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
From Kirkus Reviews
An affectionate if impressionistic portrayal of one of the century's greatest and strangest mathematicians. Though little known among nonmathematicians, Erdos, who died in 1996 at age 83, was a legend among his colleagues. According to Hoffman (Archimedes' Revenge, 1988), the Hungarian was so devoted to mathematics that he went without wife, children, steady job, or even a home, preferring to exist as the wandering guest of fellow mathematicians. He lived for math, announcing his visits with a hearty, ``My brain is open,'' posing and solving problems while subsisting on amphetamines and coffee (`` `A mathematician,' Erdos was fond of saying, `is a machine for turning coffee into theorems' ''), and forgoing pleasantries like ``Good morning'' to jump right in with, ``Let n be an integer.'' He published more than 1,500 papers with at least 484 coauthors, who pride themselves on their ``Erds number of 1'' (a figure indicating one's degree of separation from the master). Hoffman, who traveled with and interviewed many of his collaborators, weaves oral histories and clear mathematical explication into a digressive (sometimes too digressive), entertaining whole. Hoffman creates a full-bodied and eccentric character out of hundreds of quotations and anecdotes. Missing are the linear landmarks of conventional biography: Erdos doesn't get born until page 48, a precise account of his death is absent, and his most important mathematical discoveries are nowhere summarized. Though a biography, this book works like the best fiction, finding in a concrete universal to show what mathematics is and who the people are who uncover its truths. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
--This text refers to the