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I Want to be a Mathematician: An Automathography

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Hardback with DJ. DJ has no damage. Found in a storage box. No writing in book.

437 pages, Hardcover

First published May 17, 1985

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Paul R. Halmos

63 books55 followers

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5 stars
107 (41%)
4 stars
106 (40%)
3 stars
39 (15%)
2 stars
5 (1%)
1 star
2 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews
Profile Image for Premal Vora.
160 reviews3 followers
June 11, 2013
Give this book to every newly-minted Ph.D. who joins academia as there is a vast amount of wisdom in here on the three cornerstones of an academic career: teaching, research, and service. I wish someone would've given me this book because I had to learn most of what's in here the hard way. There is no mathematics in here. It's the story of an immigrant to the U.S. who accidentally became a mathematician. It follows his career and the colorful mathematics personalities that he encounters. But more than the personalities, Halmos has a lot of observations on how to build a career in academia. Some of the lessons here can be generalized to other career paths too. Halmos has a lot of observations (all on the spot) on how to build a top-notch organization, how second-rate mediocrity attracts third-grade mediocrity, on writing well, on being diligent, etc. A great book that I will revisit to remind myself of many of the lessons here.
Profile Image for Yumeko (blushes).
118 reviews12 followers
May 24, 2023
Though I stopped reading it halfway because there was hardly much I could take from it now, this I would go ahead and call one of my favourite biographies (or biography ish work). I dont doubt that I would take more from this in the future by reading the parts I didn't, but unfortunately that time isn't now. What I prized the most was probably how relatable this was. He kind of just seemed like a fairly normal guy in math (not that I doubt his capability or anything, but I'm glad this wasnt a book about how he went all over the world winning Olympiads before he could grow a moustache).
Profile Image for Stolee.
54 reviews7 followers
December 17, 2010
The story of the professional life of one of the more successful mathematiticans of the mid-1900's. It gives interesting insight to the full career of a mathematician as well as some personality quirks of those Halmos came across. A few gems:

Littlewood's Zero-Infinity Law: If you get a request to referee a paper, decide to do it NOW or to refuse NOW (since you'll never do it). This makes everyone's lives better.

The Moore Method: Teaching by making the students come up with the proofs.

Some of the parts deal with his travels to other countries and the bureaucracy he faces in new environments. These are very skippable.
87 reviews3 followers
December 26, 2016
If you think you might want to read this, definitely get it. If you're not sure, you'd probably be bored.

This is just as advertised: an automathography, meaning that it's a description of Paul Halmos's life as a mathematician. I loved Halmos, and I think he was much more self-aware than most mathematicians. Two of my favorite quotes (paraphrased):

* I'll be best remembered for an abbreviation (iff) and a notation (the box at the end of a proof), and no one will remember that either of them was due to me.
* I hear, I believe; I see, I know; I do, I understand.

A curious aspect of the book is that all the other aspects of his life get at most a passing mention -- for instance, I remember one point later in the book where it comes up that he's been divorced and remarried, but it's only mentioned as related to a move between universities.

If you think you might be interested in the mathematical travels of a mid-20th-century mathematician, get your hands on this and the companion picture volume.
48 reviews7 followers
February 18, 2008
This is an unusual book (its declared genre is "automathography"!) by someone who wanted to be a mathematician. I am glad I managed to read this book from cover to cover, although Halmos (for whom I had some admiration in my salad days) proved [no pun] to be irritating every now and then.

I was undecided between giving this book 3 or 4 stars, but I finally opted for 3. Still, it's a book I'd recommend any professional mathematician to read.
Profile Image for Joie.
8 reviews
August 11, 2017
I really enjoyed this book because Halmos focuses a lot on the events/interests he has on the periphery of mathematics. A lot of mathematician's autobiographies are extremely math-centric, focusing only on the events building up to finding an important result. This book provided a more holistic perspective on the life of a mathematician. Topics discussed range from getting distracted by poker and billiards during his graduate career to very candid descriptions of his feelings towards not getting granted a fellowship during graduate school. It read like a slice-of-life anime, which I love.

Profile Image for Jamie.
236 reviews13 followers
September 14, 2007
I read this when I was making my big transition from saying "I want to be a physicist," to " I want to be a mathematician." Halmos is a great writer. He gives a really good idea of what it is like to be a mathematician.
April 30, 2021
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a mathematician or is in the process of being a mathematician or anyone who generally wants to know the life of a mathematician. Halmos' excellent expository skills coupled by a front row experience of the development of mathematics in the previous century makes for an excellent reading.

Note that this book is not about what Halmos liked or disliked. You almost never get to know his personal life. He does not tell you about his marriage or his political leanings (except once). This book is about how he developed as a mathematician: how he set forth on the path, his graduate studies, the other influential mathematicians that he met, struggles of finding work, teaching, committees, and of course, research.

Halmos describes his encounters with various famous personalities of the 20th century, such as the likes of Albert Einstein, von Neumann, Godel, among many others. Reading this book will convince of his excellent writing and speaking skills. The reading is almost never dry. The book definitely has a certain comical element to it. The reader will realise that not all great personalities were elusive or mystic (except may be Godel). I personally enjoyed the 'student' section of the book and found the 'senior' section slightly boring (which is the only reason I gave a 4 instead of 5). I reckon this is because I can relate most to the student phase. The coda, however, gives a perfect ending and leaves the reader with a smile. I suggest anybody who is on the fence about reading this book to read its coda and come to a decision, which I believe will be a definite yes.

Further, Halmos himself was one of the leading mathematicians of his time. He walks you through his journey of finding areas that he is attracted to and his struggles and discipline in doing worthwhile research. This book, as Halmos puts it, is a guide the older Halmos wishes to give to the younger Halmos.
Profile Image for Amit Sharma.
50 reviews
February 24, 2017
I ordered this book acting on my impulse but was not disappointed. It turned out to be a good read. Despite being not from mathematical background I think I followed most of the text written by author. The book, as declared in the introduction by the author, is not about how to be a mathematician rather it's a life story of times and trials faced by him and the bittersweet journey it has been to become a mathematician.
December 7, 2020
It’s a nice book. Of course, very subjective, and also very discouraging for some to-be mathematicians as Halmos seems to have very high standards on pretty much everything. On the other hand, it also helped me keep up the motivation at times, recall some of the things I like about academia, and teach me a thing or two about the things that may await me in the future as an academic.

Overall a recommended read, but make sure not to take Halmos’ view as “THE” view.
Profile Image for Devin.
84 reviews
Want to read
March 1, 2023
Paul graham: “The most powerful motivator for most people is probably family. But there are some for whom intellectual curiosity comes first. In his (wonderful) autobiography, Paul Halmos says explicitly that for a mathematician, math must come before anything else, including family. Which at least implies that it did for him.”
Profile Image for Aaron Schumacher.
163 reviews3 followers
October 10, 2021
I don't always agree perfectly with Halmos, but I really like his automathography. I've looked at parts before, but it was great to read the whole thing. It has a grandfatherly vibe, is beautifully written and funny, and frequently has good ideas.
2 reviews
December 6, 2021
It has great parts, very useful for future researchers in mathematics. But It also has a lot if boring stuff.
8 reviews
June 29, 2022
Interesting read about what a life could look like for a professional mathematician.
47 reviews2 followers
March 23, 2015
Written by a mathematician that proclaims to "like words more than numbers", I Want to Be a Mathematician: An Automathography delivers -- it is a pithy, insightful exposition on what it is to live and experience mathematics. It is a departure from the typical layman idea of mathematical progress as that of lone genius after lone genius, but instead paints the collaborative, artistic and inherently social picture behind all the theorems, lemmas and proofs.

Besides a few detours into real, difficult mathematics, I Want to Be a Mathematician is a very readable, and yet very precise account of modern mathematics. Highly recommended to others that proclaim to "like words more than numbers", for if they are still not attracted to the practice of mathematics, they will have at least read something well-written and (most likely) novel.
Profile Image for Thai Son.
180 reviews51 followers
October 6, 2014
I have not finished this, I finished the part up until his time at the IAS, and that was already plenty of content to mull over- and very pertinent one at that.

I do not want to comment too much on the mathematics, or different methods and ideas, I do enjoy his detailing his interest with writing and languages. This shows how "democratic" mathematics is, there is a great variety of backgrounds. The implication is inspiring.

7 reviews
February 14, 2016
This book was engaging and held my interest mostly because I could compare the stories Halmos tells with my own experiences. That said, I suspect that the outsider, the non-practitioner, might find some of it bewildering and much of it boring.
2 reviews1 follower
December 3, 2010
The best book I have ever read about mathematician. It's real, but inspired. I want to be a mathematician after reading this book.
27 reviews
August 25, 2015
Read this book in Leicester when I was waiting for my PhD viva.

"Mathematics is a young man's game."
Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews

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