The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth) Author Paul Hoffman / Copyright 1998 / Printed in the United States by Hyperion / Paperback Edition, 318 Pages

First, the subject of this biography captured my attention. Then, the brilliance of its author kept it. Both Pauls — Erdös and Hoffman – are fascinating and a gift to every reader who enjoys feeding their minds with exciting fun stuff.

Yes, I said fun. Paul Hoffman has made this particular journey into the usually staid and veiled mathematical world into a stimulating romp. It is fast-paced, personal, and captivating. Seattle Times is right for it is indeed “a funny, marvelously readable portrait of one of the most brilliant and eccentric men in history.”

Hoffman himself does not need me to sell this book for him –it’s already an award-winning international best seller and he himself is a well known science commentator, television personality, president and CEO of Liberty Science Center, president and editor-in-chief of Discover Magazine, president and publisher of Encyclopeadia Britannica, and more. (When I grow up, I want to be Paul Hoffman.)

And Erdös? He was a genius of the one-of-a-kind kind.

In the book, Hoffman writes: “Before Erdös died, on September 20, 1996, at the age of eighty-three, he had managed to think about more problems than any other mathematician in history. He wrote or co-authored 1,475 academic papers, many of them monumental, and all of them substantial. It wasn’t just the quantity of work that was impressive but the quality: “There is an old saying,” said Erdös. “Non numerantur, sed ponderantur (They are not counted but weighed). In the old [Hungarian] parliament of noblemen, they didn’t count the votes: they weighed them. And this is true of papers. You know, Riemann had a very short list of papers, Gödel had a short list. Gauss was very prolific, as was Euler, of course.”

I keep this book in my favorites bookshelf and I re-read it every so often to remind myself what good writing sounds like. And then I would invariably get sucked in again into this wondrous tale of a wondrous man and the wondrous world he was forever contemplating.

It is all a wonder for me. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to understand the world of mathematics. In school, I was taught numbers, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, physics. But it was always a struggle. I could see it was a language that was succinct, precise. I could see how beautiful it was. I wanted to be able to communicate with this language myself, I wanted to be able to read them and understand what they meant.

But there felt like a fog in my brain and I couldn’t make the connection. My father called it “Math maturity” and it was something I never really reached, even now. My father said those who understand the language of Math also understand the language of Music. I guess maybe that’s why I’m no good with music either.

I was strongly attracted to this book precisely because I remain fascinated by this world I could not fathom. I have not given up hope that I would somehow one day find that I can say, as Erdös often did, that “my brain is open”.

From Chapter 0: The two-and-a-half-billion-year-old man

“There was a time at Trinity College, in the 1930s I believe, when Erdös and my husband, Harold, sat thinking in a public place for more than an hour without uttering a single word,” recalled Anne Davenport, the widow of one of Erdös’s English collaborators. “Then Harold broke the long silence, by saying, ‘It is not naught. It is one.’ Then all was reflief and joy. Everyone around them thought they were mad. Of course, they were.”

I am now on the look out for Hoffman’s latest book, “King’s Gambit: A Son, A Father and The World’s Most Dangerous Game” about the game of Chess. Another thing I am really bad at. I would love to read this book.

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