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I very much enjoyed this biography (Hoffman calls it "in large part a work of oral history") of the legendary Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös. Hoffman's relaxed style with his attention to detail and concrete expression makes it a pleasure to read. You don't need to know any mathematics. Hoffman mentions the math and occasionally goes lightly into it, but for the most part the focus is on the eccentric and loveable mathematician himself and his many friends and collaborators. In fact, the title is somewhat ironic since Erdös was very much a people person, a man who loved and was loved by others. It is only in the case of "romantic" love that Erdös loved only numbers.
By the way, Hoffman does indeed go into Erdös's sex life in a completely tasteful and PG-13 sort of way. He was a man who dearly loved his mother and children but practiced a deep and abiding celibacy all his life. His friends made many jokes about his uneasiness with "bosses" (his pet name for women) and once made a bet with him that he could not go to a burlesque show. He did however, but took off his glasses so he couldn't see anything.
Erdös was a pure mathematician, a child prodigy who fell in love with numbers at an early age and never lost his love while wandering over the entire globe searching for collaborators. He was himself a caricature of the absent-minded professor, a man who asked others to tie his shoes for him, a man who could not drive, who worked nineteen hours at day at mathematics, often calling his friends up at four in the morning to share an insight. He paid no attention to his appearance, cared nothing for literature, the arts, sports, etc., only for his beloved math. He had a way with children and an ability to impose on his friends, often arriving unannounced at their houses and staying for days or weeks at a time. He freely gave away his money to any number of charities, and sometimes to outright strangers on a whim. He cared nothing for worldly goods. He didn't even like applied mathematics, referring to colleagues who had gone that route, as being "dead." Indeed, only children and pure mathematics delighted him.
There's a child-like simplicity to the man that charms us. Hoffman's book reflects this as a kind of fairy tale life lived in delight in spite of all the horror going on in the world. There is a pristine beauty to living one's life so incredibly focused on one thing. In a sense it is like an addiction and in another it is like an all-consuming love. It is the kind of life few of us could ever live (or would want to live), but it is the kind of life we can admire and read about with pleasure.
Hoffman sometimes slips away from Erdös to write about his family and friends, especially about Ronald Graham, Erdös's long-time friend and collaborator, a very interesting man himself, a world class juggler and a practical as well as theoretical mathematician. Hoffman recalls some Hungarian history, some Cold War history, and relates anecdotes from friends and family. He devotes a chapter to Fermat's Last Theorem, Fibonacci numbers, the Prime Number Theorem, etc., and then part of a chapter to the Monty Hall dilemma and the tussle between Parade magazine columnist Marilyn vos Savant and her detractors. There is also a lot of humor, which is appropriate because Erdös liked witticisms and used humor as a way to deal with the world. "Soon I will be cured of the incurable disease of life," he is quoted as saying on page 173. He adds, a little later, still in a sardonic mood, "Television...is something the Russians invented to destroy American education."
There are some photos, a bibliography and an index. Hoffman does not glorify Erdös as much as some would like, but this is an affectionate and balanced, very interesting portrait of a true original and a great mathematical genius.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"