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am 26. Dezember 1999
This is the worst biography I have ever read. There is no common thread that holds the book together. It seems like different parts have been cut from different sources and pasted here. There are absolutely non-sensical and useless diversions into Hardy and his interest in cricket, Ramanujan and his food habits etc. Cheap tricks to get attention and hide poor research.
It is clear that the author has no interest in mathematics and it almost seems like the book was published to cash in on Erdos's death and the media attention the event was getting.
Save your money and time.
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am 25. Mai 1999
I bought this book to learn more about the life and work of Paul Erdos. I expected a biography. Instead, I found an appalling amount of filler. Anecdotes not about Erdos, as I expected from the reviews but cliched anecdotes about famous figures in the history of mathematics. Why does the author bore us with this? Who amongst his readers hasn't already heard these well-worn stories before? Though the author claims to have interviewed him extensively, I almost doubt it. This book places uneven weight on certain periods of his life, seemingly for no other reason than that he didn't bother to do thorough research. Definitely the worst scientist-biography I've read (And I've read many.) I still want to know more about Erdos. I am left with a very incomplete image. I am hoping that the competing biography, "My Brain is Open" will be a bit better.
am 28. April 2000
This is an excellent biography of one of the most extraordinary people of this century, but the title is inaccurate. Mathematics is much more than just number manipulation and Paul Erdös worked in every area of the field. Most ancient cultures had the tradition of the traveling minstrel, someone who moved from place to place, trading news and tales for food and lodging. In Western history, the most well-known person is Homer, the "author" of the Iliad.
Paul Erdös was a modern reincarnation of a bard in the Homeric tradition. With no fixed home or job, he traveled the world with a set of possessions that would fit in modern airline carry-on luggage. His collection and transference of mathematical knowledge will ultimately prove to be the most significant contribution of all minstrels down through history.
Paul Hoffman captures the essence of Erdös in all respects. His genius, idiosynchracies, eccentricities, fundamental goodness, kindness, consideration and amazing capacity for work are described in wonderful detail. Speaking a language all his own, he was also blessed with a sense of humor. In his world, a male was a slave and a female a master. Children were epsilons and people who did not do mathematics trivial beings.
The life of Paul Erdös was also intertwined with the major historical events of this century. His father left home to fight for the empire of Austria-Hungary in the first world war. Like so many talented people, he fled the gathering storm of Europe to seek refuge in the English speaking areas. After the conclusion of the second world war, where many in his family were killed in the camps, he found himself running afoul of those paranoid enough to see communists everywhere there was honest disagreement.
Although they are rare, there are people whose obsessions benefit humanity and Erdös was certainly one. In his last years, he took amphetamines so that he could work nineteen hours a day on mathematics. I am totally opposed to drug use, but this is one instance where an argument could be made that the drug use was beneficial. Without question, it did lead to additional progress in mathematics. It is comforting to note that the last page of the book contains a comment from him concerning his drug use becoming public. He was concerned that others may view his actions as any form of approval of others taking the same route.
In conclusion, this is a fine biography of one of the most extraordinary individuals of all time. An extremely abridged collection of his works would make a complete mathematical library. He will be remembered as long as there are mathematicians to carry on his work.
Published in Journal of Recreational Mathematics, reprinted with permission.
am 30. Juni 1998
This is an exquisitely enjoyable biograpny of the legendaryHungarian mathematician Paul Erdos. I read "The Man Who LovedOnly Numbers" practically in one sitting. Hoffman spent a lot of time around Erdos and the mathematicians who knew Erdos. The result is a biography with a personal feel for its subject, laced with quotes from Erdos and anecdotes from those who knew him well..
Erdos was an eccentric character: he had a private vocabulary for the commonplace (e.g., "Supreme Fascist" for "God" and "epsilon" for child). His single-minded devotion to math was legendary, as were his peripatetic lifestyle and helplessness around all things material. Hoffman paints a vivid portrait of this eccentiric man and, in subtle ways, demonstrates his impact on several generations of mathematicians.
Hoffman also weaves in an accessible account of several mathematical fields to which Erdos contributed, such as Ramsey theory, number theory, combinatorics, and graph theory. Hoffman clearly and entertainingly explains some of the fundamental ideas involved in these fields.
I have two criticisms. First, Hoffman wrongly states that the difference between a transcendental number like pi and an "ordinary" irrational like the square root of 2 is that the decimal expansion of a trascendental neither terminates nor repeats itself. In fact, no irrational's decimal expansion terminates or repeats itself; numbers with this property are rational. The difference, instead, is that transcendental numbers are not the roots of algebraic equations, while "ordinary" irrationals are. This may seem a piddling criticism, but a book about a mathematician should have got this basic distinction right.
Second, the book lacks a coherent theme. Every biography should answer the question, "Why should I, the reader, learn about this person? " Hoffman's book is entertaining, at least for someone interested in math. Erdos was an interesting, eccentr! ic fellow; he is plain fun to read about. Hoffman certainly brings him to life. But the book lacks a deeper theme. In the end, "The Man Who Loved Numbers" is simply an (entertaining) account of an eccentric mathematician. By contrast, Gleick's "Genius" -- a biography of the physicist Richard Feynmann -- is really an extended study of the nature of genius and creativity in science.
I heartily recommend this book despite these two criticisms. Anyone seriously interested in math will certainly want to read this book. I think it will also be enjoyable reading for those who are curious about what mathematicians do, or who simply want to read a good story about a strange man.
am 3. März 2000
This is an unconventional biography of an extremely unconventional person. Hoffman does not follow the classic chronological structure of laying out the subject's life. Rather, he creates a web of anecdotes and vignettes on Erdos, narratives on and by his colleagues and collaborators, and lucid explanations of some of the mathematical problems Erdos spent his life on. For someone other than Erdos Hoffman's tactic may not have worked. For Erdos, it works brilliantly. Here is why: Erdos was completely addicted to math from about age four until the minute he died, and undoubtedly spent the vast majority of his conscious life in the world of math. He was also an oddly and intensely social man - but exclusively through math. Doing math together, collaborating on papers, talking, living, breathing math in conjunction with others (and totally exhausting them in the process) was just about his only way of connecting to other people. These math-based social connections were in their peculiar way unfathomably rich, deep, and intense, as well as far-flung and extremely numerous. Hoffman biographical approach permits Erdos's (conventionally speaking) totally dispersed and rootless and (mathematically speaking) totally focused life to emerge in all its complexity and splendor. By conveying a strong sense of the pristine beauty and lucidity of math as Erdos saw it, Hoffman makes intelligible why Erdos so strongly preferred the mathematical world to ours. This is one of the best books for finding out why mathematicians are so enamored of their subject.
am 19. August 1998
Paul Hoffman wrote an award-winning article on Erdos many years ago. I have to agree with the New Scientist, which said that his book on Erdos is like a bulked up magazine article. It's a fun read, but sloppy, poorly structured, riddled with "filler"-type digressions, and often rambling and disjointed. The other Erdos Biography, My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos (Simon & Schuster), by Bruce Schechter, is far superior. It has all the fun of Hoffman's book, but Schechter doesn't lose the reader with a lot of puffy digressions and he stays focused on Erdos's life and work rather than boring the reader with inconsequential facts. I also don't like the way Hoffman puts himself into the narrative of his book, telling us in the first person how he (Hoffman) feels about various issues. This was supposed to be a book about Erdos, not Hoffman, and Hoffman wasn't even a bit player in Erdos's life, so why does Hoffman think it's important to tell us about himself throughout the book? It's rather tedious and distracting to hear him say "I" all the time in a book that's not about him in any way (or shouldn't be). I would definitely point the reader to Schechter's book for a far better bio of Erdos, one which doesn't just take a core magazine portrait and bulk it up but which was written from scratch by a fine writer who has mastered the material. In short, Hoffman's book is fun but flawed. Schechter's book is the one to buy and read.
am 5. Juni 2000
This is one of two excellent biographies published shortly after Paul Erdos' death (the other being "my brain is open" by B.Schechter) This book succeeds on many levels. It is a well written biography about an ideal subject. Erdos traveled in time through the most important events of century, and in space through the countries of four continent. Intellectually, he influenced many areas of pure mathematics: mostly discrete (number theory, combinatorics, Ramsey theory, random graphs) math, but with important excursions in analysis and probability as well. On top of that, he had a truly unique personality and research style. The book is rich in very humorous anecdotes, from which Erdos emerges as a generous, unselfish man with an obsession for beautiful mathematics. However, Hoffman is more interested in depicting the mathematical community at large, and rightly so: this is a relatively small group of people who are usually regarded as eccentic and obscure. After reading the life of Erdos and company most readers will change their opinion, for the better. Finally, this book succeed in giving a flavor of number theory and combinatorics; in this respect it resembles the masterpiece "What is Mathematics?" by Courant and Robbins.It would a fitting tribute to Erdos that some high school students will choose a math major after being inspired by his life.
am 2. Januar 1999
This book caused me to laugh and smile and laugh again. I felt the author had given me a small gift that made me a rich man. I was sure after reading the first few pages that the amusing anecdotes would thin out like primes as one got further and further into the higher numbered pages. But the pace is sustained throughout and a rich picture of Erdos, his expansive generosity, and his world, emerges. We often think of mathematicians as socially inept creatures who isolate themselves in pursuit of their profession. However, while Erdos certainly exemplifies the absent-minded intellect at odds with the physical world, Hoffman also reveals how he brought people together, nurtured the young, comforted the old, and gave of himself to mathematics, for sure, but at the same time, to other human beings. Not only was his brain open, but also his heart.
I noticed that when Hoffman quotes Russell's autobiography to explain the liar paradox, the example is faulty (pp. 115-116). I should check the quotation, as it is surprising that Russell would make a slip like this. If a piece of paper says on one side, "The other side is false" and says the same on the other side, we can assign one side the value "True", while we assign the other side the value "False" and there would be no contradiction.
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am 4. Juli 2000
I found this book really gripping. The author described the historical context of Erdos' life well and explained the math in a way that a non-mathematician could easily understand. I couldn't put it down. I've passed it on to quite a few people who all seem to like it as well.
am 10. Februar 2000
This book is tremendous fun to read. It's not very well organized, it jumps around a lot, it gets lost in tangents - but it manages to capture that pure, fresh, clear and utterly exciting atmosphere of mathematical creativity to which Paul Erdos devoted his life. His genius lay in number theory, which is a part of mathematics that's peculiarly open to child prodigies. Erdos was a true child prodidy, and essentially retained his childlike openness and enthusiasm to the end of his long life. The book does a marvellous job in giving us a beautifully integrated picture of Erdos, showing him embedded in his very special world of math, talking about math, cooperating, publishing together, living in other mathematicians' houses and driving them crazy with his ridiculous antics. For Erdos, math was an almost entirely social activity, depending on constant exchange and unceasing discussion. The book describes one of the most peculiar minds and lives I have ever encountered. It's perhaps because Erdos was so genuinely odd that the book's unconventional approach works so well. Avoiding all sentimentality or glorification of its subject, this is a deeply moving biography of a beautiful mind.