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.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Future of Fusion Energy - Jason Parisi and Justin Ball ***

There is no doubt that fusion, the power source of the Sun, has the potential to be a significant contributor to our future energy needs. It's clean, green and continuous, able to fill in the gaps where wind and solar simply can't deliver. It uses cheap fuel and doesn't produce much in the way of nasty waste. And it can't undergo any sort of runaway reaction. So it's certainly a worthy topic for a popular science title. This book covers one aspect of fusion power - tokamak reactors - in great depth for a relatively non-technical book. But as we will see, it will only really work for a limited audience.

You won't necessarily realise it from the cover, which I interpreted as emphasising that Homer Simpson will still have a job when Springfield Energy converts to fusion power, but Jason Parisi and Justin Ball have packed The Future of Fusion Energy with information on the detail of how fusion reactors work, and all the difficulties that are faced in getting a stabl…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…