Hoffman, Paul 1956-
HOFFMAN, Paul 1956-
PERSONAL: Born 1956. Hobbies and other interests: Chess.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Fourth Estate, 77-85 Fulham Palace Rd., Hammersmith, London W6 8JB, England.
CAREER: Former editor for Scientific American; former president and editor-in-chief of Discover magazine, beginning 1987; former president and publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica. Former special science correspondent for television program Good Morning America; has hosted science programs for PBS television.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Magazine Award for feature writing, Atlantic Monthly, for The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth.
(With Matt Freedman) How Many Zen Buddhists DoesIt Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Matt Freedman) What Do WASPs Say after Sex?, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981.
(With Matt Freedman) What Do WASPs Do Instead ofSex?, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Matt Freedman) Dictionary Shmictionary!: AYiddish and Yinglish Dictionary, Quill (New York, NY), 1983.
Archimedes' Revenge: The Joys and Perils of Mathematics, Norton (New York, NY), 1988.
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of PaulErdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.
Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and theInvention of Flight, Fourth Estate (New York, NY), 2003.
Also consulting editor for American Museum Guides, Collier Books (New York, NY), 1983. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Business Week, Time, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and Smithsonian.
SIDELIGHTS: The former president and editor-in-chief of Discover magazine, Paul Hoffman is best known as a science journalist. He has also hosted science programs on public television, contributed articles to science magazines, and authored popular books on science and scientists. Although his early books, written in collaboration with Matt Freedman, are lightly humorous offerings with such titles as How Many Zen Buddhists Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb? and What Do WASPs Do Instead of Sex?, Hoffman's more recent books have been detailed studies on such topics as math and early flight. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth and Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight are biographies that have won particular praise from reviewers and readers; the former is an award-winning international bestseller.
Paul Erdos, the subject of The Man Who Loved Numbers, was a brilliant, quirky Hungarian immigrant whose total devotion to mathematics above all else resulted in his prolific output of over 1,500 published articles. Interested in pure math—math for math's sake—Erdos developed elegant proofs and refined old ones to solve a variety of complex mathematical puzzles; he spent practically every waking moment thinking about math. Indeed, such was his devotion that he spent the last forty years of his life homeless, living out of suitcases and staying with his mathematician friends as he traveled from conference to conference. A very idiosyncratic personality, Erdos relied heavily on his friends and seemed little able to care for himself, often asking others to do his laundry, take care of his meals, and handle other daily living tasks. The colleagues with whom he stayed did not mind, however, for the stimulating conversation Erdos provided them was reward enough. This is not to say that Erdos was a freeloader, however; he simply did not care about money, and what earnings he accrued as payment for his talks and lectures were often donated to other people, especially struggling young mathematicians whom Erdos sought to help.
Hoffman's book relates numerous stories about Erdos, revealing the mathematician's fascinating personality and brilliant insights, while also offering readers background information about mathematics to put his story into context. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Hoffman "skillfully manages an intricate, nonchronological account of Erdos's career." And Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor noted that the biography "is jammed with the interesting idiosyncrasies of Erdos."
While Erdos's name is better known among his mathematician colleagues than to the general public, the name Alberto Santos-Dumont was once famous throughout the world, but has since fallen into obscurity. In his Wings of Madness Hoffman tries to rectify that injustice by writing a biography that will hopefully place Santos-Dumont back in the limelight as the important aviation pioneer that he was. A native of Brazil, Santos-Dumont was an eccentric heir to a wealthy coffee-growing family's fortune. He became fascinated by the prospects of flight at an early age, and his obsession with flight was not, unlike the Wright brothers, aimed at fame or fortune. In fact, during his early work with hot-air balloons, he freely shared his technical discoveries with others. In 1906, when Santos-Dumont took flight in an airplane, his accomplishment was lauded around the world because it was thought to be the first time anyone had flown a heavier-than-air craft. No one knew at the time that the secretive Wrights had already achieved flight with their airplane three years earlier. Once this was revealed, Santos-Dumont's achievement seemed considerably less important. Despite his many contributions to the science of aeronautics, the Brazilian's name was forgotten. He became severely depressed, and when his efforts in 1915 to prevent the use of airplanes for military purposes were ignored by the governments of Europe, his depression led to suicide.
Reviewing Wings of Madness for Booklist, contributor Jay Freeman called Hoffman "a gifted writer whose elegant prose captures a fascinating era and a compelling personality." Library Journal critic John Carver Edwards called the book an "enthralling biography" that has a "fast-paced writing style [that] carries the reader along a wonderful journey."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of TheMan Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and His Search for Mathematical Truth, p. 1692; June 1, 2003, Jay Freeman, review of Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight, p. 1736.
Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 2003, Steven Martinovich, "A Forgotten Hero with a Passion for the Sky: Alberto Santos-Dumont Took to the Air in a Hot-Air Balloon, but Was Overtaken by the Wright Brothers," p. 15.
Economist, June 7, 2003, "Wings of the Wind: Flying," p. 75.
Insight on the News, September 14, 1998, Jeremy Bernstein, review of The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, p. 36.
Library Journal, July, 1998, Jack W. Weigel, review of The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, p. 129; May 15, 2003, John Carver Edwards, review of Wings of Madness, p. 102.
Publishers Weekly, June 8, 1998, review of The ManWho Loved Only Numbers, p. 54; May 5, 2003, review of Wings of Madness, p. 211.
Sciences, September-October, 1998, Brian Hayes, review of The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, p. 35.*