Top critical review
92 people found this helpful
Oversimplified, confused and inaccurate
on 6 January 2005
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. He carried out his desire for companionship into his professional life, where he carried out a great deal of his work in collaboration with others, and had more collaborators than any other scientist of whom I have ever heard. As regards food, he had a great appreciation of good food, and would for example, sometimes reciprocate his hosts by taking them to good restaurants. While he did not have a special interest in art, he was very fond of nature, and also had strong interests in languages, history and politics. He was certainly not a "Man Who Loved Only Numbers". He was indeed obsessed with mathematics; but this was his least unusual characteristic. Many people pursue interests and careers obsessively; Erdos differed from others in being infinitely more creative and successful in his chosen pursuit than most others; in the extent to which he combined this obsession with an intelligent interest in other subjects; and in pursuing creative mathematics into old age.
The book and the blurb about it, also make me uneasy in my professional capacity as a developmental and cognitive psychologist who studies individual differences in cognition. While few people are as outstandingly talented in any direction as Erdos in mathematics, many people - a far larger number than had at one time been thought - are uneven in their abilities. It is both scientifically inaccurate, and a potential source of distress to the individuals concerned, to assume that such unevennesses are solely a matter of attention and focus. Thus, the implication that Erdos' physical clumsiness and difficulties with certain practical activities were due solely to a narrow focus on mathematics is both unfair to Erdos personally and a disservice to the many less eminent people who are physically clumsy or have other specific cognitive or motor difficulties.
If anyone is interested in reading a good biography of Erdos, I would strongly recommend them to read Schecter's "My Brain Is Open" - much better than this book.