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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  8,224 ratings  ·  406 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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Dec 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Authentic Living

Child prodigy, adult genius, benefactor to anyone in need, eccentric professor, persona non grata in the USA, the Soviet Union and several European states, amphetamine addict, lifelong virgin of no fixed address, Paul Erdos had one passion, one religion, and one goal in his life: the solving of mathematical problems. He was a singular human being, incomparable even among other singular men like Albert Einstein, and William Teller, and Andrew Wiles who were his friends.

Paul Erdos
"Végre nem butulok tovább."
"Finally I am becoming stupider no more."

The epitaph Paul Erdős wrote for himself.

Paul Erdős was 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 more than 500
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
Feb 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 04, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Jose Moa
Feb 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
A good book over the life of Paul Erdos in his histhorical and mathematical context,a life wholly devoted to his only love :the mathematics,with the exception of his mother,the beautifull mathematics and proofs,those he said were written in "The Book" a book owned by God,at what the men can only get glimpses.

Erdos was a eccentric man,a sort of monk for whom the maths were almost a religion,perpetually itinerant whose only private properties were two suitcases and that said that the private prope
May 18, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
"What would you say to Jesus if you saw him on the street?"
Erdős said he'd ask Jesus if the Continuum Hypothesis was true. "And there would be three possible answers for Jesus," Erdős said. "He could say, 'Godel and Cohen already taught you everything which is to be known about it.' The second answer would be, 'Yes, there is an answer but unfortunately your brain isn't sufficiently developed yet to know the answer.' And Jesus could give a third answer: 'The Father, the Holy Ghost, and I have
Feb 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biographies, maths
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
Aug 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A very engaging read about one of the most prolific minds of the 20th century. Highly recommended.
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
Dec 22, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 mat
Charles Daney
Oct 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
When Paul Erdős died in 1996 Paul Hoffman had known him for about 10 years and interviewed him a number of times. Hoffman had also known and interviewed many of Erdős' friends and associates. So it's fair to say that Hoffman had a lot more knowledge of the subject of his biography than most biographers (unless they're family or close friends) ever do. The biography is indeed quite good, and provides a clear and informative portrait of the very unique, appealing, and colorful individual that Erdő ...more
May 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoirs
I like Math, some people love math, Paul Erdos lived math. This biography of the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century is insightful. It's jammed full of mathematical history, solved and unsolved problems - accessibly explained, and the lifestory and aphorisms of a genius. 5* for content, 4* for story organisation. (4+5)/2 = 4.5 (unless all of our axioms are wrong)
Jan 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Sep 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I don't generally like maths or have much of an interest in mathematicians but I made an exception for the story of Paul Erdos. He was a very interesting (eccentric) human being whose story is well worth reading and enjoying.
Lukasz Pruski
Jun 17, 2020 rated it liked it
"Mathematics is about finding connections, between specific problems and more general results, and between one concept and another seemingly unrelated concept that really is related. "

Yes, I agree. For me, the epigraph gives the best characterizations of mathematics. This is precisely why I love math. I teach mathematics at a university, but I am just an applied mathematician and don't know very much about real math, such as number theory, topology, or abstract algebra. Yet I do love math passio
Aaron Arnold
Mar 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2011, science
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
Feb 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
I was disappointed in this book. There was not enough on Erdos himself. In fact it could have been retitled: "The Man Who Loved only Numbers, The Story of Paul Erdos and Ron Graham and his Wife, Fan." I'm of the view that not only should biographies be written only about the dead, but only about those who have been dead long enough that all of the characters in their lives are dead too. (I am under the impression that this idea used to underlie the canon of literary works for study at Oxford.) A ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it liked it
As a book of somewhat random anecdotes, some about mathematics and some about people who knew Paul Erdős or Ron Graham, this is an interesting book; as a book about Paul Erdős or about “the Search for Mathematical Truth” it’s severely lacking.

Paul Erdős (pronounced air-dish, you’re on your own with “Graham”) was “a traveling mathematician.” He turned down a permanent position at Nôtre Dame at about forty (if I’m reading Hoffman right) because “he didn’t want to be pinned down.”

This book focuses
Jun 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Jan 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
I received this book for Christmas from a friend, but it took me (as with most books) a while to start it. The book is well-written, combining Erdős' life with advances in the mathematics of the time. I very much enjoyed reading. I actually had to stop quite often to take notes on what was being said and to write down all the different new things I wanted to look into. I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in biographies or mathematics. Erdős' life was fascinating—his mother did ...more
May 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jonathan Beams
May 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.'
Apr 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Nancy by: Andy Henroid
Shelves: biography
This entertaining book is more than a biography of Paul Erdos. Through the framework of the life of Erdos Hoffman teaches us about the work of other mathematicians whose work Erdos built upon or with whom he wrote papers. Paul Hoffman introduces a variety of mathematical conjectures and proofs in a way that is easy to grasp. It is one of the most interesting and accessible books on mathematics I have read.

I heard about this book in a review of another book on Goodreads.
Feb 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
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Science and Inquiry: February 2013 - The Man Who Loved Only Numbers 36 156 Mar 22, 2013 10:10AM  

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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

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