Manny's Reviews > The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
1713956
's review
Mar 10, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: science, transcendent-experiences
Read in January, 1998

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 couple of ideas so brilliant that their whole careers would be revitalized, or pushed in some exciting new direction they hadn't even suspected might exist. I'm afraid you don't understand mathematicians' priorities.

As the title says, Erdös loved only numbers, and he wanted to share that love with the whole world. He collaborated with over 500 different people on over 1400 published papers, and every researcher now talks about their "Erdös number". If you published a joint paper with him, your number is 1. If you published a paper with a person who's a 1, you're a 2, and so on. Low numbers are much sought after; if you're wondering, I'm a 5, which is so-so. I keep trying to find a 3 who wants to write a joint paper with me, but so far unsuccessfully.

Like many mathematicians, Erdös had an unusual way of talking, and liked making up his own names for things. He was in particular famous for his habit of calling God "The Supreme Fascist", or "The S.F." for short. I don't think he meant any harm by this: it's just the kind of thing mathematicians think is funny. If there is a God, I'm sure He has some equally insulting pet name for Erdös. The world of mathematics still misses him badly; it would be nice to think that he was up there in the Heavenly Math Institute, publishing joint papers with Pythagoras and Gauss.

This is a fine book about Erdös, sympathetically written by someone who understood well what an amazing, unique person he was. If you're any kind of mathematician, and by some mischance you haven't already come across it, you should put it on your list without further delay!
57 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

01/31 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jorel5 (new)

Jorel5 Just last night reading a Michael Chabon novel at a local truck stop, the waiter remarked about how great a writer he is. I agreed wholeheartedly. From then on it was a meeting of the geek-minds. We discussed Chabon's novel of the dawn of comic super heroes, then the Watchmen graphic novel. That led somehow to "Do you like math?" I answered that I'm not good at it, but I am fascinated by it's relationship to music and the structure of the universe. The waiter then told me about the bio of Erdos and I wrote it down, determined to check it out. Now I really want to find a copy and read about him. Seems that Mr Erdos is approaching his "hundredth monkey" moment; I have a feeling that he will soon be getting his wish to share his "only love" with many thousands of more readers.


Manny Jorel, fate is clearly telling you to read this book! Better listen up :)


message 3: by Jorel5 (new)

Jorel5 Hey Manny - Finished this book about two weeks ago. Time well spent! He certainly was an eccentric - I doubt I would have had the patience to have him as my houseguest. But now I have to thank the author for giving me the ability to finally wrap my mind around the concepts of "imaginary numbers", and other things like primes that had eluded me before. It's not just a history of math in the 20th century - his life is also about skirting around the controversial issues of his time like the atom bomb and McCarthyism. Good read!


Manny Glad you liked it, Jorel!


message 5: by rivka (new) - added it

rivka My dad has an Erdös number of 2, looks like.

*double-checks* Yup, via Dr. Totik. Cool!


Manny rivka wrote: "My dad has an Erdös number of 2, looks like.

*double-checks* Yup, via Dr. Totik. Cool!"


Impressive! What kind of mathematician is he?


message 7: by rivka (new) - added it

rivka He's a mathematical physicist. (Which my mom, a mathematician, says makes him neither a mathematician nor a physicist.)


David This is indeed a fine book, right up there with the biography of Ramanujan "The Man Who Knew Infinity". I will not dignify David Leavitt's vile "The Indian Clerk" by mentioning it (oops, I just did).

Then there is the interesting concept of the Bacon-Erdös number; see, e.g.
http://gaelstat.blogspot.com/2008/08/...

Another nice review, thanks Manny! Now we just need that definitive Galois biography.


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

i suck at math. i hate math. my third grade son can kick my ass sideways at math. but the fact of it is fascinating, and people who get it? even more so.


message 10: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu I adored this book. Almost as I much as I adore M. Erdös.


message 11: by C. (new) - added it

C. Why did you not become a mathematician, Manny?


Manny Choupette wrote: "Why did you not become a mathematician, Manny?"

Um... basically, I suppose because I discovered that I wasn't good enough at it. Unfortunately.


message 13: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu Pshh, whatever. I'm sure you're a topping mathematician, Manny. Well, depending on the criteria necessary to be called a "mathematician"...


Manny Matthew wrote: "Pshh, whatever. I'm sure you're a topping mathematician, Manny. Well, depending on the criteria necessary to be called a "mathematician"..."

Well thank you for the vote of confidence! But when I went to Cambridge, I met some real mathematicians, and soon decided I was never going to be like them. My supervisor was Béla Bollobás, who is an Erdös 1 eighteen times over, and I also got to know John Thompson. I discovered AI, and thought that would suit me better. I probably called it right.


message 15: by C. (new) - added it

C. Fair enough. That must have been a hard decision to make, though.


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

much like george costanza, i wanted to be an architect.

the other day, i told my 9 year old that 6x5 equalled 40.

you can see my dilemma.


Manny tami wrote: "much like george costanza, i wanted to be an architect.

the other day, i told my 9 year old that 6x5 equalled 40.

you can see my dilemma."


Tami, there is no way that 6x5 could be 40. 6 is divisible by 3, 40 isn't. Think prime factors!





message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

yeah. how about, use a calculator and never EVER help the children with math?


Manny Hm. I like computers, but I hate calculators...


Manny Choupette wrote: "Fair enough. That must have been a hard decision to make, though."

I still have occasional regrets. Did you notice my short poem, Theorem Envy?



message 21: by C. (new) - added it

C. Ha! I think I might just have managed to get beauty to remove her overcoat. Go me (my Erdos number is infinity, incidentally)! I enjoyed the Hunting of the Snark poem, too, which I somehow managed to miss.


message 22: by Manny (last edited Apr 17, 2009 03:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Choupette wrote: "Ha! I think I might just have managed to get beauty to remove her overcoat. Go me (my Erdos number is infinity, incidentally)! I enjoyed the Hunting of the Snark poem, too, which I somehow managed ..."

I once published a paper that included a commutative diagram - annoyingly, it's not available online. I think that's as far as I've got with Beauty. Sorry about the graphic details.

As soon as you publish any refereed work, you'll probably have an Erdös number. I think almost the whole graph is connected these days.


message 23: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Between you and Aloha, why have I not seen this book earlier!?


Manny I don't know! It's been around for a while...


message 25: by Dr M (new) - added it

Dr M If you're any kind of mathematician, and by some mischance you haven't already come across it, you should put it on your list without further delay!

And so I duly did! Now I just have to get the book.

Many thanks!
Another 5


back to top