven and fractured in places, and IMHO it could have benefited from some additional polishing and a bit of re-organization. I kept wanting to grab the reins and drag the book back on course. It's a fine ride, but it's a bit more rickety and bouncy then it could have been with some better editing.
3) ENDMATTER: The author/editor neglected to tie the "Acknowledgements and Source Notes" section in the rear of the book (p. 269- p.278) into the main text with some helpful endnotes or annotations ... thus rendering the section mostly useless to first time readers. Without notations to clue a reader in that that information is present in the back, then readers are left to finish the book unaware of it's existence until they reach the end ... by which time the information is of little or no value.
Highly enjoyable. Subtract a star if you're a math geek who prefers to see actual proofs, rather than simply taking solutions for granted, sans details.
Paul Erdos in presented in perfect form, this book is what biographies should be. His relationship with his family, women, peers, and young people are all apparent. His quirks and his genius for numbers. We also get to see the effects of the Cold War political climate in the world on intelligentsia. On top of all that, you even get a little math too.