The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth
Paul Erdos, the most prolific and eccentric mathematician of our time, forsook all creature comforts—including a home—to pursue his lifelong study of numbers. 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, crisscrossing four continents at a frenzied pace, chasing mathematical problems and fresh talent. Erdos saw mathematics as a search for lasting beauty and ultimate truth. It was a search Erdos never abandoned, even as his life was torn asunder by some of the major political dramas of our time.
In this biography, Hoffman uses Erdos’s life and work to introduce readers to a cast of remarkable geniuses, from Archimedes to Stanislaw Ulam, one of the chief minds behind the Los Alamos nuclear project. He draws on years of interviews with Ronald Graham and Fan Chung, Erdos’s chief American caretakers and devoted collaborators. With an eye for the hilarious anecdote, Hoffman explains mathematical problems from Fermat’s Last Theorem to the more frivolous “Monty Hall dilemma.” What emerges is an intimate look at the world of mathematics and an indelible portrait of Erdos, a charming and impish philosopher-scientist whose accomplishments continue to enrich and inform our world.
Paul Erdös was an amazing and prolific mathematician whose life as a world-wandering numerical nomad was legendary. He published almost 1500 scholarly papers before his death in 1996, and he probably thought more about math problems than anyone in history. Like a traveling salesman offering his thoughts as wares, Erdös would show up on the doorstep of one mathematician or another and announce, “My brain is open.” After working through a problem, he’d move on to the next place, the next solution.
Hoffman’s book, like Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, reveals a genius’s life that transcended the merely quirky. But Erdös’s brand of madness was joyful, unlike Nash’s despairing schizophrenia. Erdös never tried to dilute his obsessive passion for numbers with ordinary emotional interactions, thus avoiding hurting the people around him, as Nash did. Oliver Sacks writes of Erdös: “A mathematical genius of the first order, Paul Erdös was totally obsessed with his subject—he thought and wrote mathematics for nineteen hours a day until the day he died. He traveled constantly, living out of a plastic bag, and had no interest in food, sex, companionship, art—all that is usually indispensable to a human life.”
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is easy to love, despite his strangeness. It’s hard not to have affection for someone who referred to children as “epsilons,” from the Greek letter used to represent small quantities in mathematics; a man whose epitaph for himself read, “Finally I am becoming stupider no more”; and whose only really necessary tool to do his work was a quiet and open mind. Hoffman, who followed and spoke with Erdös over the last 10 years of his life, introduces us to an undeniably odd, yet pure and joyful, man who loved numbers more than he loved God—whom he referred to as SF, for Supreme Fascist. He was often misunderstood, and he certainly annoyed people sometimes, but Paul Erdös is no doubt missed. —Therese Littleton