The Man Who Loved Only Numbers - The Story of Paul Erdos, by Paul Hoffman, 1998.

Review by John Loofbourow, MD

This is a warm and delightful biographical treatment of the life of Paul Erdos, a mathematician whose knowledge of prime numbers was the stuff of legends. It is a small book, and a great read. The author, Paul Hoffman, sprinkles his book with mathematical lore, as well as the sayings and doings of the eccentric, peripatetic Erdos.

Born in Hungary, Erdos never owned a car or a room of his own, but lived in the worldwide subculture of mathematics, from meeting to meeting, staying with friends. Erdos was fragile and very limited in many ways, yet his outrageous humor, intensity and mathematical brilliance made him beloved by peers.

Erdos published almost 1500 papers with 485 collaborators, who can now claim an Erdos number of 1, based on the proximity of their co-authorship. (A co-author with one of the original collaborators can claim an Erdos number of 2, and so on.) Erdos quips are legion: Rather than good morning he might say that his mind was open. If he misplaced something he would blame it on the SF, or Supreme Fascist, his term for God. Children were epsilons, wives bosses. Though he slept only a few hours daily, thanks to coffee and amphetamines, he died at 83 (in 1966); his epitaph, which he chose himself, reads to the effect that he is at last no longer getting dumber. This is a book for everyone, not just math hounds.