A pleasing biography of the mathematician (the second this season after Paul Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, p. 795) by physicist, editor, and journalist Schechter. Erdos took part in the flowering of Hungarian creative and intellectual talent that developed in the first decades of this century with von Neumann, Teller, Szilard, von Karman, and Wigner in science, and Solti, Szell, Reiner, Dorati, Bartok, and Kodaly in music. His parents, nonpracticing Jews, were both high school teachers. At four, Erdos was already in love with numbers and at home with performing rapid calculations. When asked, "What is 100 minus 250?" he thought for a moment, and then shouted "150 below zero!," thereby inventing negative numbers for himself. And it was the theory of numbers that remained the first love of his mathematical life. What makes this biography so amenable to the general reader is that many conjectures raised by number theorists are also grasped easily by nonspecialists. Schechter reconstructs Erdos's life through interviews and memoirs of his friends, most importantly, Ronald Graham, the AT&T mathematician who became Erdos's "handler" after his adored and adoring mother's death. Indeed, therein lies a tale to titillate Freudians. It is said that Erdos had never buttered his own bread before leaving home for Cambridge. He chose not to marry and professed to be appalled by sex. Yet he loved children, whom he called "epsilons" (a math insider's joke) and was rich in friendships. Erdos left Hungary before WWII, never won a permanent teaching post, was usually short of money, and got into trouble during the McCarthy era, but was undaunted and eventually cleared. Not only did he advance number theory and create new specialties in mathematics, but he also shifted math's working style from that of a solo enterprise to joint and multiple collaborations. Schechter has mined his sources well to create a captivating portrait.
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