Skip to main content

Finding Fibonacci - Keith Devlin ***

I was rather surprised by this book, but I shouldn't have been. It does exactly what it says on the tin. The subtitle is 'The quest to rediscover the forgotten mathematical genius who changed the world.' So I shouldn't really complain that the book is far more about the quest than about the mathematician Fibonacci and his work - but I was disappointed nonetheless.

In practice, I enjoyed the details of the search for Fibonacci pointers like street signs, as it's the kind of thing I've done myself as a science writer. But I think Keith Devlin suffered from a common problem with someone who gets to close to a subject. If, for example, you are a birdwatcher and have spent ages tracking down a lesser spotted grebe, you might assume that the rest of us are as interested as you are - but we really aren't. There was just too much detail on Devlin's attempts to track down early copies (there are no originals) of Fibonacci's work. And where there is a tiny little bit of drama, he blows it out of all proportion with overselling. Take this passage:
What I would learn from that visit was that the story of the Liber abbaci [Fibonacci's oddly titled book introducing the numbers] is a very human one, spanning many centuries, with an ending (assuming the translation into English is its ending) every bit as dramatic as any Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up.
It really isn't. It's engaging without doubt, but not exactly worthy of the dramatic lead up. It didn't help that the book opens with an introduction that sounds like it was written by Troy McClure from the Simpsons (the actor character who introduces himself along the lines of 'You may remember me from such educational films as...') - Devlin spends quite a while telling us he is quite famous as 'the math guy'. Okay. 

At its core, there's some good material here about the introduction of our current numerals from India via the Arabic world through the influence of Fibonacci's book, which resulted in a whole chain of 'how to' smaller books for practical use. I don't doubt Devlin's assertion that the introduction of these numbers was crucial to finance, trade and science, though I think he over-inflates the importance of Fibonacci as an individual. The number system would have arrived anyway - and though he certainly had a strong influence on its use, it's interesting that in some countries there was strong resistance, with records having to use numbers written out as words for several centuries.

In a way, the problem with this book is it's a bit like one of those 'Making of' TV shows you get when a blockbuster film comes out. There are a lot of tantalising mentions of things in Devlin's 'real' book on Fibonacci, where this title focusses very much on his adventures visiting libraries in Italy. There's also a lot of repetition - sometimes almost word for word between chapters - all in all, it would have made a really good magazine article, but I'm not sure it's a book I'd recommend unless you are particularly interested in the details of doing this kind of research.

ADDED: Thanks to Davide Castelvecchi from Nature for pointing out some oddities in the 'facts' presented in this book. You can see his review here.


Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…