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My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos Paperback – 28 Feb 2000

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Product details

  • Paperback: 236 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone (28 Feb 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684859807
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684859804
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.8 x 21.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 91,050 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Physicist and science writer Bruce Schechter's biography of legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös is an engaging portrait, warm and intimate, bringing this strange, happy man to life. Schechter's focus is tighter and more traditionally biographical than Paul Hoffman's in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. Here we get to see Erdös's brief childhood transform quickly into a carefree adolescence of solving difficult maths problems with his circle of brilliant friends--uniquely encouraged by a country that valued the contributions of mathematics in a way that has never been equalled. Fleeing the Holocaust, Erdös never settled down, instead travelling from place to place, showing up on the doorsteps of other mathematicians with his few possessions and an open mind. During his career, Erdös published more papers than any other mathematician in history. Most of the papers were collaborations:
For Erdös, the mathematics that consumed most of his waking hours was not a solitary pursuit but a social activity. One of the great mathematical discoveries of the twentieth century was the simple equation that two heads are better than one.... That radical transformation of how mathematics is created is the result of many factors, not the least of which was the infectious example set by Erdös.
Schechter spoke with many of Erdös's collaborators to complete this biography, which reveals the odd mathematician as charming, opinionated and completely dependent upon the kindness of others. Schechter not only tells his fascinating story, but introduces some intriguing mathematics problems (with easy-to-understand explanations) to show readers why Erdös loved the elegance of numbers more than anything else in the world. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 18 Nov 1998
Format: Hardcover
This book is hilarious, witty, informative and intelligent. Paul Erdos comes alive in a book filled with anecdote and insight. The math is all quite simple and basic, so even people who are not trained in math beyond two-plus-two can follow it easily. Mostly the math is presented in a human context so the "world of math" is illuminated rather than specific math problems or techniques.
There exists another bio of Erdos, "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers," by Paul Hoffman, which has been promoted far more more actively by its publisher, but "My Brain Is Open" has (deservedly) been singled out by reviewers as being far superior. The New Scientist rightly said that Schechter's book is "better written, better structured, and better judged" than Hoffman's. Library Journal said that Schechter's is the definitive bio that libraries should order. Publishers Weekly said Schechter's book is better. The Wall Street journal said Schechter's book is better. The Math Association of America said Schechter's book is better. The Los Angeles Times said Schechter's book is better.
For reasons having to do more with business than taste, however, Hoffman's book has been aggressively promoted while Schechter's book, at least in America, was scarcely promoted at all. This is an injustice to the reading public, however, which ought to know that the superior product is the one that has not gotten all the hype. There is really no contest. Both books are quite entertaining, but Schechter's book is more so. In fact, Schechter's book is one of the best math or science titles ever written for a popular audience.
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By Biro on 27 Dec 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Nice easy summer hols type read. Not as 'romantic' as the other one (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers), but probably a bit more depth to it in that it covers his earlier life in a bit more detail. It also resolves the question as to who produced more papers, Euler of Erdos, but you will have to read the book to find the answer to that one.
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7 of 12 people found the following review helpful By davidalikaanhelliwell@hotmail.com on 5 Nov 2000
Format: Paperback
Not quite whatI was expecting, I thought it would involve more mathematical proofs & formulae ( it does contain 1 or 2 simple proofs explained in laymans terms. Although there is a lot of interesting facts about Mr. Erdos's life, which at times are quite amusing, there is a lot of additional information about the lives & times of many other mathematicians that Mr. Erdos either worked with or whose ideas effected his life. Generally an interesting insight into the strange lives & times of mathematicians, an enjoyable read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 40 reviews
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating biography with lucid cameos of math. topics 18 Mar 1999
By norton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This beautiful book is an intellectually rich biography of one of the world's most prolific mathematicians. Amusingly, inoffensively and highly idiosyncratic, Erdos worked on hard problems in apparently simple fields, taking rather easily explained concepts and forging powerful new results and tools with a speed which astounded professional colleagues. Bruce Schechter does a magnificent job of clearly explaining what Erdos did and the many connections between his work and other areas of mathematics and, more generally, science. Through frequent digressions he paints both a humane portrait of a uniquely caring individual and a thumbnail sketch of western political oppression around the world during the first sixty years of this century.
This book also will introduce readers, in a gentle and interesting manner, to the world of numbers and mathematics. The nature of prime numbers and how they are distributed, famous conjectures such as Goldbach's, topics in graph theory and combinatorial mathematics, and more are made accessible to the reader. The account of the controversy surrounding the "elementary" proof of the Prime Number Theorem benefits from the author's access to newly available material, and will be of interest to both laypeople and mathematicians. Other topics, introduced through natural association with the subject at hand, include Godel's Theorem, Russell's paradox, the Monty Hall problem (made famous by Marilyn vos Savant), the nature of infinity, proving theorems by contradiction, and the normal distribution.
Though Erdos is known to many for his unusual life style and behavior, this book does not dwell on the bizarre but weaves such facets of his life into the more exciting mathematical development of the person. This biography ranks among the very best of the numerous works about mathematicians which I have read over the past 45 years. Arguably, more has been written about Erdos in the past decade or two than about any other mathematician. Despite this, Schechter's new contribution is an outstanding addition to the literature
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Comparison to the Hoffman book 22 Sep 2001
By lanoitan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this book after reading the one by Paul Hoffman. I would say that this one by Schechter is a little easier to read, flows better and is better organized. There is a great deal of overlap, but I was glad I read both. I liked reading about the Monty Hall problem and about Erdos' getting water all over in the Hoffman book, but Schechter had the conflict with Selberg in his book, which was meaningful to me. I guess I would recommend reading both.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The Remarkable Saga of a Remarkable Man 20 Jun 2002
By Henry M. Dobb - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Paul Erdos was a unique individual. He never had a permanent residence; instead, he traveled from one mathematics conference to another with his few earthly belongings in two suitcases, one which held a few changes of clothes, the other a treasure of mathematics papers. He collaborated with mathematicians everywhere; the extent of these collaborations is so immense it gave rise to the Erdos number, which is this: You have an Erdos number of 1 if you co-authored a paper with Erdos, your Erdos number is 2 if you co-authored a paper with someone who jointly wrote a paper with Erdos, etc. About 500 people have an Erdos number of 1 and well over 5000 hold the Erdos number of 2. Erdos numbers go as high as 16 and the number of people with an Erdos number is said to be well above 100,000.
Stories about Erdos abound. It is rumored that he walked into a classroom, saw some writing on a chalkboard and asked if this was mathematics. Upon receiving an affirmative answer, he then asked what the various symbols were. Immediately after the explanations were given, Erdos took chalk in hand and in two lines proved the hypothesis that had baffled other mathematicians for some time, and this was in a field of mathematics that Erdos was largely unfamiliar with! Another story had Erdos taking a train fron Boston to New York; across the aisle sat a beautiful female who said "hello" to him. One thing led to another; by the time the train arrived the two of them had written a paper!
This book covered much of the life and mathematics of Paul Erdos; much of the mathematics in the book is number theory because it is a topic that is easy for anyone to understand yet difficult to prove. A typical example is Goldbach's conjecture, which says: "Any even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers." Sounds simple enough and logical; 4=2+2, 6=3+3, 8=3+5,10=5+5 or 3+7,... The problem has been around for about 300 years but as yet lacks a proof. Other mathematics topics touched upon include Ramsey theory, the division of a square into unequal squares, and Godel's Incompleteness Theory. The book also shows the strange language of Erdos, in which women were 'bosses', men were 'slaves', the United States was 'Sam' (from Uncle Sam), and the Soviet Union was 'Joe' (Stalin), to list a few of his own variations of English.
This book is easy to read, even if the reader has only a high-school background in mathematics. If you are curious about mathematics and/or human nature, you will find this book of great interest. I highly recommend this book.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
This book shows that Erdos loved much more than numbers 16 Nov 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I liked the other bio of Erdos by Paul Hoffman, "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers," but Schechter's bio presents a fuller picture, showing that Erdos loved a lot more than just numbers. There is a new review of Schechter's book from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) by a fellow who also reviewed the Hoffman book, and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said that he liked Hoffman's book, "But in many ways, Schechter's is a much better biography. Where Hoffman strayed away from Erdös too often for my taste, Schechter has crafted a much tighter and better focused account of mathematics' famous wayfarer." Why has Hoffman's book gotten more attention? The MAA reviewer says "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers seems to have been carefully released and well promoted -- I became aware of it well before it was published -- whereas Schechter's version just seemed to appear on the bookstore shelves unannounced one day." It's a shame that Schechter's book wasn't promoted more heavily, though the book did reach the Amazon top 50 after it was called "better" than Hoffman's book in the Wall Street Journal. This is the one to buy, in my opinion. Don't let accidents of hype lead you to read the wrong book. "My Brain Is Open" is the better book by far.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
N is a Number: True Story of the Travelling Mathematician 12 July 2004
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback

The four-word title of this book is "My Brain Is Open." If you keep the first word and form a word from the first letter of the three remaining words, you get "My BIO." And that's exactly what this book is. This ten chapter book, by Dr. Bruce Schechter, is a BIOgraphy of Dr. Paul Erdos (pronounced "Air-dish").

Erdos (1913 to 1996) is said to have been one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century (especially in number theory, the branch of math concerned with the properties of integers) as well as the most eccentric. Throughout this book, we also learn of the many others who collaborated with Erdos on his many published mathematical papers. (He wrote or collaborated on more than 1500 papers with over 450 collaborators.)

This book is also filled with the sorts of mathematical puzzles that intrigued Erdos and continue to fascinate mathematicians today. Schechter does a good job of explaining these puzzles (with the aid of diagrams, tables, and graphs) so the reader does not have to worry that these problems will be too difficult to understand.

The reader is also taken on a tour of mathematics. We are introduced to such people as Pythagoras and his famous theorem, Karl Gauss who, when ten years old, was able to add up the numbers from 1 to 100 in less than half a minute, and Bernhard Reimann and his work on prime numbers.

Erdos was born in Hungry. By age seventeen he had gained international recognition as a prodigy. He eventually left Hungry and went to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princton in the United States. (Einstein was the institutes most famous resident then.) Because of his politics, he was exiled from the U.S. for a decade. From this point beginning in the 1950s, he became "the Bob Hope of mathematics" or "the travelling mathematician."

Since Erdos was constantly travelling, he had no home or job but still managed to meet with math colleagues all over the world. He had all his belongings in a suitcase and his mathematical papers in a bag when he arrived at their homes. Erdos also depended on the generosity of colleagues to sustain him.

The reader is introduced to Erdos' eccentricities throughout the book. For example, he invented a vocabulary where the U.S. was "Sam" or "Samland" (after Uncle Sam) and the Soviet Union was "Joe" or "Joedom" (after Josef Stalin).

There are more than fifteen black and white photographs found in the middle of this book. These photos span a period from 1916 to 1993.

To get the information needed to write this book, Schechter relied "on the memories of the many people" who met Erdos -- his hundreds of collaborators and friends. That is, he "primarily relied on interviews with many of the people who knew Erdos best." Schechter also "drew heavily" from biographical essays as well as magazine articles about Erdos. He also used the information from the over ninety sources listed in this book's bibliography.

Finally, as I said above, this book does contain mathematical puzzles that intrigued Erdos. Personally, I found these interesting but some readers may find that they interfere with the flow of the book. As well, mathematicians who read this book may question the accuracy of a few of the mathematical concepts that are introduced.

In conclusion, this book invites the reader into the wacky world of mathematical genius Paul Erdos. If you're like me, you'll find this book both comical and enlightening!!

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