Contrary to the popular perception, mathematicians are fundamentally people: they have a childhood, boyfriends and girlfriends, spouses, children, aspirations, and all of the other routine things that define a life. They experience personal likes and dislikes, difficulties in getting and keeping a job, and must deal with personality conflicts. By definition, somewhere embedded in those activities, the people profiled in this book also managed to do something mathematically significant.
The material in this book deals primarily with the non-mathematical aspects of the lives of 25 people. Given that they were interviewed, they are all people who made their mathematical reputations in the middle and late twentieth century. There is a wide variation in their backgrounds and the style of the descriptions of their lives, from the circus performer Ron Graham to the very serious Olga Taussky-Todd. My favorite description was that of logician Raymond Smullyan, whose path to mathematical fame was most unusual. He is a very talented musician and he was teaching at the college level before he received a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the University of Chicago gave him his degree by giving him credit for the college course he had already taught!
The mathematics that appears in this book is presented in textual form, and when it appears it can be passed over with no loss of understanding or context. It is a book about people, some with a great deal of color and character and others who were much more staid in their views and life. The overall theme of the book is that in mathematics you can find people with all types of personalities, lifestyles and views of the world. In that respect it is very refreshing.
Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.