It’s probably fair to say that a large majority of the general public in the U. S. could not name a single important mathematician who was active in the period 1933 to 1996 (the years of Paul Erdős’ adult life). A few people might think of Andrew Wiles, John von Neumann, or perhaps Kurt Gödel. It would be surprising if more than a percent or two could mention Paul Erdős or even recognize the name. Yet Erdős is probably one of the dozen or so most important mathematicians of that period. For instance, nobody in the history of the world published more new mathematical results (almost 1500), except for Leonhard Euler (who died in 1783).
Erdős created himself or was among the creators of a number of new mathematical specialties, including combinatorics, Ramsey theory, probabalistic number theory, and combinatorial geometry. He also made ground-breaking advances in the early stages of set theory and graph theory. And he added very substantially to classical number theory (one of Euler’s specialties). In addition to his astonishing productivity, he remained active and prolific until he died at the age of 83 – something almost unheard of among mathematicians. Nevertheless he had little or no interest in many other branches of modern mathematics, such as topology, abstract algebra, or mathematical physics.
Schechter’s book is very good at explaining in general terms what each of those mathematical topics are about and the contribution made by Erdős. Unlike most modern mathematics, the things that interested Erdős the most were “simple” things, like numbers and geometrical figures that are familiar to most people. So it’s easy enough to understand most of what Erdős worked on. It would be nearly impossible, however, to explain to non-mathematicians the techniques by which the results were obtained. (After all, his results had eluded all earlier mathematicians.) And even mathematicians are mystified by the mental processes that led to the results.
Erdős was quite an unusual person in other respects as well. He never married or had any apparent sexual interests. During most of his adult life he had no permanent home and almost no possessions other than a couple of suitcases, some notebooks, and a few changes of clothes. He was almost perpetually on the go from one place to another after his welcome at one host’s abode started to wear thin. And his memory was phenomenal – though only for details that were important to him, namely anything relevant to mathematics he cared about and his vast network of mathematical collaborators.
He co-authored papers with almost 500 other mathematicians, and personally discussed mathematics with hundreds of others. He generally knew the phone numbers and other personal details of most in his network. (Yet he was often unable to associate their names and details with their faces when he encountered them at meetings.) He was also able to recall technical details and publication information of thousands of mathematical papers, which may have been published decades previously. This fact probably helps explain his ability in many cases to solve new problems within minutes, because he could recall such a vast number of earlier results and techniques.
Schechter’s biography is generally quite good. The author has a PhD in physics and is obviously conversant with the mathematics that interested his subject. There are just a few minor issues. Although Schechter never actually met Erdős, many personal anecdotes are reported. Those must have come from conversations with associates of Erdős or articles about him, but there’s only a two-page “Note on Sources” instead of footnotes with specific details. There is a good bibliography, however.
The book is only about 200 pages, so it’s a quick read. However, if it had been a little longer, it could have gone into somewhat more detail about Erdős’ mathematics – such as set theory and probability theory. Another Erdős biography (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth) was published about the same time, less than 2 years after the subject’s death. (I’ve reviewed that one too.) So both biographers most likely wanted to get published as quickly as possible. There are clear signs of haste in both cases. In the present book there are few things that a proofreading should have caught, but only one more serious error: in Chapter 4 there are incorrect references to two of the graph diagrams.
All in all, this biography can be highly recommended for an overview of Erdős’ mathematics, a fine portrait of a very unique and colorful individual, and the opportunity to gain a little understanding of the social process in which mathematics of the highest caliber is actually created.