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The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  4,144 ratings  ·  247 reviews
Based on a National Magazine Award-winning article, this masterful biography of Hungarian-born Paul Erdos is both a vivid portrait of an eccentric genius and a layman's guide to some of this century's most startling mathematical discoveries.
Paperback, 302 pages
Published May 12th 1999 by Hachette Books (first published 1998)
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Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. HofstadterFermat's Enigma by Simon SinghFlatland by Edwin A. AbbottThe Code Book by Simon SinghZero by Charles Seife
Best Books About Mathematics
8th out of 204 books — 333 voters
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Mathematical Biography
1st out of 17 books — 17 voters


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Community Reviews

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Manny
I originally wanted to be a mathematician, and I'm still enough of one that I am completely in awe of Erdös. He was the Saint Francis of Mathematics; he had no possessions, and just wandered around the world doing math research with like-minded people. I see that another reviewer has called him a "hanger-on". Friend, you completely miss the point. He might turn up on someone's doorstep and expect them to feed him and give him a place to sleep for a few nights. He'd often reward them with a coupl ...more
Stian
"Végre nem butulok tovább."
"Finally I am becoming stupider no more."

The epitaph Paul Erdős wrote for himself.

Paul Erdős was, I believe, the embodiment of mathematics. His brain was finely tuned to think about mathematics constantly -- for as much as 18 hours a day, if not more. Every moment of his waking life appears to have been spent thinking about theorems, conjectures, problems, and solutions. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century, and collaborated with mo
...more
Aloha
A human look at the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos who loved numbers more than anything. Instead of being a cold analytic, Erdos was a compassionate person who shared the best part of himself with others. Making money off his talent was not important to him but sharing math was. He had selflessly paired his talents with countless others who seek to solve mathematical conundrums and traveled where he was needed. A wandering monk of mathematics, he gave away what he earned to charities, living ...more
BetseaK
I enjoyed this book a lot. Within a humanized story of the colourful life of Hungarian maths genius Paul Erdős and the people associated with him in various ways, this book gives a fascinating insight into the world of pure mathematics, its historical background and the lives and psychology of many famous mathematicians.
I was particularly interested in the real-life applications of the maths concept as well as the psychological aspect. I found it surprising that, despite their talent for findin
...more
David
Paul Erdos was a prolific, well-known mathematician. He wrote over 1400 journal articles in various mathematical publications, many of them collaborations. Those people who collaborated with him earned an Erdos "number 1". Those who collaborated with someone who collaborated with him earned a "number 2", and so on.

To say that Erdos was "eccentric" would be an understatement. He had no home--he carried a suitcase with a single change of clothes in it, and traveled the world, visiting one mathemat
...more
Andy
Paul Erdos, the famously eccentric mathematician, spent twenty hours a day, every day hopped-up on amphetamines, working through mathematical proofs, to the exclusion of any sort of normal social life. He had his own language (to “die” meant to leave the field of mathematics, children were “epsilons”, women “bosses”, God was the “SF” or “Supreme Fascist”). Admittedly asexual, he lived alone with his mother until she died, and then he wandered the U.S. and Europe, staying for a few weeks at a tim ...more
Mairi
I really liked this book a lot. It's the biography of Paul Erdos (pronounced air-dish), a Hungarian mathematician. I read/went over a few sections of it to my really-into-math thirteen-year-old daughter (worst-case scenario analysis, the bin problem, the travelling salesman problem, that 1-1+1-1+1-1... is an infinite series, and a bit about Sophie Germain's correspondence with Gauss) and she was fascinated by it too.

Erdos was an interesting man. So focussed on his passion for numbers that he fo
...more
Philipp
A book that made me very happy, this one details the life of Paul Erdős (with two thingies on the o), arguably the most important mathematician of the 20th century, his works & achievements, and his more than, um, quirky lifestyle. He had little possessions and like a world-citizen he travelled from collaborator to collaborator's couch, staying at each house for a few weeks until another theorem was proven.

Since it's a book about an influential mathematician, pretty much all of the greats of
...more
Martina
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is an interesting read from multiple aspects. It mostly concentrates on the life story of Paul Erdös, an incredible genius who took on an occupation of traveling mathematician, all for one goal: getting more knowledge from the Book. (It was Erdös' opinion that the Supreme Fascist up there had a Book filled with elegant mathematical equations, but people weren't allowed to read it. Instead, people could only catch glimpses of the Book's pages, by means of flashes o ...more
Glynn
This book is about a mathematician and his life with numbers, an idea so esoteric mere humans such as myself cannot comprehend it. This particular mathematician had a special code language for many things. Men were slaves, women were bosses, children were epsilons, etc. This mathematician was generous to a fault but also relied on the kindness of strangers, like Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire." He was a difficult person but so brilliant and so kind that people put up with his many e ...more
Mohammad Zakerzadeh
The book is a very appealing source "mainly" about one of the greatest figures in mathematical world in the past century.
I say mainly because around 40 percent of the book is not directly related to Erdos and is devoted to explain the mathematical terms or history behind the theorems and people involved (or even not involved in some cases) in Erdos's life.

The book is well written in my opinion and readable by non-mathematicians and people not familiar with number theory.
Ragnarok
A very fun read and often extremely interesting and exciting. My only comment is that it's not strictly a biography of Erdos, at times going nearly a whole chapter without mentioning him. Rather it's reminiscences about him and the lives of many other famous mathematicians that intersected with his. (If you've read a few books on mathematics then you've probably heard a lot of the anecdotes before.) Very inspiring.
kaśyap
This is a well written biography of paul erdos, a prolific hungarian mathematician who spends over 19 hours a day doing mathematics and has published over 1400 papers. He was a man who had no home and had travelled around the world giving lectures and staying at his friends place's.
To anyone who is interested in mathematics, this book is great and very fun to read.
Kamiyab
عبّاس معروفی، اوّلای کتاب "فریدون سه پسر داشت" میگفت که آدم احساساتش رو فقط به زبون مادریش میتونه بیان کنه(نقل به مضمون). واین حرف از احساساته و دلیلی واسه انگلیسی نوشتنش نیست.

این کتاب زندگینامهی پل اردیش، از نوابغ ریاضی قرن بیستمه. چرا زندگینامهها رو میخونیم؟ زندگینامهی چه کسانی ارزش خوندن داره؟ افرادی که زندگیشون چیزی واسه ارائه داشته. افرادی که بود و نبودش فرق داره. و مطمئناً اردیش از اوناست.

میدونید از اردیش و زندگیش چی میشه یاد گرفت؟ دوست داشتن. اردیش مردی بود که "فقط" اعداد رو دوست داشت. و
...more
Angus Mcfarlane
What would you expect to see in a book about the 20th centuries most prolific mathematician? A man dressed in a tweed suit, tenured to one of the worlds great universities where he toiled in solitude writing esoteric articles? Surprisingly, he was a diminutive Hungarian of no fixed abode whose eccentric engagement with all who were willing to open their brains inspired a generation of mathematicians to tackle new problems, some of them simple enough to understand (but not, necessarily, to solve! ...more
Aaron Arnold
I wish there were more people like Paul Erdös. I was only ever decent at math in high school, and terrible at math after that, so his exploits make me jealous in a good way. I think for many people, and certainly frequently for me, math beyond a certain point is a dense, lightless thicket of symbols. Maybe everyone is born with a certain amount of math facility, and once you learn up to the point where your returns have diminished to uselessness, you have no choice but to forget about it and mov ...more
Chrissy
Sep 23, 2011 Chrissy rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: curious minds
Recommended to Chrissy by: I don't remember...
Paul Hoffman strikes the perfect balance between math and biography, technicality and heart-felt sentiments for a life worthy of remembering. I'm a little surprised I had never heard of Paul Erdos before having this book recommended to me, but I'm kind of glad I hadn't. It let me experience the world of math through his eyes and the eyes of those who knew him, without a single shred of foreknowledge. I let Hoffman carry me through the life and math (though I'd argue they are hardly separable) of ...more
Matthew
Charming biography of mathematician Paul Erdos. Charming, I would think to anyone who at least appreciates mathematics or mathematical research. The mathematician lived an eccentric, nomadic life, collaborating with numerous mathematicians, randomly supporting graduate students to finish their degrees without any noticeable concern of being reimbursed. He had no interest in common pleasures, conversation, relationships, in anything except mathematics. He did love children though, referring to th ...more
Noemie Vassilakis
Reading this book ten years ago changed how I physically perceive. Sound and visual input brightened for me, became more vivid. I gained a new appreciation of the profound order and interconnectedness of all phenomena.

I understand from other reviews that there isn't much in this book that's new to mathematicians or to people who are widely read in math. But I was hungry for this information and I drank it in and it's like it nourished me in just the way I needed at the time.

I do take issue with
...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I sat by one of the math faculty at a new faculty dinner, and when we started talking about math he told me I should read this book. I enjoyed it! Paul Erdos was a very unique individual (as mathematicians are) - more than anything I enjoyed his made up vocabulary - God = S.F. (Supreme Fascist), children=epsilons, women=masters, men=slaves, Americans=Sam, Soviets=Joe. A lot of math is sprinkled in there as well, including information about numbers bigger than infinity (ha! proven at last!) and m ...more
Choc Sarao
The colorful life of Paul Erdos, the most prolific mathematician of his time. He co-wrote over 1400 papers with hundreds of collaborators over a span of 7 decades. His genius was undeniable, but he is remembered not so much for his intellect but for how he eschewed everything, in favor of his lone obsession, numbers. He gave away all his money and possessions, save for a few slovenly clothes in a suitase and started wandering the world, hopping from one math conference to another, often not stay ...more
Jonathan Beams
Orthogonal with respect to human norms, Erdos was an inspiring and unreasonable machine for creating number theory when fed and clothed by his mathematical colleagues and kept in a supply of Benzedrine by an understanding physician. When his welcome was worn out, off he'd go to the next professorship, conference, or vacant livingroom couch. A madman and a genius, and wicked smart, Erdos embodied Whitehead's statement that 'It is the essence of life that it exists for its own sake.'
Brian
Erdos was a Hungarian who only did math. Never had sex, kept an apartment, or buttered his own toast (though he said he thought he could do it (the butter, not the sex)).

But he did manage to knock on the door of anyone who would put up with him, to do math 20 hours a day with the assistance of coffee and amphetamines (till he was 80-something). You'll think his shenanigans are made up.
William Herschel
This book was misleading. I thought I was reading a biography on Paul Erdös, but other mathematicians get more screen-time than he does. I suppose I connected the "and the Search for Mathematical Truth" tagline with "The Story of Paul Erdös" too much. What an appetizer.
Jon
I am guessing the date that I read this book, but it was about 10 years ago.

I am interested in math as a professional topic but also as a recreational topic. I was a big fan of Mathematical Games in Scientific American, for example. As such, this story intrigued me from several different angles.

Math is important in human development. It represents the apex of human accomplishment, as much if not more than any of the fine arts. Erdos was a purest, who lived his life for nothing else except the ad
...more
Abdullah Ahmed
it is not only a biography of one of the greatest mathematician ever lived . I just loved mathematics more and I decided to change my career and be a mathematician
christopher
Jan 11, 2014 christopher added it
Shelves: 2014
besides the touching moments, the funny moments, etc. what i liked about this book was the idea that it gives in showing mathematicians who just happen to notice highly specific properties of numbers ie 517 and 518 being an ruth-aaron pair etc:

"Pomerance was a young assistant professor then and he noticed that the product of 714 and 715 was also the product of the first seven primes.

A student of one of Pomerances's colleagues also found another interested property of 714 and 715: the sum of the
...more
ben
I absolutely loved this book. I majored in math during undergrad and spent 4 years hearing the stories about Erdős and the professors comparing Erdős numbers (highest in the department was 2), so in my head he was more of a myth than an actual person.

This book is both a history of Erdős and a history of mathematics in general. A lot of stories and theories present in the book were familiar to me, but they were well written it has been 10 years since college and the refresher on everything made m
...more
Abhishek Agarwal
The only reason I give this a four-star instead of five, is that the book speaks too little of Erdos' works. The book details almost everything that is famous in mathematics as stories or as concepts: Euclid's parallel lines axiom, Prime number theorem, Fermat's last theorem, Hardy's discovery of Ramanujam's genius, Cantor's trans-infinite, Euler's beautiful identity, Monty-Hall problem. It isn't clear how Erdos is connected to all of these or if he is connected at all. Apart from that, Paul pre ...more
Gospodyina
I literally found myself reading sections of this aloud to non-mathy people, and they genuinely liked it as well. I think.
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142799
Paul Hoffman (born 1956) is a prominent author and host of the PBS television series Great Minds of Science. He was president and editor in chief of Discover, in a ten-year tenure with that magazine, and served as president and publisher of Encyclopaedia Britannica before returning full-time to writing and consulting work.

He lives in Woodstock, New York. Author of at least ten books, he has appea
...more
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