Friday, August 15, 2014

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

This fascinating picture book tells the story of Paul Erdos, a mathematician known for his work in set theory, combinatorics, probability theory and number theory.

Paul was born in 1913, in Budapest, Hungary to parents who were both mathematics teachers. Their love of math helped foster Paul's love of numbers from an early age. He was fascinated by counting and often loved to tell people how long they had been alive in seconds based on their birth date.

When Paul was young, he did not care much for school, so his parents let him stay home. He spent all his time at home working on math problems. When it came time to go to high school, Paul found he enjoyed high school very much because he was able to meet people who were also very interested in math. Paul was so accomplished at math that by the time he was twenty years old, he was well-known for his abilities in the field of mathematics.

As an adult, Paul lived a very eccentric lifestyle. He traveled all over the world, living out of a suitcase. Whenever he arrived in a city, a fellow mathematician would take him into his home. Paul's only obsession was doing math and connecting mathematicians to one another to do math. People who worked with Paul on math problems got an Erdos number of 1, while those who worked with someone who worked with Paul were assigned the number 2. People were very proud of these numbers.

This unusual picture book not only tells Paul Erdos's story in text but also through the thoughtful art of LeUyen Pham. Pham incorporates much information about Paul and mathematics into his colourful illustrations. At the back of the picture book are detailed notes about the illustrations on each page providing information about the numbers, equations and even the people Pham has placed in his pictures.

This is a wonderful book for older epsilons (Paul's term for children!) who love math and who are able to have a parent read it to them and share the notes at the back of the book. The author was inspired to write this book as a result of her son Aaron's interest in math and Paul Edros. She was able to meet with many friends of Paul and even someone who has an Erdos number 1!! In her note at the back of the book, Heiligman relates that there were many facts about Paul's life that she could not incorporate into her picture book, for example that he had two sisters who died of scarlet fever who were also very very smart. Paul Edros passed away in 1996, while attending a math conference in Warsaw, Poland.

Those interested in learning more about Paul Erdos should watch the BBC Documentary N Is A Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos. The documentary explores Paul's life and his contributions to the many different areas of mathematics.

Book Details:
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Edros by Deborah Heiligman
pictures by Leuyen Pham  
New York: Roaring Book Press     2013
37 pp.

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