The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

May 2, 2011

This Wednesday, May 4, I’m giving a public talk called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers at 6:30 PM at the Baruch College Conference Center (on the 14th Floor at 55 Lexington Ave. at 24th St.). Light food and refreshments will be served. I’ll be speaking about the eccentric Hungarian genius Paul Erdős, who lived out of two tattered bags for more than two decades, crisscrossing four continents and chasing mathematical problems in pursuit of lasting beauty and ultimate truth. After my talk, Joel Spencer, one of Erdős’s mathematical colleagues, will lead the audience in an interactive game—everyone will get a deck of cards—based on Erdős’s ideas. The evening is underwritten by the Simons Foundation and the Museum of Mathematics, an awesome new institution that will undoubtedly rock Manhattan when it opens late in 2012 (OK, I may be biased; I’m an adviser to the museum, which just raised $20 million and signed a lease for 20,000 square feet off Madison Park). Please spread the word about my May 4th talk to fellow geeks, and those who love them. The event is free, but you need a ticket by registering here.



January 25, 2011

Some people are scared that Google will take over the world.  They are worried about lack of privacy and potential abuse from the Internet behemoth knowing everything that they do online.  Others like author Nicholas Carr are worried that the Googlization of everything means that we’ll all stop reading and thinking.  Today I visited Google’s New York office, and I can report that Google is a gentle giant.  Life will actually be way more fun once the company achieves total world domination.  We’ll all be happier, I think, as long as Google treats us as well as it treats its employees.  Lunch will be free, as will dinner when you work late—and the food will be surprisingly varied.  (I had maki maki with bok choy and sushi rice, and shards of butternut squash from the veggie raw bar, but I didn’t have to go all healthy and could have had fried chicken and other fatty dishes instead.)  Anytime you need a break, you can retire to the Ping Pong, Fussball, billiards, and exercise-machine lounge.  Or to the sandless box filled with multi-colored plastic orbs the size of tennis balls.  Or to the expansive Lego play room.  And whenever you need to nap, you can kick back in a reclining chair with your head in a pod and watch Google TV.  Then there’s the free coffee and hot chocolate bar.  If your laptop is misbehaving, you just bring it to the repair center and a friendly IT guy will fix it on the spot.


January 17, 2011

Applications to the next freshman class at Harvard are up 15 percent over last year, a New York Times blog reported.  The blogger speculated that the increase to 35,000 was due to the college’s sweetening its financial aid packages.  But I wonder if admissions are also up because of  “The Social Network’s” glamorization of Harvard as a training ground for postpubescent billionaires.  The film may also be responsible for an increase in job applications to Silicon Valley.   There are scenes of programmers who are too distracted to code because girls are hopping around in their panties.

Black Humor

January 17, 2011

Cathie Black, the print-media executive turned New York City school chancellor, still remembers how to sell newspapers.  At one of her first public meetings with parents, she handed the tabs a grabby headline when she joked that birth control was the answer to overcrowded classrooms.

Drinking Water, Lithium, and Suicide

August 8, 2010

Over at my day job, at, a debate is brewing about whether Washington should spike our drinking water with lithium because two studies concluded that places with higher levels of naturally occurring lithium in their drinking water had significantly lower suicide rates.  The argument put forward by bioethicist Jacob Appel was interesting but spooked those who think the government has no right to alter our moods, even if 13,000 lives might be saving by doing so.  He argued that people who really objected could just opt out by buying bottled water.

Then a geneticist at Yale weighed in and argued that the studies showing the life-affirming effect of drinking-water lithium were pretty shoddy.  Then I jumped in with a wrap-up on the subject called Death by Cruise Ship, Lithium, and Suicide.

Anatoly Karpov Speaks Out in Video

June 29, 2010

As the editorial chairman of, I’ve personally conducted video interviews with many interesting thought leaders, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins , New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, and novelist John Irving.  Now I’ve had the honor of interviewing the first chess player for Big Think, grandmaster Anatoly Karpov.  The interview was posted today on Big Think.  Here’s the blog post that went up on Big Think when the interview went live:

“Anatoly Karpov, the twelfth world chess champion, is one of the most successful chess players in the history of the game.  The Russian grandmaster was the world champion for a decade, from 1975 to 1985, and he held the No. 1 position on the international chess rating list for 90 months, second only to his archrival, Garry Kasparov.

“In his video interview with Big Think, Karpov shares the secret of his success: his fighting spirit, which serves him well not just at the chessboard but in the rest of his life, too.  Karpov also reveals his prime weakness as a player—his laziness in studying chess opening-move theory—and how he had to turn that into a strength, by learning to play the inferior positions he sometimes achieved owing to his lack of theoretical knowledge.  He also dissects Kasparov’s strengths and flaws, and says that Kasparov can be blinded by fear when his king is in danger.

“Karpov is still a strong tournament competitor, but these days he is focused on chess politics and is fighting to succeed Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as the president of FIDE, the world chess federation.  Karpov and his team have accused Ilyumzhinov—who famously claimed to have been whisked aboard a spaceship by yellow-robed aliens—of corruption and mental instability.  But madness—and accusations of madness—are nothing new to chess.  The only two Americans to reach the No. 1 spot in the chess world, Bobby Fischer in the early 1970s and Paul Morphy in the late 1850s, were both crazy and paranoid.  Karpov himself emphatically told Big Think that you don’t have to be mad to play strong chess and he shares his impressions of Fischer.”

Martin Gardner (1914-2010), RIP

May 26, 2010

My first journalistic assignment straight out of college was editing Martin’s Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. He kept a file on every number. Later, when I wrote a wacky math and brain teaser column under the pseudonym Dr. Crypton, he was generous. I’d call him up and ask him to tell me about a number, say 153. He’d look in his 153 file and report back: 153 is the smallest number that’s the sum of the cube of it’s digits. It’s the number of red shoes Imelda Marcos owned. Etc.

George Washinton’s Library Problem

April 18, 2010

When the librarian at Hillspoint Elementary School wanted to know who had crayoned a red smiley face onto Babar’s butt, she stared our class down, demanding to know.  We all fidgeted but no one confessed.  (To me, the drawing on the cover of the library book was not a crime but a plot extension.  I recall that in the story, the elephants cleverly disguised themselves and scared off an enemy by painting large faces on their butts.)  To encourage a confession, the librarian told us the story of how George Washington did not conceal from his father the fact that, in his enthusiasm to test a new hatchet, he had chopped down a prized cherry tree.  “George Washington could not tell a lie,” the librarian intoned, “nor should you.”  Her lesson about lying went past me.  I was more interested in the fate of the cherries.  I was very fond of the sweet red fruit, and I pictured young George axing the tree at the moment of peak ripeness so that he could gather and gobble cherries that would otherwise have been beyond his reach.

The story of the cherry tree is undoubtedly a myth.  But its rendition in a school library is especially amusing in light of this week’s confirmation that Washington was a library-fine scofflaw.  On Oct. 5, 1789, five months after he was sworn in as the first President of the United States, the 57-year-old statesman borrowed two books from the New York Society Library.  (New York City was the nation’s capitol then, and the library, located on Wall St., was the only library in town).  One of the books was “Law of Nations,” about international relations, and the other was the twelfth volume of a fourteen-volume set of transcripts of debates in Britain’s House of Commons.

Washington’s library habits have been known since 1934, when the library came across a quill-penned ledger of the people who had borrowed books between 1789 and 1792.  The ledger shows the dates on which Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay took out books from the New York Society Library and the dates on which the men returned them.  For the two books Washington “borrowed,” no return date is indicated.  All fourteen volumes of the Commons debates had been missing from the library’s shelves until this week, when a staff member stumbled on the set and found all the volumes except the twelfth. The fines for the two books Washington checked out amount to an inflation-adjusted $300,000.

Me at The Moth (and, oh yes, two Nobel Prizewinners)

May 18, 2009

As part of the upcoming World Science Festival, I’m telling a story at a special performance of The Moth called “Matter: Stories of Atoms and Eves” at the Players Club on the evening of Friday, June 12.  I guess I’ll have to speak slowly so that I don’t lose my fellow storytellers, Leon Lederman and Paul Nurse, both Noble laureates.

Paul Hoffman’s “Geeking Out” Video

April 18, 2009

Here’s video of a 20-minute talk I gave on my dad’s Ping-Pong hustling, my paying my Harvard tuition in cash, the 60 million Americans who broke the law in bed every night, chess obsession, and mathematical beauty.  (In the video, my talk starts just after minute 3:00 on the time stamp.)  The webzine Gelf asked me to speak at their first “Geeking Out” evening at the Jan Larsen Art Studio in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  In advance of my talk, Gelf published an interview with me called The Man Who Loved Numbers, Writing, Puzzles, and Chess.