Thursday, September 12, 2013
The Boy who Loved Math, by Deborah Heiligman
I love everything about The Boy who Loved Math, starting with the fact that Deborah Heiligman thought the life of mathematician Paul Erdos (born in 1913) was an important, and doable, subject for a PB biography. (I'm not able to reproduce the characters properly here, but this is a Hungarian name pronounced AIR-dish.) I love that though she could have portrayed him as a downright misfit, she portrays him as a joyous soul who creates a life for himself that works. This is a man who, as a four-year-old boy, could ask you your birthdate and instantly calculate how many seconds you've been alive, but who literally did not learn to butter his own bread till he was an adult.
I love this look into the fascinating mind of a genius, who flew all over the world meeting with other mathematicians and proving theorems, stayed in their homes, played with their "epsilons" (their kids, so called because in higher math epsilon represents a very small quantity), laid the groundwork for today's computers and search engines, gave money to the poor, endeared himself to many as "Uncle Paul" -- and yet couldn't drive a car or keep house for himself, and thought the way to open a juice carton was to stab it with a knife. (As one who is near-hopeless at opening many sorts of containers, I feel a weird, slightly scary identity with this.) I love the artwork by LeUyen Pham, who has built all kinds of math into her portrayal of early-20th-century Budapest. I love the author and illustrator notes that explain their research and give further information on Erdos's life. I love that when Paul Erdos passed away (in 1996), it was at a math meeting. I love that Paul imagined there was a book in which God kept all the most elegant proofs.
This book is outstanding for encouraging an early positive opinion of math in children. For more on Paul Erdos, adults might be interested in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman, and Bruce Schechter's My Brain is Open, which title is taken from the phrase Erdos used when announcing to colleagues, at any hour of the day or night, that he was ready to do math. Readable and delightful.