The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth

Book - 1998
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Paul Erdos 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, Erdos 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 Erdos's brand of madness was joyful, unlike Nash's despairing schizophrenia. Erdos 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 Erdos: "A mathematical genius of the first order, Paul Erdos 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 Erdos 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 Erdos is no doubt missed. --Therese Littleton
Publisher: New York : Hyperion, c1998.
ISBN: 9780786863624
0786863625
Characteristics: 302 p., [16] leaves of plates :,ill. ;,23 cm.

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mikemarotta
Jun 29, 2019

Movie star Natalie Portman has an Erdős number of 7. Danika McKellar’s 4 is lower than her Kevin Bacon number. Paul Erdős was easily the most influential mathematician of the 20th century, and arguably so for all time. He published 1475 papers almost all in collaboration. Mathematicians have Erdős Numbers. Your number is 1 if you co-authored with him, 2 if you co-authored with a co-author, and so on.

Erdős’s work was beyond prolific. He knew how to offer motivating challenges to people working at all levels of mathematics from his academic peers to children. In that, Paul Erdős was responsible for hundreds of proven insights that extended the frontiers of number theory.

The fact that Erdős’s life (1913-1996) intersected so many others allowed Paul Hoffman’s biography to explore the domain and range of the history of mathematics. The Greeks, Fibonacci, and pi are here along with Hardy, Ramanujan, and transfinite numbers, as well a bit of graph theory, and “what’s behind door number two?”

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman (Hyperion, 1998) explains most of the mathematics with integers. After all, God created the integers and we built the rest – or so it was claimed by Leopold Kronecker (1821-1893) and echoed by Stephen Hawking. As a result, many of these puzzles could be explained to a child in third through ninth grade. The fact is, though, that few would be. The stampede for standardized testing in K-12 education forces teachers to focus on the examinations to the detriment of the true understanding that comes from the artful competence of leisure and play.

Few people ever approach mathematics that way. Paul Erdős did. In fact, he exhibited neoteny, never having any intimate relationships, being cared for by his mother into his sixties, being unwilling to cook for himself or otherwise look after the simplest daily tasks. Instead, he was in constant motion, traveling to visit colleagues, imposing on their hospitality, in return for which, he gave them the impetus to publish over 1400 significant new ideas in mathematics.

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jkrambeck
Feb 12, 2013

Great book for anyone wanting to read more about the history of mathematics from one of the best mathematicians of their time.

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kit1980
Oct 23, 2014

kit1980 thinks this title is suitable for All Ages

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jkrambeck
Feb 12, 2013

jkrambeck thinks this title is suitable for All Ages

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