Science Book a Day Interviews Paul Hoffman

paul_bioSpecial thanks to Paul Hoffman for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth

Paul Hoffman is the president and CEO of Liberty Science Center, a 300,000 square-foot learning center in Liberty State Park on the Jersey City bank of the Hudson. Liberty Science Center is visited by 600,000 people a year and is home to the nation’s largest IMAX domed theater. He is known as a journalist and biographer whose work explores the relationship between genius, madness, obsession, and creativity. – From Paul’s homepage.

Paul’s Homepage:

#1 – How did you come to write this book? How did you go about researching Paul Erdos’ life?

For the November 1987 issue of Atlantic Monthly I wrote a long profile of Paul Erdős based on my accompanying him for a month on his mathematical sojourns.  He (and I) would show up unannounced on the doorsteps of fellow mathematicians and stay as their uninvited houseguests.  After Paul died in 1996, I decided to expand the article into a book and I spent a year talking to his colleagues.

#2 – Published in 1998, what has been the response to your book over the last 15 years? From the public? From mathematicians?

I could not have hoped for a better response.  Published in 16 languages, the book was an international bestseller and received the Rhone-Poulenc prize for best science book of the year. The article on which the book is based won the first National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.  Most mathematicians I’ve heard from loved the book, and I’ve given lots of invited talks.  A few wished I hadn’t mentioned his use of amphetamines and his asexuality.

#3 – The idea of the Erdos number frequently comes up in reviews of your book. What is the Erdos number? And what is yours?

An Erdős number of 1 means that you co-wrote a mathematical paper with Paul Erdős, an Erdős number of 2 means you wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős, an Erdős number of 3 means you wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős, and so on.  I am not a mathematician; because I’ve not written a mathematical paper with anyone, my Erdős number is properly infinity.  But in the month I spent with him, we generated many pieces of paper that we both wrote mathematics on, and so fans of my book have changed my Erdős number to 1 on Wikipedia only to have purists change it back.

#4 – What would you say is Paul Erdos’ legacy?

It is tremendous, both in terms of the number of important mathematical problems he personally solved and the hundreds of mathematicians he inspired by his contagious views on mathematical beauty.

#5 – Are you working on a new book/project that you can tell us about?

I have a relatively new job as the CEO of Liberty Science Center, the largest interactive science museum in the New York metropolitan area. That’s keeping me happily busy at the moment, although writing is in my DNA and I’ll return to it hopefully before my dotage.

#6 (sneaky extra question) – Did you have anything to do with the children’s book The Boy Who Only Loved Numbers?

Well, I guess the The Boy Who Loved Math, with its purposefully similar title, is a nod to my book.

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