The man who loved only numbers

Recently I read The Man Who Loved Only Numbers a biography about the mathematician Paul Erdős. It was an entertaining read.

Paul Erdős was a peculiar mathematician. For most of his life he traveled the world, moving from conference to conference, university to university, mathematician’s home to mathematician’s home. All the while he was writing papers with numerous collaborators and writing several mathematical letters a day. He worked on problems 19 hours a day (with the help of amphetamines during his last 25 years). He’d wander his host’s house at 3am, pick up the phone and call collaborating mathematicians from all over the globe to discuss conjectures. His personality alone was sufficient to make him an interesting person.

Of course the book’s title is an exaggeration. First, Erdős did not love only numbers, but the broader class of problems in mathematics. And while he spent nearly all of his time working on math problems, he didn’t do it alone. To him, math was a social activity, and I get the feeling that he loved spending time and exchanging thoughts with his collaborators. And let’s not forget his interactions with the epsilons (Erdős’s term for children).

It’s also not quite fair to say that the book is about Erdős alone. The book tells a broader story about mathematics and mathematicians in general, with Erdős as the opening and closing act. Along the way, the author delves into Ramsey theory, Number theory, and Approximation algorithms. The coverage of Ramsey theory and Number theory reminds me of The Big Questions, a book by economist/mathematician Steven Landsburg.

Some of my favorite (non-mathematical) parts included:

  • Erdős attempting to run up a down-escalator at Newark Airport. He challenged mathematician Ronald Graham (who completed the task) to run up the escalator. Erdős was not as fit, falling over after taking just four steps.
  • Erdős’ inability to do simple tasks often cracked me up. He once had problems opening a carton of juice in the middle of the night. His hosts woke up to find juice drippings throughout the kitchen and a carton with several knife wounds.

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HT to Shiva Kintali for his blog post recommending the book. He lists several other books which are now on my reading list.

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