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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.
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on 24 July 1999
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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on 22 December 2009
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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on 28 September 2009
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. This book hints at some of the relations, but they seem to be portrayed as accidental. Life is full of coincidences: co-incidences: incidents (events, not accidents) that occur together, and usually if you look below that surface, some meaning behind the coincidence can be found. Leaving a coincidence to be explained as an accident is singularly uninteresting. At least some idea of why that `accident' occurred should be attempted.

For some idea of the meaning behind those coincidences, I thoroughly recommend How Mathematicians Think by William Byers, which is a book for the mathematically minded (or perhaps just anyone interested in thinking), rather than those mathematically-curious-from-a-non-participatory-point-of-view.
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on 19 January 2010
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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on 9 December 2008
I believe that the reviewer 'annduk', whilst sincere, is overly critical and concerned, at times, for no reason. Yes, the title is "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers", but it is not that serious a book: of course it paints shades of grey in primary colours. That's part of what makes it so readable. "The Man Who Really Liked Numbers But Was Also Interested In History Amongst Other Things" is not that catchy. Note also that it rarely goes into depth on Erdos' work: that's not the point of the book. And how many times he met Erdos is not that important to me, as most biographers tend not to have travelled in time to meet their subjects.

It seems to me that annduk is worried that Erdos is portrayed in a negative light, but nothing could be further from the truth. The book is a charming tale of a good man, which dwells happily on his many good deeds. Given the volume of work produced by Erdos, there is good reason for the choice of title, but the book itself rarely goes into detail about his mathematical output, and so can hardly be accused of ignoring his humanity.
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on 29 March 2003
268 pages plus 16 photo pages, exciting to read, revealing
the life and personality of Paul Erdos, a great and very
excentric number theorist of the 20-th century. The author
knew Erdos personally and speaks out quite openly, nearly
too openly, about private details of Erdos' life. Since
Erdos was only and always concerned with mathematics it is a
special achievement of the author to create such a
fascinating book. The excentricities of Erdos, on the other
hand, lead to many funny situations, which the author seems
to have collected from many of Erdos remaining friends and
which stories made it easier to bring the mathematicians bio
to life.
Some simple math pops up here and there to give the reader an
idea about the topics, Erdos was concerned with.
Paus Erdos was the master of the matematicians and it is very
inspiring to meet him in this book.
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Well written and interesting biography. As well as ancedotes on Paul
Erdos also contained interesting background on a number of classic
problems. Particularly enjoyed the dicussion on the Car-Goat problem which I have to confess I have used to heat up a few boring places from time to time.
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on 15 September 2003
The book is fascinating with most of the chapters being well written and researched on, although Hoffmann's title falls in many ways off on what kind of personality Paul Erdös really was. He did love other things as well, amongst them 'epsilons', but this is for you to find out yourself by reading the book.
The somewhat tricky combination of biography and history of science - mathematics, that is, in this particular case - , is a feature others have tried (and failed), but the author compensates for that in many well written chapters throughout the book, outlining Erdös' genius, many of his facettes and Erdös' quite extraordinary way of collaboration, all of which put him on the 'very short list' of the past century, as Dr. Joel H. Spencer, a mathematician at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences indisputably stated in 1996. - I am not as fortunate as Hoffmann - his actually having met Paul Erdös - and that is why I would have opted for his concentrating more on sharin his view of Erdös from a non-mathematician's perspective, rather than mixing mathematics' and the biographee's timeline in a stochastic manner. The book, however, is fascinating to read, and goes best along with 'My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdös' (Oxford University Press) which you might be lucky enough to either own or get hold of otherwise.
To make a long story short: a fascinating overview on high-end mathematical problems and several as fascinating attempts throughout the centuries to solve them, placed in context to the incredible Paul Erdös, a true mathematical genius of the past century. It is worth a go - I read it in three summer days and had great fun. Especially with the prime numbers.
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on 7 January 2000
Madmen, Mathematicians and Mortals all appeared in Paul Erdos' life. Apart from some thought provoking explanations of how mathematics contributes to even the most mundane parts of everyday life, this book, rather unexpectedly made me laugh.
The writing is fluent with only the descriptions of equations, principles and theorem requiring close scrutiny. If you have a vague interest in maths, this book may give you a reason to investigate further.
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