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Paul Hoffman's "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers"

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THE MAN WHO LOVED ONLY NUMBERS

__THE MAN WHO LOVED
__ONLY NUMBERS

_________ Paul Hoffman


 

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


GRAHAM BRACK | 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.

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.


        

GRAHAM BRACK , a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.



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