The Man Who Loved Only Numbers Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Hoffman

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

The Hungarian-born, self-proclaimed citizen of the world Paul Erdos lived to do mathematics. He authored or co-authored 1,475 papers, many recognized by other mathematicians as extremely important, and conducted research in more than twenty-five countries on four continents. No other mathematician comes close to his record of 485 different co-authors. Not only was he an outstanding mathematician, but he served as a catalyst for mathematical research throughout the world during the second half of the twentieth century.

In order to reach this level of productivity and influence, Erdos both paid a price and extracted one. He had no personal life: no lovers or children. He ignored literature, art, the theater, movies, and television. For the last forty years of his life he had no permanent address. Instead, he roamed the world, moving from the home of one mathematician to another. In exchange for his dedication to mathematics, other people handled his daily life. He never learned how to cook, drive an automobile, or wash clothes. He had both the freedom and the restrictions of utter dependency upon others.

Based on extensive interviews with Erdos, his family, and colleagues, Paul Hoffman’s THE MAN WHO LOVED ONLY NUMBERS: THE STORY OF PAUL ERDOS AND THE SEARCH FOR MATHEMATICAL TRUTH is filled with hilarious and moving anecdotes. However, it provides little analysis, accepting at face value the memories and explanations of individuals. It also never asks whether it is right to have different rules of human behavior for individuals of extraordinary talent.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, June 1, 1998, p. 1692.

National Review. L, December 7, 1998, p. 66.

Nature. CCCXCIV, August 6, 1998, p. 535.

New Scientist. CLIX, August 1, 1998, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 27, 1998, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, June 8, 1998, p. 54.

The Sciences. XXXVIII, September, 1998, p. 35.

Technology Review. CI, September, 1998, p. 83.

The Wall Street Journal. September 15, 1998, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, August 2, 1998, p. 1.