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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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"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.See all Product description
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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.
"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.
The author makes this account extremely enjoyable to read and understand. More a story of the man than the numbers he loves, this book is well worth a look.
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