Paul Hoffman's "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers"
| Bernhard Schlink's
__THE MAN WHO LOVED
I admit it. I had never heard of Paul Erdös, but I was drawn to the book
by the novelty of reading about a man who had never buttered a slice of bread
before he came of age.
THE MAN WHO LOVED ONLY NUMBERS
by Paul Hoffman
US: Hyperion Books, July 1998, ISBN: 0-78686-3625, list price $22.95, price through Amazon.com $16.07
UK: Fourth Estate, 1998, ISBN:1-85702-811-2, list price £12.99
Following the success of books about Fermat's Last Theorem, it is now quite
acceptable to regard mathematicians as quirky, eccentric, other-worldly
characters, rather than the rampant anti-social lunatics they were once
considered. Unlike some academic biographies, Erdös seems not to have had a
dislike of any colleague, nor to have thought of others as competitors. He was
supremely goal-driven, and the goal was solving problems. Success was his reward;
he neither sought nor valued faculty tenure, money or possessions, living much of
his life from a collection of plastic bags and battered suitcases, and giving
away money he did not immediately need.
Colleagues rank their connection to him by "Erdös numbers". A "1" means
you collaborated with him, a "2" that you worked with someone who worked with
him, and so on. His generosity to colleagues was legendary and, it seems, highly
unusual in the academic world, where Mike Tyson would appear a bit soft compared
with some professors. The downside of this generosity was his willingness to call
you during the night hours to discuss a problem, or to come to your house for a
stay of indeterminate length, during which you might have to retreat to the
bathroom to get some sleep.
In a biography concerned more with the orderly collection of impressions and
anecdotes than the passage of time, Hoffman succeeds in painting a picture of
Erdös as an amiable, kindly, obsessed individual. There is no hint that he
might have missed out on something by following his one love to the exclusion of
human love and companionship, nor that he varied his compulsion by, say, adoring
opera or baseball. The portraiture is made all the surer by the introduction of a
varied cast of mathematicians, many of whom would qualify for a loopiness number
of 1 or 2 in their own right. Ron Graham, for example, is crying out for a
biography of his own.
Hoffman hovered around these circles for some time, and the result is an
engaging book which gives enough mathematical knowledge to enable the casual
reader to grasp what is being argued without filling a page with formulae. It's
worth laying out the money just to see how a brilliant mind works, and to share
in the joy of its obsession with truth, beauty and elegance, math-style.
a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He
lives in Cornwall, England.