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The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth Paperback – 3 Jun 1999


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The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth + Fermat's Last Theorem + The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters
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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; New Ed edition (3 Jun. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1857028295
  • ISBN-13: 978-1857028294
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.1 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 66,824 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Hoffman's playful, plainspoken and often hilarious biography of a monkish, impish, generous genius is purest pleasure." Mail on Sunday "Paul Hoffman's wittily articulated life of the mathematical genius Paul Erdos opens a door to a sunlit upland of pure logic, populated by bungee-bouncing, bearded maniacs and absurdly intelligent men who never learnt to tie their own shoelaces...Anyone with an interest in the science of numbers should read this." Observer "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is one of the most accessible and engaging introductions to the world of pure mathematics you are ever likely to come across." Graham Farmelo, Sunday Telegraph "A wonderful, playful, insightful life of this century's most unusual mathematician." Ian Stewart, Independent

From the Publisher

Shortlisted for the 1999 Rhone Poulenc Prize
Paul Erdos, the most prolific and eccentric mathematician of our times, forsook all creature comforts - including a home - to pursue his lifelong study of numvers. He was a man who possessed unimaginable powers of thought, yet was unable to manage some of the simplest daily tasks.

For more than six decades Erdos lived out of two tattered suitcases, criss-crossing four continents at a frenzied pace, chasing mathematical problems. Erdos saw mathematics as a search for lasting beauty and ultimate truth. It was a search he never abandoned, even as his life was torn revolution in his native Hungary, the rise of Nazism and the Cold War.

This is an intimate look at the world of mathematics and an unforgettable portrait of Erdos, a charming and impish philosopher-scientist whose accomplishements continue to enrich and inform our world.


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First Sentence
It was dinnertime in Greenbrook, New Jersey, on a cold spring day in 1987, and Paul Erdos, then seventy-four, had lost four mathematical colleagues, who were sitting fifty feet in front of him, sipping green tea. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

83 of 89 people found the following review helpful By annduk on 6 Jan. 2005
Format: Paperback
I knew Paul Erdos since I was a small child. I consider that this book, and, even more, the blurb about it, misrepresent him quite seriously. According to the book, Hoffman met Erdos only once; and his portrayal of him in the book is simultaneously oversimplified, confused and inaccurate. I am giving the book two stars rather than one, because at least it is better and more accurate than the blurb about it.
Erdos is portrayed as narrowly obsessed with mathematics, to the point of almost being a freak. He is described in the blurb as having none of the normal interests in sex, companionship, art or even food. While I don't usually describe the personal characterstics of my friends and acquaintances in a public review, Erdos has for some reason become so much of a topic for public discussion that I feel that I should respond to some of the wilder remarks. It is true that Erdos was celibate, but he had a very great liking for companionship, and friendships were important to him..
He disliked being alone, and mostly managed to avoid being alone. He had a very large number of friends, to whom he was very warm and caring and extremely generous. Yes, he could be a tiring guest, but he gave far more than he ever took, and far more than most people ever do. He gave absolutely unstintingly of his time, mathematical ideas, money (whenever he had any) and influence (whenever he had any). He always made very special efforts not only to visit and help his friends when ill or in difficulties, but to do the same with the friends and relations of his friends. Not all his friends were mathematicians. Notably, he was extremely fond of children.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 24 July 1999
Format: Paperback
What an odd little book. It should really be sub-titled "The life and times of Paul Erdos" because it covers far more than the mathematician's life. In fact over half the book discusses the work of other mathematicians and the development of number theory. Don't let that put you off. Hoffman still manages to convey the charm of Erdos so one can see why his hosts were happy to take care of him. An excellent book for those interested in maths, geniuses or who simply want their faith in humanity restored.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Story of a very unusual man, Paul Erdos. He lived and breathed collaborative mathematics, to the extent of having collaborator-exhausting benzedrine/ritalin fueled 19-hour days of continual globe-trotting mathematics for the last 25 years of his life: "there'll be plenty of time for rest in the grave". This book is a fun and easy to read trail though his life, and explains where a lot of maths class `fairy tales' came from. It also contains an accessible flavour of what number theory might be about. Unfortunately, I found myself agreeing with a quote from Carl Friedrich Gauss, from the book:

"But I confess that Fermat's theorem as an isolated proposition has very little interest for me, because I could easily lay down a multitude of such propositions, which one could neither prove nor dispose of."
(I'm not able (just yet?) to lay down such propositions, but the sentiment still holds...)

This book paints a story of an incredible and inspiring man, whose incredible and inspiring life was hopelessly dedicated to an intelligent version of being addicted to crosswords. That being addicted to crosswords can be a foundation for exhibiting true humanity and social participation was a surprising lesson for me.

Ultimately, this book has taught me that maths for maths' sake is fairly pointless: but perhaps that is a failing of the book. I doubt Erdos did maths for maths' sake. He must have been fascinated with maths, and somehow this book fails to impart an understanding of why that might be so. Number theory, like any part of maths, isn't just a big puzzle-book of unrelated puzzles, like a mensa catalogue. Maths is a densely interrelated and interconnected universe of ideas, filled with as much meaning as the universe itself.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By A. Batchelor on 19 Jan. 2010
Format: Paperback
Even if you have never heard of Paul Erdos and didn't study maths, this is an interesting story of a Hungarian mathematical genius who was unusual in that he was still producing academic papers in his 80s, was highly collaborative and worked with dozens of different mathematicians and never really bothered with material wealth - preferring instead to spend all his time doing pure maths. Given that most mathematical prodigies have a tendency to lose their abilities and often their minds before dying tragically and young, this is an unusual tale.
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Format: Paperback
I did enjoy this book despite some flaws.

The book rambles without much structure through various parts of Erdos' life, through various problems he worked on and through various other people's lives he touched. I suppose the author could claim this structure was intentional, as if to reflect the itinerant lifestyle and wide ranging mathematical interests and colleagues of Paul Erdos. I suspect however that it was not so intended.

However the main flaw becomes the book's strength. We don't learn enough about the man himself because the book detours through various colleagues and other matters too frequently. It's as if we are trying to follow Erdos around but never quite managing to be in the same place at the same time. However, because of this we end up meeting lots of interesting mathematicians in the book who, though accomplished enough in their profession, would not likely be much covered in any other mathematical biography. The varying colleagues of Erdos end up being interesting themselves and book therefore redeems itself while still being a little too thinly spread.
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