Book Review: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman

Dollar Sign Design Money ClipHave you ever uttered the words “I hate Math?” I hear it all too often, even from my own kids. As a parent, it’s really disappointing to hear your children dismiss an entire system of thought before they get into the seventh grade. One possible reason for kids’ aversion to math is that all too often math is portrayed as nothing more than a “slave of commerce“, and state approved curricula never get beyond a narrow set of mechanical processes.

Erdos Book CoverThe Man Who Loved Only Numbers” by Paul Hoffman is an effective antidote to the “I hate Math” mindset. The book does a great job of introducing the fascinating field of mathematics to a lay audience. After reading it, I was literally on a two-week high. I could not stop talking about it, and I “fascinated” my family with anecdote after anecdote from the book.

The book centers on Paul Erdos (pronounced air-dish) a prolific, rather eccentric 20th Century mathematician, and all of the brilliant people with whom he collaborated during his lifetime. Among his great gifts, Erdos possessed 2 qualities that in my mind stood out. First, when conjecturing about some property of numbers, he had an incredible ability to ask just the right questions. And second, Erdos was an inspiration to countless young mathematicians and helped them to get their start in mathematical research.

Education Design LanyardOne motivational method he used was to put nominal bounties on unsolved problems. The sense of achievement enjoyed by a high-schooler who was able to solve a $1 or $5 Erdos problem was priceless.

By the time he died, Erdos had a fairly large cult following, and to this day, mathematicians world-wide have their own version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. If you ever collaborated directly with Erdos on a published mathematics paper, you have an Erdos Number 1. Number One GiftsIf you ever published a paper with someone who collaborated directly with Erdos on a published mathematics paper, you have an Erdos Number 2. And so on. The highest known Erdos Number that is an integer is 7. If you have never published a mathematics paper, your Erdos number is Infinity. Hmmm, I wonder who THOSE people might be. For more information on this, check out the Erdos Number Project.

Chef Place Setting Design“The Man Who Only Loved Numbers” should be an easy read for most high schoolers, so if you have kids younger than that, read the book yourself, and pass your newfound enthusiasm for Math on to them by playing games with primes and Fibonacci numbers at the dinner table!

Math Design Keychain

If you have trouble keeping all your Erdos bounty money in one place, you might want to consider buying some neat money clips. If you are looking for just the right mathematician’s gift for the mathematician in your life, be sure to check out Kyle Design. One thing Kyle offers is Key Chain with a mathematics design. With respect to Erdos, this is a bit ironic – he did not own a house or a car.

Paulano gives The Man Who Loved Only Numbers 5 Stars: the highest possible Paulano rating.

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  1. […] Book Review AMS Book Review [pdf] Paulano Blog Book Review Mathematical Association of America Book […]

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