Award for biography of mathematician bigrap

A BIOGRAPHY of a charismatic and eccentric mathematician who lived out of two suitcases for much of his life has won the most prestigious prize in science book publishing.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman is the story of Paul Erdos, a charming and impish philosopher-scientist who saw mathematics as a way of searching for lasting beauty and ultimate truth.

Last night, Hoffman received the 1999 Rhone-Poulence Prize for Science Books - and with it a cheque for pounds 10,000 - at a presentation dinner held at the Science Museum in London.

Fay Weldon, who chaired the panel of judges, said the book was "an unconventional and lively biography of a mathematician, which at the same time makes mathematics sing a little".

Weldon said that Hoffman, who met Erdos in 1986 and interviewed him repeatedly over the last 10 years of his life, had written a book that was "absorbing, witty and illuminating".

The peripatetic Erdos lived most of his life out of two suitcases, and frequently criss-crossed four continents in search of the answer to the most difficult mathematical problems of our age.

The Hungarian emigre had no interest in food, sex, companionship, art or indeed any of the things that are usually indispensable to life, said the writer and psychologist Oliver Sacks.

"[Hoffman] gives us a vivid and strangely moving portrait of this singular creature - one that brings out not only Erdos's genius and his oddness, but his warmth and sense of fun, the joyfulness of his strange life," said Sacks.

This year's Rhone-Poulence prize - the science community's answer to the Booker - had 93 entries with a shortlist of six. The others on the list were:

t How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, an attempt to explain the complex chemistry of the human brain;

t Mapping the Mind, by Rita Carter, a journey into the brain with the help of the latest scanning technology;

t One Renegade Cell, by Robert Weinberg, a cancer specialist's description of research into the disease;

t Consilience, by Edward O Wilson, who attempts to draw together the various laws of nature into a unified whole;

t A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar, which describes the life and mind of John Nash, whose contribution to game theory has revolutionised the field of economics.

It is the 11th year of the Prize for Science Books, which was jointly established by the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Science Museum to further public understanding of science.